Commentary Magazine

German Wartime Broadcasts

Basf—the record label owned by the giant German chemical combine Badische Anilin-und Sodafabriken—has recently made available on the American market nearly one hundred LP’s containing vocal performances recorded on early magnetic tape and broadcast on German radio during World War II. On the jacket of an introductory record containing excerpts from these wartime transcriptions, the series (which also includes a few broadcasts made before 1939 and a larger number of what one assumes to be studio recordings made after 1945 for commercial release) is described in the following understated and discreet way:

These recordings are more than just recollections. They are a documentation of an epoch of German Music, which was characterized by Great Names and masterful interpretations. And yet, due to chaotic times, they remained relatively unknown.

A release of this size cannot but possess significance, both as historical documentation and as a unique musical statement about a repertory which remains of central importance today. And representing as it does a cultural manifestation of a period and a society with which we have yet to come to terms, its implications cannot be restricted to music or musical history alone.

The basic statistics of the release are impressive in themselves. It can be divided into three categories. There are operas (all but two—Hugo Wolf’s Der Corregidor and Flotow’s Martha—in highlight form); there are two-LP sets each featuring a famous singer of the period in solo arias and ensembles; and there is an amorphous group of collections organized either around the work of a single composer (Puccini arias, and lieder of Schubert and Wolf) or an institution (Bayreuth, the Dresden Opera, or the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden) and its featured artists. As frequently happens in this age of record packaging and repackaging, there are many duplications, with arias sung on the opera records appearing frequently on the discs devoted to the individual singers. More rigorous editing would have eliminated the errors which dot the explanatory jacket material, and certainly, given the historical character of these records, one would have welcomed more information as to the circumstances of the recordings and the broadcasts which transmitted them. Of equal interest would have been some description of the vicissitudes of the custody of these tapes as they made their way to their present owners.

The broad range of the operas represented here comes as something of a surprise; of the twenty-six works by eleven composers, only five belong to the standard heavyweight German repertory—Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, and Der Rosenkavalier of Richard Strauss. Among the less traditionally heavy German works included are, in addition to Wolf’s Der Corregidor, Strauss’s Capriccio (in a performance using with one exception the cast of the first performance in 1942), and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The other seventeen range from Carmen (Bizet) through Andrea Chenier (Giordano) and Faust (Gounod) to La Bohème and Tosca (Puccini) and no fewer than ten works of Verdi, including all the famous ones—even Otello—and Luisa Miller and Macbeth as well. Everything, in line with an old tradition, is sung in German, thus presenting the non-German works in what must be to us an unfamiliar and somewhat disconcerting aspect.

The singers who perform in these operas and are featured on their own individual sets include the most famous artists who were able—or chose—to remain and work in Nazi Germany. Several had great international careers prior to 1939; among these are three who appeared in Sir Thomas Beecham’s legendary 1937 Berlin recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the sopranos Erna Berger and Tiana Lemnitz and the tenor Helge Rosvaenge. Several others rather less familiar (to record buyers) outside Germany but of the highest stature in the history of prewar opera performance in Europe are also represented here. One such is Max Lorenz—the great Heldentenor whose career spanned appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1931 and at La Scala in 1950 as Siegfried in the Furtwängler Götterdämmerung—and another is Heinrich Schlusnus, a baritone who over almost forty years was distinguished equally as opera and lieder singer. Neither of these singers is available on any other major label in this country.

Other singers whose fame was at its height during the war but did not, due to their early deaths, long survive it, make strong impressions on these records. They include Maria Cebotari, a Russian-born soprano whose career had been made mainly in German-speaking countries after 1929 (and whose successful work as a film actress culminated in a 1942 movie entitled Flammen über Odessa), and the commanding bass-baritone Georg Hann, whose portrayal of Caspar in Weber’s Der Freischütz on an early American Decca LP (possibly of wartime origin also) remains unsurpassed on records. Still another generation of singers—perhaps chief among them the leading Hans Sachs of the postwar period, Paul Schöffler, and the greatest Wotan of the same period, Hans Hotter—who were only to achieve full world stature in the postwar period, is represented; as an indication of the things which were yet to come, a bit player on one of these records is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

It is unfortunate that the collection of four records devoted to the Bayreuth Festival includes so few actual wartime performances from the Festspielhaus. Though it does provide some documents of the highest historical and musical interest from prewar days—most remarkably a 1931 performance of the prelude from Tristan under Furtwängler and the closing pages of Parsifal with Richard Strauss conducting—only about 20 per cent of this collection comes from the 1939-44 Festival. What there is (the prelude to Die Fliegende Holländer, Loge’s narrative from Das Rheingold, the opening and part of Act II from Die Walküre, and the prelude and chorale from Act I of Die Meistersinger) is of excellent quality and leads to the hope that future releases may include the complete performances of these operas, as well as of the other Wagner operas which were done in Bayreuth during this time. The fact that one such performance, that of Die Meistersinger conducted in 1943 by Furtwängler, has recently been issued on the Electrola label suggests that rumors about the existence of other tapes in German (both East and West), or possibly Russian, archives may be well founded.



The technical quality of the BASF records is never less than acceptable, and often—save for a tendency to register vocal climaxes at too high a level—spectacular, especially considering how long ago the original transcriptions were done. Little effort was evidently made to imitate the acoustics of an opera house or concert hall; instead the voices were often placed at an unvaryingly close distance to the microphone and thus became capable at all moments of riding triumphantly over even the most dense orchestration. If some degree of musical realism was thereby lost, much was also gained in clarity of vocal detail and immediacy of the singers’ physical presence. Perhaps the highest tribute that can be paid to the technological achievement these original tapes represent is simply to note that several of these recordings were successfully issued in the 1950’s in the United States without any mention of their origin in wartime broadcasts.

The musical achievement of the artists represented here is similarly high. In general the male singers—particularly the tenors Peter Anders, Rosvaenge, and Franz Völker, as well as the baritone Schlusnus and the bass-baritone Hann—can be placed among the greatest recorded voices of the century. If the same cannot on the whole be said about the female voices, even after taking into account the many beautiful sounds captured here, two reasons come immediately to mind. The first is the remarkable standard of female vocalism in the past fifty years; one’s models are inevitably Flagstad and Nilsson in the German repertory and Callas and Tebaldi in the Italian repertory. The second reason pertains more to the special sound of singers trained in the German vocal tradition; all too frequently the women suffer from a certain unsteadiness when singing out, a quality which becomes breathy and tremulous in softer passages. These qualifications do not, of course, deny either the strong dramatic presence of the sopranos and contraltos (of which Margarete Klose’s Fricka in the 1940 Bayreuth Die Walküre is a supreme example) or the sterling musicianship which they bring not only to these operas but also to the several lieder records in this series.

Perhaps the chief musical surprise contained in these records is the infectious vitality of the orchestral playing and the grasp of pacing and scale shown by so many of the conductors. The depth of the orchestra personnel available in a wartime Germany even after the bloody purges of Jewish musicians testifies to the broad basis of the German (and Austrian) performing tradition stemming from the hated Weimar era and before. The conductors here, of whom only Clemens Krauss was internationally known, also include Karl Elmendorff, Robert Heger, and Arthur Rother. To hear their performances is to realize how completely the breed of great opera conductors is now vanishing.

Taken all together, the outstanding characteristic of these records is their undeviating weight, commitment, and seriousness. Without doubt some of this atmosphere of tense dedication comes from the physical and emotional conditions of wartime performance under bombing and ominous reports from the military fronts. But even more, it must be a product of a specifically German competence in music. Every one of the works in this series is treated as if it were Beethoven, as if it contained in itself all that is valuable in music. From this attitude toward each work comes a concentration on its particular elements, extending down to every individual note. Such an intense application of musical intellect and quasi-religious scrupulosity is itself a manifestation—perhaps the last—of the German symphonic tradition as it unfolded (both in composition and performance) from Bach and before via Beethoven to Wagner and Strauss and even beyond into the thoroughly native music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern which the Nazis so ruthlessly suppressed.

But of course no tradition, even one of such immortal greatness, can be of universal validity. So it is to be expected that problems might well arise when non-German and non-symphonic music is approached according to the lights of the best German tradition. Such is the case with the performances on these records of Puccini. Puccini’s delicate orchestral effects and soaring melodic lines culminating in lush climaxes clothe an essentially simple music, a music which is the natural expression of ordinary human emotions of love, jealousy, and grief. To invest these emotions with mythic, superhuman significance, as the scale and intensity of the German performances do, is simultaneously to bloat the music and thus render it trivial, to present Puccini as a composer of large-scale operettas.

With Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Die Entführung aus dem Serail these records are on surer ground. For this is German (or to be more accurate, Austrian) music, despite its strong Italianate component; Die Entführung was written to a German text and Don Giovanni, whatever Mozart or his contemporaries may have thought, is today perceived as mythic. Moreover, there is little danger of Mozart’s music suffering from an excess of care or devotion. Not surprisingly, then, the performances of these operas are excellent—for their effortlessly brilliant vocalism (particularly in Die Entführung) and intense orchestral playing and direction—even though they may lack, for those accustomed to today’s international casts, the final grace of Mozart performed in the Italian manner.



The great value of the musical approach so characteristic of these recordings is shown by the examples of Verdi included here. Something of the higher dimension in Verdi has been known since Toscanini showed that it was possible to take these works seriously as great music rather than as mere grand opera with its concentration on vocal display and florid acts of passion. But even in Toscanini’s magnificent performances one could detect a certain throbbing emotionalism related more to the tradition of Italian stage production than to the pure musical and dramatic content of the works themselves. These German broadcasts of, among others, La Traviata, La Forza del Destino, and Macbeth, reach their summit in the 1942 Aida and the 1943 Otello (unfortunately limited here to excerpts). Usually Aida is performed as a brassy collection of tunes and ceremonial numbers, and Otello as a musically fragmented and cause-ridden—albeit successful—attempt by Verdi to be serious. But on these records the symphonic richness common to both operas is used to make them musically and therefore dramatically forceful. Treated thus, Verdi takes his place in the history of music not as an opponent of Wagner (which is how he has been seen by conventional opinion) but as his co-worker in perfecting the 19th-century orchestral music-drama.

Yet as for Wagner himself, what is somewhat surprising about these records is that none of his operas as presented here (with one stunning exception) is a completely satisfactory achievement. Both the Tristan (1942) and the Tannhäuser (1943) excerpts—though better than anything one gets in present-day opera houses—suffer from a hyper-intense emotionalism which verges upon distasteful ranting, and Die Fliegende Holländer (1944), while marvelously conducted by Clemens Krauss and distinguished by Georg Hann’s great Daland, is marred by the bad wobble of the Senta, Krauss’s wife, Viorica Ursuleac.

No such reservations apply, however, to the two-record set of Lohengrin. Made on December 12, 1942 at an actual performance of the Berlin Staatsoper, it is more realistic in sound than the other, studio-made, recordings, and its cast includes some of the greatest German Wagner singers of their generation—Franz Völker, Maria Müller, and Margarete Klose as Lohengrin, Elsa, and Ortrud. These three artists together offer what are unquestionably the finest portrayals of their roles in memory, and the conducting by Robert Heger is equally good. This Lohengrin, by eschewing the comfortable self-indulgence so apparent in this season’s production at the Metropolitan, manages to focus attention on the overall thrust of the story and its music. Through such a performance it becomes obvious that Lohengrin is not just a popular early work but one link, and a strong one, in the chain of Wagner’s unsurpassed orchestral genius which stretches from Die Fliegende Holländer of 1843 to the Parsifal of thirty-nine years later. Not only is this recording the high point of the entire BASF series; it may very well be one of the supreme examples of opera on records.



After every musical tribute, so richly deserved, has been paid to these performances, however, nagging doubts remain. Were they poor from an artistic standpoint, they would have been easy to dismiss as degenerate products of a notoriously evil society, in somewhat the same way as brilliant products of a praiseworthy society are commonly seen as manifestations of the collective virtue. But the very musical excellence of these records presents a problem.

In the explanatory text which accompanies the more than 35 records cited here, Hitler and Nazism are never mentioned; of the events of the war only the bombings and the approach of the Russian armies are referred to; nothing is said about the political pressures which must have dictated the choice of artists, repertory, and administrators; there is no allusion to official cultural policy regarding the use of both music and the radio as vehicles of propaganda; completely ignored is the fact that many of these artists were making great careers as replacements for musicians who had, to put it gently, emigrated.

The effect of such omissions is to provide a sanitized atmosphere, free of both recriminations and the truth about the infamous years in which the artists recorded here flourished. It is an atmosphere thus highly favorable to a concentration on the virtues of these records, virtues which in themselves can only be highly praised. Nevertheless, just as we are careful to protect art from political judgments, care must be taken to protect our political judgment from being influenced by art. Such care is not always taken nowadays in connection with the Nazis. For example, the growing worldwide popularity of the music of Wagner has enabled his daughter-in-law to reappear before the public for the first time since the war in a five-hour filmed interview timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Bayreuth Festival; in it she has been allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, to express her high opinions of Hitler as music-lover and family man.

This kind of thing would be bad enough at any time, but it becomes especially pernicious at a time when at least a partial revision of the older totally condemnatory attitudes toward Hitler, Nazism, and wartime Germany is so clearly gaining ground. Thus, A.J.P. Taylor has examined Hitler’s “principle and doctrine” and found them no worse than those of many other contemporary statesmen; Bruce Russett has called it a myth that the Germans initiated bombings of residential areas. Similarly, recent bestsellers, though hostile to Hitler, have still managed, in the process of attempting to give a rounded portrait, to find in him the great modernizer of Germany and the last believer in the historical mission of Europe. One hopes—uneasily—that the intrinsic artistic excellence of these BASF records will not serve to further such perversions of moral and political judgment.

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