Wednesday 3 December 2014

Forbidden music: The London Song Festival explores Entartete Kunst

Entartete Kunst, songs by Hollander, Eisler, Weill, Krenek, Schoenberg; Peter Brathwaite, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Rosslyn Hill Chapel
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Nov 27 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Final recital of the festival explores forbidden music in mesmerising fashion

The last night (27 November 2014) of this year's London Song Festival (directed by Nigel Foster, who is also the festival accompanist) was a sly look at the other side of music during war time... the music deemed as degenerate by the Nazi party. Composers, performers and indeed the audiences at the time ran a great personal risk chasing their self expression – a risk which would only intensify as time went on...

But this was not a concert of misery and oppression, nor of the loss associated with English war poets and composers, rather of defiance. Sung by award-winning baritone Peter Brathwaite the songs were interspersed with Nazi propaganda, read from cards which he poignantly let drop to the floor. The sentiments expressed on those cards, especially in contrast to the passion and determination of the music, was deliberately shocking. Behind Brathwaite and Foster were video projections created by James Symonds, with images of composers and artists, and scenes of everyday life in oppressed Germany, that every now and then burned in digital flames erasing the person on screen.

Peter Braithwaite
Peter Braithwaite
The music in tonight's concert was chosen to fit in with the 1938 'Degenerate music exhibition', staged in Dusseldorf and toured around Germany, by Hans Severus Ziegler the then director of the Deutsches National Theatre and a Nazi party official. At this exhibition the public could listen to samples of music considered to be un-German, accompanied by defaced pictures and caricatures of the composers and performers. This included Jewish music, jazz, and the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg. Other composers singled out were Kurt Weill, Ernst Křenek, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, and people deemed 'minor Bolsheviks' such as Franz Schrecker, Alban Berg, and Ernst Toch, as well as the music reformist Leo Kestenberg.

The concert began in cabaret style with 'Tritt mir bloß nich auf die Schuh' (Don't you dare step on my shoes) by Friedrich Holländer (1896-1976), who also wrote is 'Falling in love again' - famously sung by Marlene Dietrich. Written in 1919 this portrait of a cabaret singer showed us a humorous insight into the Berlin scene. It was followed by a more political Holländer song, written in collaboration with writer Kurt Tucholsky about the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin, and 'Berlin im Licht' (Berlin in lights) by Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

These were followed by more Weill, this time with words by Bertholt Brecht, a satire on the oil industry and on a heroic war song where a soldiers funeral procession was turned around in the last two lines with 'Then the riot police came And beat them to a pulp.', and a song by Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) 'Abortion is illegal'. Brathwaite's acting skills took a vivid turn as he played both the nervous mother and the bullying doctor. The first half of the concert finished with the 'demons' of atonality and jazz – Schoenberg's 'Tot' and Holländer's 'Rag'.

The second set began with a protest song that had some members of the audience singing along. 'Solidaritätslied' by Eisler was written in 1929-30 and caught the imagination of depression-era Germany and it became a song of defiance at protests and meetings throughout Europe. Later in the concert another protest song also by Eisler, 'Das Einheitsfrontlied' written in 1934 was performed. This song was written for the First International Worker's Music Olympics' and became an important song for the German labour movement,

The star composer for me was Ernst Křenek (1900-1991). A group of his songs were interleaved by 'The Ballad of Marie Sanders' and 'Do not cry, Marie!' by Eisler. The first few Křenek songs were from 'Fiedellierder'. Written in 1930 they had a lovely light piano accompaniment with lots of active dissonance. The final song was from his jazz opera 'Jonny Spielt Auf' written five years earlier. Although the style was similar to 'Fiedellierder' here the music was harsher – but drifting into tonality and a few bars of 'Swanee River'. This opera has as its central character a black musician and it is from this that Austrian Křenek was pilloried by the Nazis. He left Germany in 1933, one day after Hitler came to power.

After a swift rendition of another Weill/ Brecht partnership 'Moritat vom Mackie Messer' known more commonly here as 'Mack the knife' the concert finished with 'Das Leid von den braunen Inseln' from 'Die Petroleuminseln'. This play by Lion Feuchtwanger was a satire on capitalism, but Feuchtwanger, a Jew and outspoken critic of the Nazi party, was forced to flee Germany, was eventually captured in France but escaped to America. It is a monkey from this play which, by the addition of a Star of David, adorned the poster for the Entertate Kunst Exhibition.

This concert was well thought out and sympathetically performed. Brathwaite was mesmeric to watch and listen to, while Foster as always was the perfect partner – keeping in the background yet supplying the setting for Brathwaite to perform in. The concert was a reminder that the atrocities of war and oppression are not just confined to the battlefield. In the extensive and informative programme notes Foster comments, "I believe we must always be on out guard to prevent leaders and governments of any political persuasion, or indeed any section of society, from hijacking the arts to further their own ends or attempt to use the world's cultural heritage to promote any narrow ideology or philosophy." Serious stuff.

Reviewed by Hilary Glover

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • Aurally and visually arresting: John Adams The Gospel According to the Other Mary - opera review
  • Revitalising an old tradition: New Stabat Mater settings from the Sixteen - CD review
  • An operatic Game of Thrones? Lully's Amadis from Les Talens Lyriques - CD review
  • Speaking & singing: Shadwell Opera explores boundaries between spoken and sung - concert review
  • Virtuoso & Romantic: Academy of St Martin in the Fields plays Howard Blake - concert review
  • Cello with zing: Sonatas by Boccherini and Cirri - CD review
  • Naive charm & delight: Weber's Oberon - opera review
  • American Masters: Anne Akiko Meyers in Bates, Corigliano and Barber - CD review
  • Text-based drama: Handel's Jephtha from The Sixteen - CD review
  • Early baroque polyphony: The Sixteen at Temple Church - concert review
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