Commentary Magazine


Art and Politics

To the Editor:

Samuel Lipman’s “uneasiness” concerning the release on BASF of nearly one hundred recordings made by the German radio during the Nazi dictatorship [“German Wartime Broadcasts,” Music, March] is easily understood and readily shared. That the performances themselves are of great musical and historical interest must not be allowed to obscure the fact that these recordings were not made merely against the backdrop of the Nazi dictatorship, but were in fact important threads in the fabric of that monstrous regime.

As William L. Shirer has accurately observed (as a correspondent in Berlin), musical life in Nazi Germany was one of immense richness and variety, with performances of the very highest quality becoming almost routine occurrences. When one considers the fact that this same musical life—the one documented by these BASF recordings—was in reality part of a highly efficient national propaganda machine aimed at distracting the German people from the terrifying evils which were taking place concurrently with these performances, one’s pleasure in listening to them might well be replaced by “uneasiness.”

I can only hope, as does Mr. Lipman, that the musical excellence of these records will not obscure their origins as “bread-and-circuses” distractions for a people under the crushing weight of a morally perverse totalitarian regime.

John Crabtree
Boston, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing “German Wartime Broadcasts.” I can now hurry to the nearest record store and buy the collection put out by the Badische Anilin-und Sodafabriken (BASF for short). What exquisite pleasures are in store for me! I will be able to listen to a “. . . unique musical statement . . . the greatest recorded voices of the century . . . the beautiful sounds captured here. . . .” Let the ignoramuses wallow in the performances of the rest of the world. We, the true aesthetes, are always “. . . careful to protect art from political judgments . . .” and can truly appreciate the graceful products of Hitler Germany.

Alfred Hornik
Clifton Park, New York

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Samuel Lipman writes:

The heavy irony of Alfred Hornik’s letter ought not to swamp by its crudity the very real problem of the possibility and desirability of separating artistic and political judgments. I not only understand but also share the inevitable feelings of revulsion with which one approaches any manifestation of the Nazi era. But whether or not in any individual case the matter can be faced, it still remains true that artistic phenomena, both in their origin and in their effect, have an independent existence. A refusal to recognize this would result in easily apparent perversions of artistic decisions.

Such might well be the case, for example, with the vast body of Russian music, from its awakenings in the mid-19th century to its bloated present. Before 1917, Russian music, both in composition and in performance, was the pampered product of a state system built upon the suppression of workers, peasants, Jews, Poles, etc. After the October revolution, the master changed; but music remained as before an integral part of the state apparatus, a pacifier of the masses at home and a publicist for Soviet power abroad. The very same Stalin who sent untold millions to death, in many cases personally directed the patronage given Soviet musicians. Are we then not to perform Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich? Are we to execrate the memory of Anton Rubinstein and Chaliapin, to refuse to hear the records of Oistrakh and Richter?

Surely the solution is not to draw artistic consequences from political judgments; rather, we must, by a judicious separation of art and politics, not only protect art from alien domination but, at least as important, refuse to allow artistic excellence to sanctify an otherwise loathsome politics. The purpose of my article on the German wartime broadcasts was thus twofold: to recognize musical distinction and at the same time, by placing that distinction in its political, social, and moral context, to warn against our forgetting the climate in which it thrived.

It will come as no surprise that I am in agreement with John Crab-tree’s letter, which seems to me to contain an admirable attempt at such a balanced consideration. I would only add by way of amplification that the remarkable musical life of Germany in this period was not a result of Nazi government or party policy (except insofar as music was permitted to thrive) but rather a preexisting pattern of German cultural life which the Nazis employed for their own malign purposes.

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