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Escaping the Dark Time

Escaping the Dark Time

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Published by Gary Zabel
A shorter version of this was published in the Musical Times (London: December, 1992)
A shorter version of this was published in the Musical Times (London: December, 1992)

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Gary Zabel on May 15, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Escaping the Dark Time: The Problem of Political Music in Eisler and Weill
by Gary ZabelWe have come to recognize the significance of theWeimar Republic for the development of modernism in thearts only in the past ten years or so. In that relativelybrief span of time, such cultural historians as John Willett,Eugene Lunn, and Douglas Kahn have succeeded inrefuting previous conceptions of inter-war Germany as thepassive recipient of aesthetic advances that had alreadytaken place in Zurich, Vienna, and Paris. It is certainlytrue that the origins of aesthetic modernism predate therevolutionary upheaval that put an end to the Kaiser’s rulein November, 1918. But during the Weimar period thatensued, artists working in a variety of media shaped pre-existing aesthetic materials into an essentially newcultural configuration. There are many ways of characterizing the innovationembodied in the modernist culture of the Weimar Republic(whose most important urban center was actually Berlin).We might call attention to its dominant emphasis on a
Neue Sachlichkeit 
- a “New Matter-Of-Factness” - thatcombined an attitude of cool emotional neutrality withtechnological experimentation in the arts. Or we mightrefer to that culture’s pervasive sense that artisticindividualism had been rendered obsolete byoverwhelming and anonymous historical forces, so thatcollective modes of aesthetic creation were now on theagenda. For purposes of the present discussion, however,the most relevant fact about Weimar modernism is that itstemmed from an alliance of the aesthetic and thepolitical avant-gardes. Most of the key artists of theperiod - including Piscator, Brecht, Grosz, Heartfield, Dix,Moholoy-Nagy, Tucholsky, Gropius, Meyer, Eisler, andWeill - were either actively engaged on the revolutionary
left or at least in general sympathy with its goals. In theirwork, modernism became more than a one-sidedlyaesthetic break with the past. It was organically linkedwith an increasingly desperate political effort to create anew and emancipated world on the ruins of the old. Whenthe Nazis proceeded physically to liquidate the modernistachievements of Weimar after Hitler’s rise to power in1933, they characterized them as forms of “culturalbolshevism.” The truth is they were not far off the mark. The most vital elements in Weimar culture did indeeddevelop in connection with the process of revolutionarysocial transformation taking place in the Soviet Union.With the end of the First World War, there was a two-wayflow of artists - both emigres and visitors - betweenGermany and Russia, as well as the establishment of “friendship societies” which facilitated reciprocal aestheticinfluence. What made this cultural exchange significantwas the fact that it occurred with an explicitly avant-gardeinspiration. At least in its initial decade, the OctoberRevolution encouraged experimentation in the arts as wellas in politics and the economy. With the support of thedirector of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment,Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Russian avant-garde embracedthe Revolution as a quintessentially modernist event - anexhilarating leap into an uncharted future. Such artradicals as Kandinsky, Mayakovsky, Tatlin, and Rodchenkostaffed the Soviet government’s Fine Art Departmentwhich granted commissions, organized exhibitions,created a network of provincial museums, and sponsoredagit-prop work, poster production, “monumentalpropaganda” (including Tatlin’s famous prototype for hisconstructivist Monument to the Third International), andother new forms of public art. Thus from its position of administrative authority, the Soviet avant-gardecommanded the resources necessary to apply modernistprinciples to the far-reaching aesthetic reconstruction of society, that is, until Stalin’s so-called “revolution fromabove” put an end to the experiment. Of course, theWeimar avant-garde was never in a position to engage in
such an extensive and officially sanctioned process of reconstruction. After all, the German Revolution wasultimately aborted. But the artistic innovations of Weimarwere just as vital, aesthetically speaking, as their Russiancounterparts. There was one area, moreover, in which theart of the Weimar Republic was far in the vanguard of thatof the Soviet Union, namely, the development of politicized forms of musical composition, performance,and reception. This development proceeded in opposition to twoestablished musical forces. On the one hand, it rejectedthe militant hermeticism, the a-political insularity of thecentral current of modernist music, epitomized bySchoenberg’s pointed declaration that: “We who live inmusic have no place in politics and must regard it asforeign to our being. We are a-political, at best able toaspire to remain silently in the background.” On the otherhand, the new politicized music of the Weimar years wasartistically advanced. It rejected the tepid verbalmessages and watered-down musical traditionalism of what was then known as
- music with aconscious social tendency - of the sort performed by theworkers’ choruses sponsored by the Social DemocraticParty. In both their application of musical technique andtheir handling of the relation between music and text, theWeimar avant-garde sought to employ the majorinnovations of twentieth century music to elicit forms of emancipatory consciousness and action in the broadeststrata of the population. Now the problem faced by theproject for an aesthetically advanced form of politicalmusic was formidable. Previously, modernist music andthe mass audience had inhabited different planets. If theproject was to succeed, it would be necessary to bridgethat astronomical gap.Hindemith’s celebrated music festivals at Donaueschingenand Baden-Baden set the context in which the first seriousbreakthroughs in the new political music were to occur. The festivals were organized in accordance with thecomposer’s attempt to steer modern music into two

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