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about to listen to …

16th December 2003 permanent link

A performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica”, by Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1944. There are hundreds of recordings of the Eroica, dozens of which are probably excellent; but this is supposed to be one of the handful of truly great ones according to well-informed opinion on I’m feeling distinctly queasy, though, about listening to and possibly enjoying a work of art produced under the Third Reich.

Why? I have no qualms about listening to Soviet music, Shostakovich for example. Yet Stalin was just as much of a monster as Hitler and the Soviet Union in the 1930s was at least as much of a horror as the Third Reich. So why does art produced under Stalin not make me queasy whereas art produced under Hitler does? Do I think the Soviet Union was in some ways a lesser evil than Nazi Germany? There’s not much to choose in terms of crude bodycount. But I still think it’s a good thing that the most important war memorial I’ve ever seen is two Soviet tanks in front of the Brandenburg Gate and not two panzers in Red Square; the people of Russia and Eastern Europe would have had an even worse time in the last fifty years if it had been the other way round. I think there also is a sense in which Hitler was something the German people did – they elected him and were enthusiastic about him for quite a while – whereas Stalin was something that happened to the Russians – the Bolsheviks came to power in a wartime military coup that their brilliant propaganda machine subsequently dressed up as a popular revolution.

And Shostakovich was always in and out of trouble with Stalin, whereas Furtwängler – although probablydefinitely not a Nazi himself – was idolized and treated as a cultural treasure by them.

In the Beethoven-loving and left wing household I grew up, Otto Klemperer – a German Jewish refugee from the Nazis - was held up as the ultimate Beethoven conductor. Furtwängler – widely regarded outside our house, I know now, as possibly the greatest Beethoven conductor of the recorded era – was never mentioned. I’m getting over this slowly: I’ve had a 1950s recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by him for a couple of years, although I don’t much like the 9th and don’t listen to it very often. This will be the first time I’ve ever listened to any of his wartime recordings. Can there possibly be any ethical difference, I wonder, between listening to the same piece of music, conducted by the same conductor with an orchestra with probably 90% of the same musicians, because one was recorded ten years later under a different government?

Something else odd that occurs to me is that Nazi Germany may have been capable of producing excellent performances of old German art, but it’s impossible to imagine it ever producing anything new and worthwhile. Whereas quite a bit of worthwhile art was produced in Soviet Russia. Why?

For more thoughts around this subject, see Brian Micklethwait’s musings on the death of Leni Riefenstahl, and his excellent post on “what Hitler did to classical music by loving it”.

At the risk of sounding trivial after talking about great and portentous things: I got this version of the Eroica from emusic, so I will also be interested to see whether it’s actually worth listening to this kind of music on mp3, or if it’s just a way to find out if the cd is worth buying.

From worrying about writing trivia, to why is creativity possible under some forms of tyranny but not others, in barely over a week. Could this be a world record?

UPDATE. I listened to it, and oh my god it’s superb. The best performance I’ve ever heard, I think. I certainly prefer it to Klemperer, my previous favourite. Sound quality isn’t bad either, for an mp3 of a 1940s mono recording (nobody ever said the Third Reich didn’t have good engineers). The highlights of the horns are blown out, but I don’t know enough about these things to know whether the original recording is to blame for that or the mp3 compression. Maybe I’ll buy the cd to find out.

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