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The Reichsorchester - The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich

Release Date: 02/26/2008 
Label:  Arthaus Musik   Catalog #: 101453  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Conductor:  Wilhelm Furtwängler
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews


& WAGNER Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act I Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Berlin PO

The Berlin Philharmonic, long one of the world’s most prestigious Read more symphony orchestras, had a surprisingly late genesis. Established in 1892 by a group of musicians who broke away from the imperial musical establishment in Berlin, it existed for decades as a fully independent organization without government support. Each player was a shareholder in the enterprise and those responsible for the orchestra’s management—budgets, scheduling, contracts, publicity—were elected from the rank and file by their colleagues. While this arrangement no doubt contributed to the Berlin Philharmonic’s proudly independent character, absence of state subsidy meant that the orchestra’s very existence, from year to year, was precarious. At the end of a bad season, the musicians simply weren’t paid. Even Wilhelm Furtwängler’s celebrated association with the orchestra during the 1920s could not offset the orchestra’s financial difficulties amidst the economic vicissitudes of the Weimar Republic. By the time Hitler assumed power in 1933, the orchestra stood on the brink of bankruptcy.

The Nazis, Joseph Goebbels in particular, were quick to grasp the Philharmonic’s potential as a powerful propaganda tool for the Reich, at home and abroad. By October 1933, Goebbels’s Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda announced that it would assume full financial responsibility for the flagging orchestra. The following January the state purchased proprietary shares from the musicians. In a single stroke they had become, in some very real sense, cultural ambassadors for the Third Reich and would remain so for the next 11 years.

This tortured and tortuous tale is the theme of Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s deeply moving 2007 documentary, The Reichsorchester. When Lasch commenced work on this film, only two members of the orchestra who had been active in the years up to 1945 were still alive: 93-year-old violinist, Hans Bastiaan and 84-year-old double-bassist, Erich Hartmann. Fortunately, both these men were extensively interviewed on camera, and it is their articulate testimony that moves the narrative forward. It also reveals, in vividly personal terms, the moral dilemma faced by the musicians under the Nazis.

Philharmonic members were exempt from conscription and were well paid. Taking public transport to concerts during the war, Bastiaan was embarrassed as fellow passengers stared at him: he was better dressed than anyone else was, and other males near his age were either at the front or already dead. Hartmann served as one of the orchestra’s fire wardens the night Allied bombing destroyed the Philharmonie , the orchestra’s beautiful hall and a Berlin landmark. He speaks of his wrenching frustration at being unable to save precious manuscripts, scores, and instruments from the flames. Both Bastiaan and Hartmann describe the handful of orchestra members who were outspoken members of the Nazi Party, and the pains their colleagues took in their presence to avoid any remark remotely critical of the government.

Naturally, significant portions of the film are devoted to the Jewish members of the orchestra. Many left early on of their own volition, Szymon Goldberg, the orchestra’s concertmaster, being a well-known example. Though Goldberg’s death in 1993 precluded any direct participation in this documentary, Lansch obtained a sound recording of a formal deposition made by Goldberg describing the circumstances under which he left the orchestra. (Incidentally, Goldberg’s voice is beautifully modulated and he speaks the most cultured German I have ever heard.) A surprising number of musicians, however, were deemed “half-Jews” by the Nazis—in other words, fully assimilated and of primarily Aryan descent, with perhaps a maternal grandmother who was Jewish. Many of these men remained with the orchestra throughout the war, sometimes with the intervention of Furtwängler on their behalf, but almost invariably at great personal cost: none of them ever knew when or if they might be summarily dismissed from the orchestra and sent to the camps.

Lansch spent considerable time tracking down men and women whose fathers played in the orchestra under the Nazis. Their interviews significantly expand and contextualize the words of Bastiaan and Hartmann. Some were old enough to have been youngsters during the war and are thus able to speak about their own first-hand memories, as well as what they heard subsequently from their parents.

The breadth of research that went into the making of this documentary is apparent throughout. As Lansch began to conceive his film, a young Canadian writer named Misha Aster was already at work in the Philharmonic archives. The fruits of Aster’s research have since been published ( Das Reichsorchester, Siedler Verlag, Munich, 2007) and inform the film as well.

As one would expect, there is plenty of vintage performance footage of the orchestra under Furtwängler. Segments of Erich Kleiber and Hans Knappertsbusch conducting are also of great interest. Uncommon footage of speeches by Hitler and Goebbels are, in terms of actual content, as fascinating from a cultural-historical perspective as they are viscerally repellent. Ultimately, the great success of The Reichsorchester is operative on two levels. First, it is a searching portrait of one of world music’s crown jewels during the most arduous and dramatic period of its existence, namely the dozen years between 1933 and 1945. And second, it is a profound morality tale, touching on the shades of ethical ambiguity and the cost of unquestioning compliance with authority, which provides a stern reminder that even the purest, most exalted artistic endeavor can be subjugated to serve unfathomable evil. Very highly recommended.

FANFARE: Patrick Rucker

A film by Enrique Sánchez Lansch

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Vorspiel
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor
recorded at a AEG Worker Concert, 1942

Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: Dolby Digital 2.0
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Subtitle languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Running time: 90 mins + 10 mins (bonus)
No. of DVDs.: 1
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Works on This Recording

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act 1 Prelude by Richard Wagner
Conductor:  Wilhelm Furtwängler
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1867; Germany 
Date of Recording: 1942 
Venue:  AEG Worker Concert 

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