Translated by Kenneth Chalmers
The Problem of “German Music”
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“With German music I consider a number of precautions to be in order”FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE1
Anyone attending a Berlin Philharmonic concert during the Third Reich could see, when they looked toward the stage, a vast swastika surmounted by a broad banner.2 On the banner was a quotation from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that read: “Honour your German masters”. In the closing scene of Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs does indeed call on Walther von Stolzing and the assembled people to honour the German masters. Wagner made no secret of his German nationalist sentiments and is well known as the most passionate 19th-century campaigner for “German art” and “German music” . In countless writings he tirelessly exalted the “German spirit” and “German character”, invoking both Goethe and Schiller as well as Bach and Beethoven. The paired opposites “German” and “un-German” music not only denote specific artistic issues but have national, nationalist, chauvinist, ideological and political implications as well. To grasp some of these implications, it should be kept in mind that a characteristic feature of the 19th century was an overwhelming nationalism – an intellectual movement that seems quite alien and incomprehensible to us now. Since the time of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 at the very latest, a latent rivalry existed between German and France. Those who took the side of German music were, at the same time, against the French and “foreign” (“welsch”). French esprit and Romance grazie were pitted against German “profundity”.3 Debussy, proud to call...
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