Q&A with Kyle Frackman and Larson Powell: Classical Music & the GDR

CAMDEN HOUSE RUNDSCHAU Issue III, Spring 2015people_frackman_GDR-music_book_2015
Production and Reception
Edited by Kyle Frackman and Larson Powell

A Q&A with Kyle Frackman and Larson Powell, editors

Q: What distinguishes your book from other recent work on East German culture?
A: A lot of  English language work on the GDR has been inspired by cultural studies, which has drawn attention to neglected material—aspects of  everyday life, consumer culture, and so on—in interesting ways. Yet this approach has tended to favor popular over classical music—a bias that is perhaps understandable in light of the GDR state’s own official fostering of its own classical music repertoire, but which leaves unexamined the interesting and still underappreciated contributions of GDR composers to modern classical music. Our book, however, has also learned from cultural studies to put classical music in a broader context, rather than simply taking its claims at face value.

Q: How would you illustrate this approach?
A: We might take a passage from a very famous DEFA film, The Legend of Paul and Paula (1973), as an example. In one scene, Paul and Paula go to an outdoor concert to hear a performance of  the Beethoven Violin Concerto. During the piece, Paula starts to have erotic fantasies about Paul, which are in ironic contrast with the normal sublimated concentration required of a classical concertgoer. Paul, unlike Paula, is able to concentrate on the music and finds Paula’s attentions irritating; the scene is presented in an ironic and humorous fashion, no doubt intended as a foil to the film’s central soundtrack by the East German rock group Die Puhdys, which directly calls for sexual action. But one could also see this scene as emblematic for how the culture of  classical music itself  was changing after 1945, offering not only the great German canon of  classical and romantic composers, but also multimedia events, mixtures of classical and modern elements (such as Reiner Bredemeyer’s 1984 recomposing of the texts for Schubert’s Die Winterreise), electronic music, and theater pieces. A composer like Paul Dessau had a very free relation to the classical canon and recomposed work by Beethoven and Mozart (as the chapter by Matthias Tischer in our book shows). Thus the GDR was arguably refunctioning the very concept of “classical music” in ways cognate to what was going on in the West. Paul and Paula indirectly recognizes this phenomenon—as does also the conclusion of Horst Seemann’s Beethoven film of  1976, in which the famous composer, in nineteenth-century attire, walks through the streets of  East Berlin, surrounded by Trabis and modern architecture.

Q: You’re implying that the real musical practice of GDR classical composers went beyond merely “preserving the great bourgeois inheritance,” which was the official line.

A: Precisely! We would in fact argue that one of  the central tensions for all GDR composers was between the inherited idea of  artistic autonomy—an idea already evident in the late eighteenth century, in Kant’s aesthetics—and a political notion of  “functional music” rooted in the culture of the Weimar left. Composers like Hanns Eisler wanted, on the one hand, not to fall below the level of sophistication they found in modernist composers like Schoenberg, but on the other, to be more accessible to the people of the GDR. It may have been an impossible balancing act, but it is fascinating to see how it played out in composers’ lives and works. You might say that GDR classical music was pulled between the two different aesthetics of  Schoenberg (autonomy) and Hindemith (Gebrauchsmusik or “music for use”).

Q: The problem of autonomy versus social embedding is familiar from post-1945 modernism in the West as well—as in the writings of Theodor Adorno.

A: Yes, but the solutions found by GDR composers were different from those of Western European and American modernists. A composer like Mahler, for instance, meant something different for GDR listeners (as one of our chapters discusses). Adorno once famously quipped that if the term “socialist realism” meant anything, it should be applied to Mahler, which hints at this problem. Mahler was the ancestor of both Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and also of Shostakovich, whose symphonies were much admired in the GDR. What Adorno was suggesting was that modernism was not only not reducible to the abstract formalism of the post-Webernists after 1945, but also had a socially critical component. GDR composers had not forgotten this. The Western composers closest to them might be Karl Amadeus Hartmann (whose work is now being re-evaluated) or Boris Blacher, who collaborated with GDR composers Rudolf Wagner-Regeny and Dessau on the collective composition Jüdische Chronik in 1960—a year before the Berlin Wall was built. These kinds of comparisons and relations have long been blocked out by the Cold War and need fresh consideration.

Q: Is your book solely about composers in the GDR?

A: Not only. We’re also interested in things like operatic productions and staging, or reception history—how were Wagner or Mahler received in the GDR, how did they fit into the socialist canon? How were classic operas like Mozart’s staged by directors like Ruth Berghaus? Or what sorts of informal networks existed to support modern classical music in the GDR? Literary scholarship has recognized the importance of  small groupings for writers—think of  the Prenzlauer Berg group of poets—and it’s only logical that composers should have banded together in similar ways, whether to share new ideas or LPs and CDs brought back from trips to the West, or to collaborate on festivals. Researching this kind of topic requires doing something like ethnographic field work or oral history research; you can read some preliminary findings about this in our first chapter. At times some of  the most interesting work was being done far from the capital, protected by a kind of deliberate provincialism.

Q: Did you have a certain audience in mind for the book? Who might find it useful?

A: We believe that a diverse audience will find the book useful for both research and teaching. The contributors come from a variety of  disciplines, from musicology to history to German studies and beyond. Their accessible essays approach the overarching topic of  classical music in the GDR from these different perspectives and offer much-needed contextual background. Not only does the book provide intriguing examinations of the subject, but we also hope it will encourage more scholarly publication in this area.

(Boyell & Brewer)

Read the book description here.