Notes and Editorial Reviews
Soloists: Helmut Schmidt, Peter Schreier, Kurt Masur, Theo Adam, Otmar Suitner, Jochen Kowalski, Christine Mielitz, Siegfried Matthus, Walter Felsenstein
Director: Thomas Zintel
In 1945, after the war had ended, the world split into East and West in political terms. The frontier between the two blocs cut straight through Germany and quickly became a dividing line between contrasting cultural systems. In the Soviet occupation zone, major opera houses and concert halls rose again from the ruins and long-established orchestras and choirs were revived. Once East Germany (known as the GDR) had been founded, the Socialist Unity Party took over responsibility for cultural affairs and quickly developed the idea of a nation
of culture-loving working people in deliberate contrast to their portrayal of “Americanized, western capitalists softened by endless consumption”. Together with sport, classical music was used to advertise the merits of the GDR. Like all other areas of art it was instrumentalized for ideological purposes, and its protagonists - provided they displayed the necessary talent and were not regarded with suspicion by the state security service - often enjoyed extraordinary privileges. This combination of art and dictatorship created an environment in which music-making of world quality was able to flourish. Through case studies of individuals who lived under the system, the documentary explores the fates of both the privileged and the non-privileged, and delivers insight into the influence of the political system on artistic life. The film includes interviews with contemporary witnesses both from GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). -
R E V I E W:
CLASSICAL MUSIC AND COLD WAR: MUSICIANS IN THE GDR • Helmut Schmidt, Peter Schreier, Kurt Masur, Jochen Kowalski, Otmar Suitner, speaker • ARTHAUS MUSIK 101655 (DVD: 52:00)
This strange, too brief, and somewhat chilling documentary chronicles the strange and occasionally wonderful relationship that the Soviet-led East German (GDR) government had with the arts. From the very beginning, the Soviets saw high German culture as a tool for “bringing the country together” as well as for propaganda to the West, and so even as people were starving, and both lives and buildings lay in ruin, Moscow poured millions of rubles into the quick reconstruction of theaters and even churches where concerts were given in East Berlin, Dresden, and other cities.
To a certain point, their aims were good: perform as much classical music as possible, as often as possible, and bring the common people into the fold. Show them that great music could be uplifting and morally superior to the heinous R&B music (later R&R music) coming out of the West, particularly America. There was another good thing about this, too, in that by making ticket prices cheap and art music plentiful, the working classes had easy access to a large slice of their own indigenous culture that West Germans had to pay through the nose to see and hear. It was partly because of this that Erich Kleiber initially accepted a position as music director of the Berlin State Opera/Lindenoper, the house where he had premiered Wozzeck in 1925.
But Kleiber immediately resigned when he learned that the name carved on the outside of the building was reduced to the more mundane “Staatsoper (State Opera).” He quickly realized this was a political move, and if something this small could be changed just because some bureaucrat wished it, both he and the opera company would be tethered to the state. His replacement was Franz Konwitschny. Eventually the GDR government and its masters in Moscow learned, the hard way, that the majority of “the workers” didn’t like or patronize classical music in any greater numbers than their counterparts in free Western countries.
Tenor and choral director Peter Schreier explains how many artists then began to defect to the West in the 1950s. After the wall was constructed in 1961, ironically, it meant more work for those who were already in East Germany like himself because they couldn’t get those artists to come back. The film also explains the interrelationship of the East German label, Eterna, with Deutsche Grammophon and later with Philips and EMI. Little by little, prestigious West German artists like Herbert von Karajan were lured to Dresden to perform and/or record, while the regime suddenly learned that they could make a fortune by “leasing” their artists out to Western countries.
But then came another wave of defections, this time from artists visiting abroad who simply wouldn’t come back, so another iron fist came down on them. It was Theo Adam—who is shown briefly in performance but does not talk in the film—who said that if he weren’t allowed to perform at Bayreuth and other Western cities he would simply stop performing. The regime wasn’t used to being given an ultimatum, but Adam was too famous and important to turn down.
Although Kurt Masur appears and speaks at length in this video, and his story is told in some detail, there is not a single word here about the strange way Klaus Tennstedt managed to escape when his travel visa was accidentally stamped in such a way that he was not given a return date. In fact, in this video Tennstedt—the most famous defector of all—doesn’t even exist. But that is the only obvious and glaring omission in this otherwise fine film.
Brief though it is, this video documents a strange and, to some extent, golden era. Strange though it seems, the Soviets’ determination to use German culture for propaganda purposes led to a virtual explosion of artistic performances and new, improved venues. Even at a time when the government was losing money, they spent a fortune to build a new hall for the Gewandhaus Orchestra. As several others point out, even such state-appointed directors as Walter Felsenstein genuinely loved and believed in the music they were promoting and did so altruistically, without any thought of propaganda. They were dedicated artists, one and all, and the only ones who walked out of positions were the more experienced orchestra members who felt they were being underpaid.
Of course there were curtailed freedoms and censorship on modern, atonal works, both recurring features of the Soviet system; but in the end artists like Rudolf Kempe, Schreier, Adam, Annaliese Rothenberger, and many others were given unprecedented promotion in the West that made them stars, and they received this without having to kowtow to a greedy arts promoter or fortune-driven agencies and impresarios. Thus, like all stories of totalitarian governments who promote the arts, this one is something of a contradiction. In the midst of an evil, corrupt, and totalitarian government, flowers of beauty grew and flourished. Highly recommended for its first-hand accounts of the people who lived through this era.
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