11 February 2008

Music and the damage done

I watched the movie "The Lives of Others" last night, and it was one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. The story, for those of you who might not know, is set in 1984 East Berlin. A secret police investigation of an artist and his girlfriend becomes the obsession of the man chosen to watch them and record their movements. A devoted policeman at the beginning of the movie, he changes over the course of the film when he begins to empathize with the couple he is assigned to spy on.
One of the best parts of the movie comes when the artist plays something on his piano and remarks to his girlfriend and Lenin once said something along the lines of "if I listened to [a particular Beethoven piece], I would never be able to finish the Revolution." The artist, musing over this quote, wonders how anyone who felt or truly heard music that deeply could be evil. Unfortunately, I know a prime example of a person who proves this wrong: Adolf Hitler.
I've read many books on the man. I will make this full disclosure: although I have a historical interest in Nazi Germany, I in no way agree with the tenets of that party or the policies they promoted. My interest is simply about trying to understand the impetus for the greatest man-made catastrophe in history
When Hitler was a young artist living in Vienna, he spent a lot of time in the city's various opera houses. He fell in love with Wagner, and once said that "one had to understand Wagner to understand National Socialism." I've been listening to Wagner for years, and, as is the case with that particular brand of National Socialism, am no closer to understanding it. It's simply over my head. But the music speaks to me. For some reason, Wagner can capture the amazing highs and dismal lows of the human experience in musical set pieces that can be sweepingly grand one moment and achingly dark the next. In short, I am familiar with many composers - but none seem to have the brute power of Wagner (the only ones that come close are Beethoven and Holst).
Hitler understood music - and felt it deeply. Say what you want about the man, but he carried that love with him until the day he put a bullet in his brain in April 1945. For some reason, Hitler banned the playing of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 "The Romantic," issuing a decree that it would not be played until the end was near. When they played it in early 1945, rumor has it that Hitler Youth handed out cyanide capsules in the lobby of the concert hall (I've found no concrete confirmation of this). I'm familiar with Bruckner's 4th, and it's a beautiful piece of music. However, with all tat had been built up around it, it seems ironic that Hitler would have banned it because there is no real connection with world events with it. It's not sad, and it does not mourn. It's actually quite the opposite - the piece is brimming with confidence.
So, I will have to disagree with the quote about feeling music deeply and not being evil. Hitler felt music deeper than probably anything else in his life – and, as the trail of 60 million dead would indicate, he was about as evil as people get.

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