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Jewish World Review
April 19, 2007
/ 1 Iyar 5767
How the pernicious idea that art can be detached from the circumstances of its creation, and that war crimes can be washed away in a haze of perfect beauty and commercial success, gained global acceptance
By Norman Lebrecht
Of all the wonders of Germany's post-war economic miracle, none outshines the country's rapid transformation from cultural outcast to musical powerhouse. In 1945, Germany lay in ruins and many of its artists were forbidden to perform under suspicion of Nazism. Fifteen years later, Berlin was once again the world's musical capital, its chief conductor was an unregenerate ex-Nazi and Deutsche Grammophon ruled the air waves as the most prestigious and exquisite label of classical recording.
The story of this remarkable metamorphosis, told in my new book, "The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made", is a mirror image of the compromise on which the modern German state is founded, a no-questions-asked alliance between former war criminals and their very recent victims. It is an untold story, and one which both sides prefer to leave uncovered. It also tells us a great deal more than we commonly care to know about the compromises that intelligent human beings are prepared to make in the service of art.
At the end of the war, the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG) had been bombed out of production and fallen into the ownership of the Siemens electronics firm, specifically as the plaything of Ernst von Siemens, a clubfooted member of the ruling family and a passionate concertgoer. Siemens built installations at some of the worst concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, and was a pioneer in the exploitation of slave labour. Ernst von Siemens was a director of the company, present at board meetings where the use of slave labour was planned and discussed. The company did not accept any liability for enslavement and mass murder in his lifetime and only began to consider compensation in 1988, after threats of a US boycott.
Ernst von Siemens, as soon as the war ended, set about restoring his nation's cultural supremacy. He ordered a series of Archiv recordings to be made in surviving Baroque churches and set about looking for an associate who would grant respectability to his enterprise. Exactly when he met Elsa Schiller is unrecorded, but it was almost certainly in his Berlin mansion which had been turned by the Americans into a radio station, RIAS, and where Ernst would customarily welcome eminent performers as if they were his personal guests.
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Elsa Schiller was music director of RIAS. Born in Vienna and educated in Budapest where she became a professor at the Liszt Academy, she had happily conducted a chamber orchestra in pre-Hitler Berlin until the racial and sexual laws rendered her unemployable. As a Jew and a lesbian, Elsa lived under a double cloud, moving from one lover's apartment to another until, in 1943, she gave herself up to the Gestapo in fear of jeopardising he friends. She spent the next two years in Theresienstadt, the 'model' camp, narrowly avoiding deportation to Auschwitz when the camp's cultural section was liquidated in October 1944. At the end of the war, she crawled home to Berlin where a friendly critic landed her a job at RIAS.
Like many who had seen their lives put on hold during the Thousand Year Reich, Elsa was hungry for achievement. She quickly improved the radio orchestra and the city opera by importing the Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay, whom she also signed to Siemens' record label. In 1950 sahe became programme director of Deutsche Grammophon, using her impeccable credential to attract western and Jewish artists to its list, among them the British-based Amadeus Quartet. 'She was a very shrewd Jewish lady,' says Martin Lovett, its cellist. 'I was a bit uncomfortable recording for the Germans, but Sigi (Nissel)'s father had been in Dachau. Who was I to object?'
Lorin Maazel, an American Jew, was Fricsay's successor at the RIAS orchestra and Berlin opera. David Oistrakh, Igor Markevitch an Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were among her other stars. None of these, however, projected the leadership quality that Schiller was seeking. The man she needed was Herbert von Karajan, an Austrian who joined the Nazi party twice in 1933 in an excess of enthusiasm and who, since the war, had presided over London's Philharmonia Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic and all non-Italian operas at La Scala, Milan. Karajan, the coming man, never renounced his Nazism. Elsa Schiller, by this time, was not bothered.
In 1959, she signed Karajan for Deutsche Grammophon, an act that turned both maestro and label into world beaters. A cycle of the Beethoven symphonies that they made together in 1962 saw Karajan acclaimed as 'the greatest living exponent of the art of training an orchestra.' The conductor announced his 'deepest artistic attachment' to Elsa Schiller, and Ernst von Siemens in the background rubbed his hands with delight at their triumph and stumped up the finance for further expansion.
Few questioned the motives of this unholy trinity. One who did, the British producer John Culshaw, opined (privately at the time) that the good-looking Karajan was being positioned as a public idol to fill 'the void left by the death of Hitler in that part of the German psyche that craves a leader.'
Elsa Schiller retired soon after in her late 60s and faded from the scene. Karajan dominated musical affairs the world over through his perch at Deutsche Grammophon until his death in 1989; Ernst von Siemens died a few months later. Between them, the three conspirators promoted a global acceptance of the pernicious idea that art can be detached from the circumstances of its creation, and that war crimes can be washed away in a haze of perfect beauty and commercial success.
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JWR contributor Norman Lebrecht, one of the most widely-read modern commentators on music, culture and politics, is Assistant Editor of London's Evening Standard and presenter of lebrecht.live on BBC Radio 3. He has written ten books about music, which have been translated into 13 languages. They include, his latest, "Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made" and the international best-sellers "The Maestro Myth" and "When the Music Stops". His website is NormanLebrecht.com.
© 2007, Norman Lebrecht