Monday, September 15, 2008

music under a bell jar

The Berlin Philharmonic, virtually alone among German cultural institutions, continued playing right to the end of the Second World War. Even after their hall, the old Philharmonie, was destroyed by bombers, they continued performing in the Admiralspalast downtown, and at makeshift hospitals around the city. It's understandably not a period people in the orchestra are proud of, but a remarkable new documentary by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, The Reichsorchester, chronicles and records the memories of the last two surviving orchestra members who played in the Berlin Phil during that time.

One of those members, violinist Hans Bastiaan, describes that time as "like being under a bell jar" -- the orchestra was protected and sheltered by the Nazi ministry of propaganda, performing a regular concert schedule and touring widely to boost morale and to symbolize of German cultural might. Bastiaan and double bassist Erich Hartmann, the other surviving member who speaks at length in the film, both understood that they were serving an evil regime -- yet they both claim the Berlin Philharmonic was never a Nazi orchestra, even if certain members were party loyalists.

The vast majority kept playing out of dedication to their craft; out of allegiance to their music director, Furtwangler, and to their colleagues; from pride for the stellar reputation and musicianship of their orchestra; and, in the final days, for sheer survival. Orchestra members were given an exemption from military service -- and their family members offered special protections and allowances as will -- and so from the beginning they were tied to the regime and its continued stability.

Only in the last few months, playing before audiences of severely wounded soldiers and civilians, did Bastiaan, Hartmann, and their like-minded colleagues recognize the shame of their role as state-supported artists. Other members, such as violinist Bernhard Alt (who earlier composed of a double bass quartet, written for his Berlin Phil colleagues) committed suicide. Still others died amid the chaos of bombings and occupation (this was the case with the interim conductor Leo Borchard, who died by American gunfire in a tragic accident). One violist, dismissed by Furtwangler for missing a concert early in the war, had his exemption revoked and died on the front -- just one terrible story among many that Bastiaan and Hartmann have to tell.

It's fascinating to hear them tell it, even though they still seem to struggle with the moral quandaries of that time. Among the musicians, Bastiaan notes, their understanding of politics was often "child-like", and they only wished to keep performing great music under the best conductors -- and yet the harsh realities around them wouldn't disappear, or be vanquished by sublime concerts. In the end, they were given a perfect opportunity to witness the crumbling of the Nazi regime, from within the protective 'bell jar' it provided, and to take part in the rebuilding efforts that followed.

The documentary includes extensive footage of the orchestra performing, mainly Beethoven and Wagner, including a complete performance of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger, recorded in a German factory in 1942.


Heather said...

Hi Matt. Great post. A book that might interest you is "The Savior" by Eugene Drucker, violinist of the Emerson Quartet. It's a novel based on true stories, about a German violinist who is drafted into service playing a concert series inside various concentration camps as part of an experiment on the power of music, and struggles to reconcile his feelings about music and performing (and personal survival) with his feelings about being part of the Nazi machine.

Matt Heller said...

Thanks, Heather! I'll look for that book, it sounds fascinating.