Leipzig, Mendelssohn, Dresden, Vienna and Barbaric Behaviour

felix mendelssohn statue 300Leipzig is the great heartland of German music — home to Bach, Mendelssohn and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. As a place to visit, it is compact — but because of J.S. Bach, it is particularly special as the place where German music made its true cultural home. There is no musical place like it in this part of Europe, other than Vienna.

Musicians from all over the world come to learn their craft in Leipzig. It is the location of one of the great concert halls of Europe — the Gewandhaus.

Virtually the entirely of the town's Jews — 14,000 people were deported to their deaths during the Second World War, an event commemorated by a very stark and appropriate memorial featuring rows and rows of empty bronze sculptured chairs where the main synagogue once stood. The synagogue was attacked on Krystallnacht in November 1938. The Jewish community was forced to pay for the demolition of the synagogue which followed. The location was prime real estate and across the road from the fabled St Thomas church, made famous by Bach, who composed so much eternal music in his job as head of music for the church — many Cantantas were composed on a weekly basis for use in the Sunday service. A statue of Mendelssohn stands behind the church (in the "backyard" compared with his idol and inspiration Bach, whose statue stands in the "frontyard"), just out of view of the Holocaust memorial.

Felix Mendelssohn, who also had his home in Leipzig, was converted to Christianity as a young boy by his parents. He was the grandson of a great and proudly Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Though Felix had a wonderful career in Leipzig, championing the music of Bach, as chief conductor of the Gawendhaus, magnificent composer (from a ridiculously young age in his early teens) and performer, he was disgracefully denounced after his death by Wagner for his composition of what Wagner referred to deridingly as "Jewish music".

A year after Mendelssohn's death in 1847, Wagner wrote an essay entitled "Jewishness in Music", in which he said that Mendelssohn "has shown us that a Jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents, the most refined and varied culture ... without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music."

Mendelssohn's music was banned by the Nazis and his statue in Leipzig was destroyed (now rebuilt).

Similar kinds of events occurred in Dresden and Vienna — tens of thousands of Jews deported. Dresden and Vienna are among the prime cultural jewels of central Europe, both famous for their great collections of art treasures. And Vienna has no peer in the history of classical music. The Musikverein, where the fabled Vienna Philharmonic performs, is one of the great treasures of the European musical canon.

Where was culture?

The Germans, of course, have the most enduring of musical cultures. Many of the cultural elite of Germany, musicians, artists and writers, rebelled against the fascist takeover in the 1930s, or were as much victims of it as anyone. But how to understand the level of hysteria which enveloped Germany and Austria, and which sits so heavily still today, especially in heartfelt gestures of contrition and regret?

outdoor concert seating 300Much is written on this, and there are many reasons why the events of the 1930s and 1940s occurred, which these days seem beyond contemplation. These "events" did not emerge by chance and or come seemingly from nowhere simply under the orchestration of a few mad people or an insane and demonic political party.

Anti-semitism had held root in central Europe, and of course elsewhere, for centuries. The Germans had suffered the humiliation of the defeat in the First World War and then the collapse of the national economy – scapegoats were easy to identify (especially the outsider "Christ killers"). The image of Christ on the cross, albeit somewhat more restrained in the historic Protestant usage compared with the historic Catholic versions, unfortunately provides a striking visual pretext for loathing for those who are said to have been complicit in the murder of the son of God, not least one of their own.

Cultural homogeneity also has its place, and in this case the staunch homogeneity of the Germanic people as practised at the time, which so strongly rejected "foreign elements".

The theory is that societies with heterogeneous cultures which interact do not become murderous one to the other. At least this is the Australian experience, which might partly explain why groups bearing great enmity in their home countries (such as Serbs and Croats, Arab Christians and Moslems, Sunni and Shia Moslems and Palestinians and Jews) can successfully put their grievances aside on arrival in the new country. People who could not live together in the old world instantly become effective or actual neighbours, and at ease in our new multicultural world.

Perhaps, most disturbingly, the fine culture of Germany and Austria, and the sophistication and impeccable good taste of the socially and politically influential audience, had little or no effect in deterring or quelling the catastrophic events of the Third Reich. Devotees of culture high and low were equally perpetrators over those terrible years (or at least bystanders), although they would sometimes tailor their culture to suit the cause — such as "love Wagner", "hate degenerate art" (being the most interesting aspects of the great German/Austrian art movements of the inter-war period, in particular the expressionist movement represented by the artists Egon Schiele and Max Beckman).

I am here expressing concern not only about the barbaric perpetrators, but in particular about the audience, and am raising questions about what I would call "the cultured judgment". I appreciate that it does not fall to the many to act as dissenters to authority, and all the more so when it behaves in an authoritarian and brutal way, but it is difficult to accept that there were Nazi flags waving inside and outside of the great venues I have mentioned. You just need to close your eyes to picture them. Unquestionably it is easy enough to go along with what is portrayed as popular opinion. Transportations of angelic delight in the music of the eternal composers, and played by the great orchestras, can easily cause somnolence.

It is challenging to place oneself in amongst the audience in those times, settled comfortably in the stalls as the great orchestras played, which of course raises the ultimate and most unsettling of questions of "what would I have done?" as a member of such an audience. Resistance came often at a heavy price of exile, economic hardship, imprisonment, physical suffering, and sometimes death, and few were prepared to pay that price. Under the illusion of culture (with the dreaded swastika on display inside and outside of concert halls and opera houses), thuggery won the day, and no doubt sat heavily on the shoulders of those given to personal reflection.

I have always wanted to believe that celebration of culture made for better citizenship. For many, this is undoubtedly true. But what of culture in a corrupt and murderous world? One would think that the great symphonies and operas become parodies of themselves when championed by regimes and their supporters which care little for the intrinsic human values of the works being performed.

Russia is also of interest here, given the affection of Stalin for the fine arts. It is said that he would invariably be in attendance at opening nights of the Bolshoi Ballet. Of course, he had fabled wrestling matches with the great Russian composers, who would from time to time be criticised as class traitors and at other times celebrated as Soviet heroes. In the case of Prokofiev and Shostakovich we are dealing with living composers, who are properly understood today as opponents of the Soviet regime, engaged in sometimes desperate battles to save their careers in the face of terrible repression of a kind experienced by many of their colleagues.

gedenkt memorial 300The cultured German audience during the period of the Third Reich was largely engaged with dead composers, and whose legacy was occasionally called in aid for propaganda purposes — this was particularly the case with Wagner. I have mentioned Wagner's attack on Mendelssohn. Wagner espoused well-documented anti-semitic sentiments from time to time. It is also distressing to learn that Chopin is said to have refused to perform his works while there were Jews in the auditorium.

This was, of course, the behaviour of the times — inexcusable but widely practised. The same can be said for the Nazi period in Germany, a vastly different time to the libertarian Germany of today where the values of the terrible period of the 1930s and 1940s are widely accepted to be a matter of deep shame. The audience of today, sitting in the same halls, would be loud in protest at gestures of anti-semitism or other racism. One could hardly think of a more libertarian or free-thinking place than Berlin — the transformation of Berlin and Germany in outward appearance and inner soul is one of the truly remarkable achievements in the reform of nationhood in the post-war period.

The audience is ultimately a creature of its day. Its behaviour is no better or worse for the fact of cultural adherence. One imagines that passionate music lovers, who happened to be supporters of the fascists, brought the scores of Wagner's operas to performances in the 1940s just as readily as passionate music lovers, who happen to be libertarians, do today. It is a serious error to think that mastering the score imbues the music lover with any better social perspective than that of anyone else.

It is also an error to think that the ability to write the score reflects a sound moral disposition. There is a litany of the most wonderful artists whose private lives are best left out of the discussion — such as Degas (on the Jews, again — praise here for Monet and, of course, Zola), Gaugin (paedophilia) and T.S. Eliott (yes, Jews again).

I sit as a member of many audiences. We share in our common delight of the shows we see. We love to be with one another as an integral part of our cultural experiences. These experiences are invariably much more enjoyable when engaged in together in live performance than at home alone in a recorded or broadcast form. We pay for tickets and enable the shows to go ahead. And then at the end of the show we applaud together, sometimes stand together united in deep appreciation of a performance and go home feeling enlivened, enriched, entertained, disturbed and enobled (but alas, apparently, morally unmoved). Such pursuits are of course genuinely vital for the sustenance of hungry souls, even if they have no particular bearing on what our parents and teachers call "good behaviour".

I recently heard an interview with the great maestro Daniel Barenboim who had this to say, and to whom it would be best to offer the final word on this vexed subject:

"Music in the end gives the person the possibility during the time that he spends with music the chance to be a happier person. This is basically the main reason for music for most people. It won't make you a better person. I don't believe in the morals. I don't believe that if you are sensitive to the beauty in Mozart you will have a better character and be a better person. I don't believe in that. But I do believe that if you open yourself to music and try to listen and see what is really touching that you will spend a few happy moments that you could not spend with anything else."