Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

Loving Gertrude – Sin or Moral Duty?

André Gide: La Symphonie pastorale (English title: The Pastoral Symphony) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ ISBN 978-207-035687-4 How I loathed this book at school! How I loved this book when I read it a second time some 30 years later! The simplicity of the story. The beauty of the language. The multi-layered message it contains. What bore me to death when I was young (too young for this book!), amazes me now. I was surprised myself by the pleasure I took in reading this novel, published for the first time in 1919. The bonus material added in this specific French edition for the benefit of students was very interesting too as it sets the novel in a historic and biographical context.

Here’s the plot: A married Protestant priest takes care of a blind orphan, Gertrude. He draws her soul out of its seclusion and offers the girl a way to discover the word if not through her eyes, but through her other senses and her intellect. A key moment is the evening when Gertrude hears in the company of the priest Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major “Pastorale” (Op. 68). She seems to grasp for the first time the beauty of the world by listening to this piece of music. The priest takes care to hide anything evil from Gertrude as he wants to preserve her innocence. He feels a deep commitment to protect the girl, a commitment borne out of his faith. However he fails to realize that he falls in love with the girl at some point.

To do the right thing…

I will not spoil your pleasure by going into the details of the troubles the priest runs into. What’s more important here is the question the priest is confronted with: What is my exact motivation to do something? To do what seemed to be the right thing? How do I not fool myself about my feelings, my motives, my actions? How much can you bent the word of the Gospel to align it with your behaviour and how high is the price you are willing to pay while trying to justify your behaviour.

Gide (1869 – 1951) succeeds in packing wisdom and beauty in a very short novel, written in an admirable style – a philosophical miniature. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 “for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight”. The novel “La Symphonie pastorale” is a first class example of Gide’s talent. Even if the author set the story in the late 19th century, the moral questions reflected in the novel are relevant today. Seeing through one’s own intention – that’s about the biggest challenge for a human being considering his natural inclination to live in denial – be it in the context of politics or the position one takes in the #metoo discussion.

And since Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 plays such an important part in this novel, enjoy a moment of exceptional musical beauty:

A book and a symphony – two extremes remembered

Murakami on music – an absolute disaster

Haruki Murakami: Absolutely on Music. Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. ISBN 978-0-385-35434-9 ⭐️ A renown Japanese writer, passionate about classical music and jazz, speaks with a renown Japanese conductor about music – that sounded like a real treat. But the book is an absolute disaster. None of the two has anything meaningful to say. The obvious is abundant, the interesting rare, the language boring. Whenever an interesting subject arises, the two drop the matter and Murakami indicates what type of tea they are drinking. Murakami brings up an observation of his and Ozawa agrees. Or doesn’t know. Ozawa indulges in 50 year old souvenirs, but he offers no insight in the way he re-interprets a piece of, let’s say, Beethoven and he keeps quiet on the emotions it sets free. Murakami had better not published this book in this form. It’s a disgrace for such a good writer. And a good writer is not necessarily a good interviewer.

The book’s only merit is that it strenghtened my resolve to listen to Gustav Mahler’s music more regularly. There is another world of sound and thought to discover there, like Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D major, a hugely impressive work.

Egmont – Beethoven and Goethe


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Egmont.
Sämtliche Werke 3.1 Münchner Ausgabe. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A tragedy centered on the Dutch fight against Spain and a romance between Count of Egmont and Clärchen. A classic read, no doubt, a good read, certainly, and an interesting one since the moral lessons have some validity today. A recent translation into English has been published by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen. The incidental music for the play has been written by Ludwig van Beethoven:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness