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May 2013 Journal

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Difficult questions, no easy solutions

In an admirably accessible style, Music Wars considers the importance of music in wartime, tracing the rich and often complex tapestry of musical life during the period prior to and during the Second World War, focusing on Britain, Germany, occupied France, Russia and the USA. Patrick Bade makes an original contribution to the extent that he considers the way music was equally important to both sides as a power to evoke emotions and stir political sentiment and as an arena in which to manipulate identities. At times, his approach threatens to create a confusing moral maze, to relativise values by equating both sides, something the reader wants to resist. Yet it has the benefit to show up the complexity of the topic - that nothing is, as Bade later puts it, only ‘black and white’. The role of famous musicians and artists caught on the ‘wrong side’ was not always clear cut, any more than was the reason why certain performers were more ‘stained’ as a result of collaboration than others. For instance, surveying ‘Defeated France’, the author notes that most musicians had to collaborate at some level with the Vichy government. Yet in his account of major French composers, he avoids discussing the details of Honegger’s and Poulenc’s ambivalent relationships with either Vichy or the resistance. However, he raises many important questions in his discussions about the complex issue of collaboration, in France as well as Italy and Germany, showing how in some cases it allowed some musicians to protect Jewish artists.

Patrick Bade’s expertise is clearly opera and there is a sense in which the narrative is slightly over-balanced in favour of opera singers, productions and recordings. The author trawls entertainingly through anecdotes such as the slightly shocking tales of how, in the late 30s, the famous Jewish Wagnerian bass Friedrich Schorr and Richard Tauber were dropped off British cast lists to please the Nazis, or how, at Covent Garden, refugee singers (Tauber and Lotte Lehmann) shared the stage with Nazi-sympathising German singers. The ambiguous nature of the art works themselves emerges in the accounts of the production and recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in Nazi-occupied Paris - ‘the greatest wartime achievement of the Opéra Comique’, interpreted both as a pro-German gesture by the occupiers and as an expression of anti-German French values by the French audience, many of whom later joined the resistance. Similarly, Madame Butterfly curiously was banned by both the Germans (it was about an American) and by the Americans (it was about the Japanese), yet was admired by the British. That the same music could appeal across the board is best demonstrated in Bade’s chapter ‘War Songs’, in which a brilliant comparative discussion of Vera Lynn and her German counterpart Zarah Leander highlights how their hits - ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘Ich weiss es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen’ - both address the issues of loss and yearning for home, as did ‘Lili Marlene’, famously loved by audiences on both sides of the conflict.

In the author’s survey of British musical life, the main emphasis throughout is on well-known figures, like Vaughan Williams, Walton and Britten, as also the operatic life of Sadler’s Wells, Covent Garden, the Carl Rosa company and hugely popular singers like Joan Hammond and Kathleen Ferrier. There are admirable accounts of important institutions such as Myra Hess’s National Gallery concerts and the remarkable efforts of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) worldwide, as also the Proms, which drew international soloists ‘a quite extraordinary high proportion of which were Jewish’. Oddly, there is no mention of Proms programming of American and Russian repertoire when those nations came into the War, or of the performance of Jewish composers. In contrast to a detailed survey of émigré composers in the USA, far less space is accorded to refugees in Britain. The only comment relates to Tippett, who, when director of Morley College, worked with ‘a number of émigré musicians including the composers Walter Goehr and Mátyás Seiber and the string players Norbert Brainin, Peter Schidlof and Siegmund Nissel, bringing a much needed stimulus to London’s wartime musical life’. The vocal coach Peter Gellhorn is later mentioned, yet the major musical contributions of artists like Tausky, Goldschmidt or Reizenstein, for instance, are ignored.

Potentially the most fascinating chapter is that on ‘Music in Camps’, where just a few examples illustrate the human spirit transcending, often defiantly, conditions of captivity. Yet the grouping together of very different examples is problematic. Gal’s ‘Huyton Suite’, written in internment, reflects nostalgia for a lost homeland yet reassurance in his adopted refuge, Britain. And whereas Messiaen as POW and Georges Brassens as German factory slave worker composed in relative safety, as did German and Italian POWS in Britain, their works cannot compare with those composed and performed in Terezin and the death camps, where music, as well as allowing ‘secret gestures of defiance’, was either a means of survival or a final outpouring of the soul. Bade appears to celebrate the cultural richness flourishing in all camps without somehow foregrounding the anguish and horror of particular contexts.

As a narrative history of music in the period, Music Wars is colourfully narrated and attractively illustrated. The author sheds light on some difficult questions without offering easy solutions and helps us understand how the Nazis ‘attempted to appropriate music, bringing it into alignment with their ideology of nationalism, hatred and aggression’, whilst also showing, by contrast, how music may bring, as Bruno Walter wrote in 1945, ‘a message of hope’.

Malcolm Miller

previous article:Art notes (review)
next article:Obama and the Gordian Knot