A review of Patrick Bade’s “Music Wars”

Patrick Bade's "Music Wars" - cover

Putting micro-details onto a macro-historic trajectory is no easy task. It’s easy to sink beneath a tsunami of minutia. Yet offering an accurate account of what people on all sides of the conflict from 1937-1945 were listening to, presents readers with many eye-catching revelations. What Patrick Bade often shows us, is not how different people were, but how similar – it’s a conciliatory voice in a rabble that all too often highlights the aesthetic chasms between fascist, Communist and democratic states. Without making it explicit, it becomes implicitly apparent that all similar cultures, (and despite everything, European, Soviet and American cultures had more in common than not), strive for the same aspirations. Music offers the young identity and individuality and everyone else, a spiritual balm – an ‘application’ of this particular art-form that even the most strident social and political idealists on both sides of the conflict could never successfully unglue from human nature. An example of this futility was present in an account I read only yesterday of a conversation between Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Hanns Eisler: Wagner and his operas were, according to Eisler, total frauds. Reich-Ranicki replied that this may have been the case: ‘But how then, was one to explain ‘Tristan’?’ Eisler’s answer was, ‘That’s different! That’s music!’

At first glance, ‘Music Wars’ appears to luxuriate in pure nostalgia. His collection of historic recordings must be vast – and from his manner, I suspect that he still listens to them in their original cuts. His collection of sheet music, scores, recordings and general ephemera, on which he bases his book, is obviously enormous. The book promiscuously couples with jazz, film-chanson and Schlager; operetta, opera and classical with only the occasional kinky foray into the avant-garde. But this is understandable, because Bade is interested in what people listened to – and as even Schoenberg’s own publisher would admit in the pages of its house magazine ‘Anbruch’, no composer elicited so much debate, based on so few performances. The Second Viennese School was interesting, but frankly, only an elite was involved. Every new music festival and high-profile avant-garde performance launched an avalanche of commentary which has left historians with a distorted picture – a picture that ‘Music Wars’ attempts to put right. If ‘Forbidden Music’ is based on the documentary research necessary for Decca’s ‘Entartete Musik’ series and subsequent exhibitions at Vienna’s Jewish Museum, ‘Music Wars’ is based on Bade’s enormous collection and interviews with performers. We have unwittingly, however, organised our respective material in surprisingly similar presentational breakdowns.

We both have 12 chapters ending with one that in ‘Music Wars’ is called ‘Retribution’ and in ‘Forbidden Music’, ‘Restitution’. His first chapter outlines the presumed propaganda value of music – particularly as a marker of cultural identity. It is in itself a historic trajectory that covers the entire period of the war. This idea is continued in his second chapter which offers the nationalist lead-up to conflict. At no point does Bade ‘take sides’ but offers the legitimate musical voices of each protagonist state. Nearly every chapter has a sturdy element covering France and Bade is an obvious Francophile. It often appears to be the centre of cultural gravity in this account though personally, I don’t find it inappropriate as French and German cultures were historically pitted against each other. It’s fascinating to see how France collaborated but also resisted musical assimilation – again proving that there were more similarities than differences, though differences are always written large. In addition, he is even-handed in presenting the cultural movers-and-shakers of each nation doing its utmost to appease the other side. In retrospect, it is not a pretty picture but trying to project where events were headed was not an option at the time. Nations were still dependent on one another for trade and again it becomes clear that though wars are always justified as ‘conflicts of culture’, money is the actual catalyst. Chapter three gives us defeated France in all of its ambivalent, but intriguing detail. This is followed by Music in the German Reich. Bade would inevitably be on shaky ground here, given the books by Fred Pribert, Erik Levi, Michael Kater and so on, but he offers instead a welcome account of WHAT people were listening to and WHY artists made the decisions they did. It is a presentation of the general detachment, rather than attachment between music and politics. This detailed listing of performances, performers and recordings puts flesh on the Priberg/Kater bones – and does so in a manner that lacks the continuous tone of moral condemnation found in German scholarship. For Bade, music is about its interactions with people as listeners and performers. He condemns rarely, but equally rarely, does he condone. In addition, he offers quite a few surprises as we encounter well-loved performers in both dangerous and compromised situations; and I don’t mean the obvious cases regarding Furtwängler, Schwarzkopf and so forth. I’ll come back to these later.

The chapter on music in the German Reich is followed by similar chapters in the USA, the Soviet Union, (which he refers to as ‘Russia’ – the only possibly ideological nod towards politics in the entire book); the UK, North Africa and the Middle East; The Camps – perhaps the weakest chapter, but information is spilling out about music in the camps from all directions and it’s difficult to say much that is ‘new’; Operetta and Swing – a very welcomed and fascinating survey; the media of Gramophone, broadcast and cinema; and for me, the most fascinating chapter of all: War Songs. Here we meet real ‘music as a weapon’, as Hanns Eisler would say; and surprisingly, in this particular account, there is very little Hanns Eisler. Frankly, I welcomed this far more balanced presentation as government propaganda was rarely so crass as to use fight-songs that were instantly identified as such. These were more to be found in the ideological arsenals of political parties pre-conflict. Brain-washing was infinitely more subtle and involved what outwardly appeared as humour, parody or even popular love songs, which are re-packaged to express loneliness, departure and separation. The universality of ‘Lilly Marlene’ is given special prominence, but then so are such ‘iconic’ numbers as ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘Ich weiß es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen’ – along with the much abused and used songs by the ever-popular Charles Trenet. Again, Bade implicitly highlights similarities rather than differences though he does avoid uncritical equanimity. He is after all a programmer for London’s prestigious Jewish Cultural Centre. Nevertheless, ‘Music Wars’ is a reflection of a human tragedy that the commonality of music could not prevent.

As always with such a detailed micro-account, there will be ‘i-dotters’ and ‘t-crossers’ who will demand to know: ‘What about….????’ Such a detailed book must offer a certain amount of subjectivity. I soon stopped asking such questions myself and wondered if perhaps Kurt Weill’s ‘j’attend un navire’ wasn’t the great French Resistance anthem that Kurt Weill freaks always claim it to have been. Bade is so thorough, that I came to trust his view that if it wasn’t mentioned, it’s because it didn’t hold the cultural position, I had previously assumed. Bade has interviewed many performers from the period and is deeply sympathetic to all, regardless of which side of the conflict they represented. His sympathy does run out with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and his off the cuff dismissal of her as the interpretive artist of the century was welcomed. There were far greater singers – they simply weren’t as brazenly opportunistic as she. Bade doesn’t denounce her as a fraud, but he does offer perspective on someone who for years has conjured up the same myth of ‘divine-art-floating above the dung-heap of politics’ as Furtwängler. And to be frank, neither is Bade a member of the ‘Furtwängler could-do-no-wrong club’ – a lonely position that I have only encountered unequivocally once with Berthold Goldschmidt, a man who even refused to condemn such Nazis as Max von Schillings. Goldschmidt, however, was irreconcilable on the question of Furtwängler: ‘He conducted Beethoven in front of the Nazi flag!’ Bade also presents the argument that Britain’s much-worshipped Thomas Beecham was just as ethically compromised – perhaps more so, as he wasn’t German.

The nature of musical nostalgia makes for far more enjoyable reading than dry history. His interviews and absolute impartiality make for a fascinating book. ‘Music Wars’ offers a corrective, or at least a rebalance, for those readers who believed ‘Forbidden Music’ offered too much history and too little music. A surprising amount of the material mentioned in ‘Music Wars’ can be found on Youtube. I only wish I could claim the same for ‘Forbidden Music’.