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12Jan/12Off

Music, Conscience, Accountability and the Third Reich

Music's purpose during the Hitler years and its relationship to officialdom and to the public is as complex as it is fascinating. Beyond the Nazis' incorporation of music into its racial policies and their exploitation of it as both rallying-cry and battle-cry, musical themes include the achievements of the Terezin composers; the use of music in concentration camps (and, latterly, as vehicles for Holocaust memorial projects); Hitler's appropriation of Wagner; the Reich's relationship with jazz, and music as an expression of internal political rivalry, between Goebbels and Goering for example. What accounts for our fascination? The visual art and literature of the Nazi period receive nothing like equivalent attention, although in the years just after the Holocaust, there were indeed significant responses across all the arts.

We know that a musical work, or a specific section of a musical work, can arouse feelings of transcendence — of involvement, connection and satisfaction that are rarely offered by other artistic forms. But music in its purest form, without text or programmatic substance, refers only to itself. Its power lies in its ability to subvert and satisfy expectation simultaneously. And, one assumes, the more experienced and sensitive the listener, the keener, the more discriminating and intense the response. The state of grace that music encourages is sui generis, unrelated to any external morality or ideals of purity, decency or generosity. Of course music can express a variety of emotions and conjure up all manner of associations, which are generated not only by the music itself but also by the circumstances of its performance. But whatever these qualities may be, they are disconnected from concepts of innate good or evil...

(This is an excerpt of ARC Ensemble Artistic Director Simon Wynberg's essay for The OREL Foundation. Read the full article here.)

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