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Book Review

Composing the Canon in the German Democratic Republic

Composing the Canon in the GDR by Kelly

Narratives of Nineteenth-Century Music

Elaine Kelly
Oxford University Press, 2014
Bibliography, musical examples, illustrations
Acid-free paper. 246 pages.
ISBN-10: 0199998094
ISBN-13: 978-0199998098
ISBN: 978-0-19-999809-0 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-0-19-939437-1 (ebook)
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This is cultural history, from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin wall. The painstakingly thorough historical account focuses predominantly on attempts by East German Party functionaries, musicologists, composers, performers, journalists, writers and film makers to interpret traditional masterpieces of German music – notably those by Beethoven and Wagner – in terms of Marxist-Leninism. Kelly at the outset cites Marcia Citron as characterizing cultural canons as encoding and legitimizing ideologies. [Regrettably, the unfortunate cataloger who produced the cataloging-in-publication led off with the subject heading "Canon – (Musical form.)" The book does not deal with that form.] Kelly says "The canon served as a method of control for the SED [Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands], encoding the GDR's foundation myths and translating them into a discourse that promoted social cohesion and collective identity." The groups mentioned above had overlapping interests, but did not wish to give up either the music or the ideology. Consequently, to an outsider, many of their attempts to reconcile them may appear quite tortured.

Initially, the anti-fascist and nationalistic view of the state and the embrace of this music – in the east, considerably more than in the west – sprang partly from the hope of German reunification. And for a long time, much of the music most valued was seen as having roots in the rationality of the Enlightenment. Romantic music was considered to reflect irrationality. Towards the end of East German regime, romanticism was not in such disfavor.

Following her introduction, "Bourgeois Pasts and Socialist Futures," Kelly divides her account broadly into "Part I: Constructing the Canon" and "Part II: Critiquing the Canon." The thought of Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, and Hanns Eisler is prominent in the discussion.

The creators of the canon favored biographical study of individual composers. The order in Beethoven's symphonies represented thought over sentiment "becoming rather than being" through heroism and struggle. These characteristics were seen as compatible with the ideology. Schumann and Chopin were also highly regarded for the kinds of cultural struggle they waged The anniversaries of Bach, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler, as well as Glinka and Janacek, were celebrated. There were attempts to show the socialist tendencies of these composers. Beethoven was interpreted as a "proto-socialist." Lukacs claimed that an artwork could be "evaluated properly only in the context of the Weltbild or world outlook of its creator." A moralized socialist realism was favored and "traditional concepts of artistic creation that celebrate autonomy, subjectivity, and exceptionality were rejected." It was hard work on the part of the composer, rather than genius, in a word, although Goethe 's "Genius is hard work" is quoted. Georg Kneipler felt the romantics rejected "meaningful work" and "the socialist zest for struggle." Surely here is blindness toward the romanticism of Schumann and Chopin; Kneipler simply refused to consider that any of the composers named were romantics. Only Bruckner and a few others made his blacklist.

Wagner was a revolutionary in his early years; that was appreciated, and he became the preeminent German opera composer. Brecht and Eisler disapproved of that. An eastern Wagner festival, like that at Bayreuth in the west, was established at Dessau, however. German nationalism was the deciding consideration. And Die Meistersinger celebrated a worker, in Hans Sachs. Parsifal was not so easy to accept, but Marxist readings of Wagner ensued and an elaborate celebration of Wagner's 150th anniversary was arranged, with some backtracking as ideological difficulties were recognized. In Leipzig, Joachim Herz staged Wagner in ways that departed from both Bayreuth's symbolism and Dessau's nationalism. In her final chapter, Kelly writes at length about Ruth Berghaus' staging of Wagner in Berlin and in the west in ways that simply embraced contradictions and in a productions anticipating or originating what in some circles is called Eurotrash (not by Kelly.)

Berghaus came in the late period of the East German regime, the 1970s and 1980s, when a younger generation of artists, born around 1930, became both prominent and disillusioned and alienated, aware of the disjunct between ideology and practice in the regime, especially after the Prague Spring of 1968 and its suppression. Beethoven was now seen as bourgeois, even totalitarian! The Enlightenment was now seen negatively. Genius and romanticism were seen differently. Harry Goldschmidt turned from the naïve vulgarization of the heroic middle-period Beethoven to an interpretation which placed late Beethoven in the sociopolitical climate of Beethoven's time, attacking Adorno in the process A film about Beethoven, with script by Günter Kunert and dirrcted by Horst Seeman is discussed.

A chapter "The Romantic Revival and the Search for Utopia," with a section on "romantic femininity as a site of resistance," includes discussion of Christfried Schmidt's 1981 orchestral work Munch-Musik. The last years of the GDR/DDR were notable for the expulsion or exile to the west of many leading artists.

This book is a significant study. Mostly – and refreshingly – it is jargon free, while delineating the ways in which musical aesthetics and Marxist ideology were importantly inter-twined. My only stylistic objection is that Kelly consistently uses English-based initialisms – GDR and FRG – when she might just as well have written East Germany and West Germany; and SED for Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, when she might have simply have said the Party.) Otherwise she writes in plain English.

Although concentrated and not particularly easy reading, this is strongly recommended for anyone interested in the matters I have outlined.

Copyright © 2014, R. James Tobin

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