Podium: The unfathomable strangeness of music

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The Independent Culture
"I MUST never again listen to Beethoven's Apassionata, because when I do I feel like stroking the heads of children instead of smashing the heads of my enemies." That's a very famous quote by Lenin. It crystallises in one motion of spirit the intimate relations between the musical and the political act.

We have very detailed records of the performances of Wagner in Vienna in the first years of the century. In the queue for performances was the young Hitler. He documents in conversations the decisive, the totally overwhelming impact on him of that music.

It was to decide, he said, his vision. And, very interestingly, he uses Rienzi. And when you go back to Rienzi, that is the subject, of course. So far as I know, it is the time when the cry of "Heil, heil, heil" really enters the ear of Europe. It is in Rienzi that the crowd uses what was, of course, an available means of salute, but in a very new way, which he was to remember. And perhaps two nights later he was in the queue with a bearded gentleman who also tended to take very cheap seats; a journalist, a passionate Wagnerian, for Tannhauser. And that journalist tells us he closed his eyes as the magic of the Tannhouser prelude poured over him and suddenly he knew what was to tbe the purpose of his life, the foundation of the State of Israel.

It is Theodor Herzel listening to Tannauser who conceives of Zionism, very possibly in the same hall, the same night as the partially unemployed, very young Hitler is listening to that music and its narcotic magic. Herzel, Israel. Something in the march perhaps. And in the high tremolo of the strings which is at once technically formidable and so pliable to political imaginings that the very contrary visions are triggered by it, instigated by it.

We are, I think, too close yet to arrive at any clear judgement. It is as understandable, may I please underline, yet trivilaising a response to ban Wagner, as in the case in Israel, or to lampoon him in a bizarrely trashy way in Shostakovich's "15th Symphony", as it is to pronounce his music as beyond any criticism. Our curent anxieties over Heidegger are very very closely analagous. I think we are historically too near certain memories, certain newsreel pictures, to experience the mockery of Mime or the apotheosis of Siegfried, or the orutund chauvinism of Hans Sachs with complete detachment. There are moments at which one is tempted to say, yes, the human spirit has produced little to equal Wagner's creativity, he dominates our world, but please not just now, not just yet. But all he does is to point up the paradox, the unfathomable strangeness of music itself. If you go to the shrine in Jerusalem for the death camps, you can see a photo of an orchestra of Jews playing at the edge of the fire pit as others are driven into it.

A man who knew that photo was the greatest of all modern German poets, Paul Celan. And the poet that wrote in the poem that has become the password to post-war Germany, perhaps to Europe, called the Death Fugue - that is a later title. In Celan's own draft it was the Death Tango. They are playing a tango.

The Nazis made them play tangos so that those going into the fire pits had a dance-like motion. There was also much orchestral music in the death camps. And in his great Debussy series, a series which is still legendary, Walter Geiseking - and I'm told that each note was like a pearl, that no-one has ever played Debussy's Images as did Geiseking - in that hall in Munich one could just hear the cries of those sealed up in the wagons being taken just up the road - it's a few kilometres to Dachau - and I ask naively not why didn't Geiseking say no - I can just begin to grasp that - why didn't the audience say no? But why didn't the music say no? And that's the one to which I have no answer. Inevitably our present inheritance reaches deep into the musical past.

It is this compelled retrospection which motivates and makes so deeply unsettling a passage in the incomplete masterpiece of the most profound, the most important of all twentieth century thinkers on music, Adorno. His whole life he worked on a Beethoven book, he did not live to complete it. Within it we find an analysis of the Beethoven 9th. And next to the phrase in the choral movement: "Umschlungen ihr milionen", which means "you millions wrapped in each other", arms around each other, circumscribed into a single group. Next to it, he simply puts the words Adolf Hitler. That's Adorno, whose love of Beethoven was beyond anything.

Let us close very simply. Music is far too serious to be left to the politicians.