THE BLOG
04/28/2014 03:01 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

The Inconvenient Music -- Invisible and Unhearable

On Friday morning, April 25, 2014, World War II was everywhere to be found in the arts section of our essential paper of record, The New York Times. A revived revival of Cabaret with old chum Alan Cumming gave us two armpits-full of Berlin in the run-up to the war. A full-page ad for the musicalization of a post-war East German, played by Neil Patrick Harris, heralded another (post-)war story on the Broadway stage in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Further on, we could read three movie reviews of World War II stories put on the screen and opening this weekend in New York City: The German Doctor (about Josef Mengele), Walking with the Enemy (about a Hungarian Jew disguised as a Nazi), and The Girl and Death (which takes place in post-World War II Leipzig).

At the same time, The Times continues its coverage of World War II and the visual arts. World War II, still known as "the war," seems never to have ended. There are reasons for that. It was, obviously, a world war. It was a war that immediately was transformed into another war -- one in which former allies (the USA and Russia) became enemies overnight and our enemies (Germany, Italy, and occupied France) became allies in a new war, the war known as "cold." And both wars -- hot and cold -- used art as representative of its political aims. It was weapon and a target.

While we can read about Hollywood Jews being acquiescent with the rise of Hitler in 1933 ["Laemmle's List: A Mogul's Heroism," Sunday, April 13, 2014], we also seem reluctant to castigate current classical artists and the multi-million dollar classical music industry in their responses to human rights issues in Russia and Venezuela ["Political Cacophony Challenges Musicians," April 3, 2014]. Being so close to the developing stories, we see how very complex the issues are. For every Toscanini, who refused to join the Fascists in Italy [and then walked out of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival], there was a Karajan, a Furtwängler, and countless other "simple musicians" who filled the jobs of those who could no longer lead their opera houses and symphony orchestras -- great musicians like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, George Szell, and Fritz Reiner.

It might be good to remember that when Hitler came to power in January of 1933 he was the leader of a coalition government of a country. There was no "red line" then. We were not at war with Germany until 1941. Mussolini had already been the officially recognized leader of Italy since 1922, and yet we released movies in Italy and we hired Italian singers and conductors in the USA. And yes, we performed the operas of composers who were members of the Fascist Party (i.e. everyone who was working in Italy) -- Mascagni, Montemezzi, Alfano, and Respighi, to name a few.

These are not simple issues. Everyone is not a hero in this story. For all of us who believe that the arts have a responsibility to change the world for the better (meaning the way each of us defines "better") we all have to understand that the arts, and especially music, have the fundamental power to control behavior -- something Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Mao knew well, and which is one of the reasons they used music and made laws about it.

Music -- "invisible yet everywhere" to quote Jack Skellington -- can rouse us to behave and to misbehave. The waltz was, once-upon-a-time, the devil's dance. Benjamin Franklin's self-described "greatest invention," -- the glass armonica -- was outlawed in some regions of Germany because it was thought to cause madness. (This surely is why Donizetti used it for Lucia's famous mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor.) Marches encouraged men and women to kill each other in wars while celebratory and massive orchestral and choral works were created to make us feel good about doing it. Occasionally, a Benjamin Britten brought us to our senses with his War Requiem.

What makes the WWII/Cold War nexus so different, though, is how governments created official musical styles and then mixed in racism so that there were multiple and conflicting kinds of music that had one thing in common: reject/accept the art for political reasons, while justifying it with aesthetic ones. When Germany was split into sectors after the war, there were two post-war musical German styles: the tonal, Communist style (mostly known from the achievements of the Soviet Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian) and the non-tonal, highly structured Western (read "free") style of Karlheinz Stockhausen. One country; two opposite classical musical worlds. The West German non-tonal musicians joined the other European leaders of the Free West who grew up in the rubble of the disaster that was Europe: Boulez for France, Nono, Dallapiccola and Maderna in Italy, Xenakis in Greece - what we could call "the World War II School." After 1945, if an Italian wanted to write an opera in a tonal and melodic way, his music could not be performed and would be considered "neo-Fascist." The sweeping tonal musical style of the European Wunderkinder who survived the war by immigrating to America -- and that had been deemed degenerate by the Nazis -- was then called "kitsch" by the official Western pronouncements of post-war style. It was "Hollywood," even though it existed simultaneously with the music of Richard Strauss -- and not always for the movies.

Again: Nothing is simple here.

However, while it is important that The Times tell us how, in Berlin, Cornelius Gurlitt's father's artworks are being returned to the heirs of those from whom it was stolen ["Germany Announces Deal on Art Looted by the Nazis," April 7, 2014] and that the Vienna Philharmonic is directly facing its history during the Nazi period and its post-war obfuscations ["Vienna Philharmonic Finds Owners of a Nazi Gift," April 12, 2014], we might also encourage every orchestra to look into its past and how it dealt with issues like anti-Semitism (and this includes our American orchestras) and what music was played during the war years and after.

When art is recovered, it can be hung on a wall and we can experience it. When music is ignored, it is not only invisible, it is unhearable.

Schoenberg, Korngold, Weill and Hindemith were the greatest of this group. They all came to America and found different American support systems for their art -- teaching at our great universities, composing for Warner Bros., and for Broadway. And they all died American citizens. We are indeed blessed that we had them here -- teaching, inspiring, entertaining, and representing four extraordinary flowerings of German (-American) music.

Let us return the paintings, of course. Let us put stories of the war on the screen and on the stage. But, we must also play the music of the composers whose lives were caught in competing political battles. This music was once referred to by the leader of Vienna's Konzerthaus as "the inconvenient music." It is inconvenient because it was written in an enemy country (USA) by Germans -- and it is great music.

Let us hope the Vienna Philharmonic will play the music of Korngold, as well as the "American" orchestral works of Hindemith and Krenek. But we should not congratulate ourselves in the USA to think this is all about "them" because we have also participated in the nullification of these composers and their music. And while we are at it, we long to hear our great orchestras play the music of Zemlinsky, Krasse, Schulhof, and the magnificent last works of Schoenberg, so beautiful and embracing of a century in which he ultimately found a synthesis of complexity and simplicity in a unique and brilliant way.

And when we use the word Hollywood as a code word and as the target of everything bad in art and music, we should understand that the essence of the use of a city's name as some kind of Sodom and Gomorrah tale is totally inappropriate and unworthy of us as Americans.