Musica non grata in the German opera magazine Orpheus

The November issue of the German magazine not only about the opera Orpheus presents the project Musica non grata.
The author of the article is Florian Maier. We have translated the article for you. We wish you a nice reading.

Orpheus, November / December 2020
And yet it resounds ...

With the large-scale Musica non grata project, the Prague opera houses have been reviving a chapter in the history of the time and the music that the Nazi regime labelled as “degenerate”, thus concurrently building a memorial for the present and future alike. Florian Maier

Man creates it, lives with it and from it. Man destroys it. Music has always worked in society as an explosive and subversive expressive force, owing precisely to which it has infuriated authoritarian powers. The traditional reaction is censorship. Whereas in earlier times performances of music were banned or works had to be remade to the point of unrecognizability, during the period of National Socialism the stigma of the undesirable also led to the darkest chapter of humankind within music history. The “non-Aryan” composers and those who were at odds with the ideology of the Nazi dictatorship for other reasons were brutally muted. Many lost their lives in concentration camps, others fell silent in exile or sought safety in an inconspicuous existence. A forcible incision with consequences that are still perceptible today. The natural perpetuation of musical development was severed all at once, the artistic ideas of an entire generation were quashed under the banner of cultural racism and shut out from the creative atmosphere of their time as “degenerate”. As a result, there emerged blind spots in music history, which would not be filled in for many years to come.

In the shadow of the Holocaust

Fortunately, the composers ostracised at the time have since experienced belated acknowledgement in many places – and since this year within an extraordinary major project pursued by Prague opera houses. Initiated by Per Boye Hansen, who since 2019 has held the post of artistic director of the National Theatre Opera and the State Opera, this August saw the launch of the Musica non grata cycle, which will stretch over four years. Three quarters of a century after the end of WWII, it has linked up to Prague’s illustrious pre-1938 musical tradition. The project lets the past speak eloquently, as up until the outbreak of the war Prague was viewed as a hub of the Central European opera scene. For centuries, the “Golden City” on the Vltava was a place where three cultures – Czech, German and Jewish – mingled and coexisted, a melting pot providing a fertile ground for conductors to work together productively, amidst a mutually stimulating competitive environment. The stylistic pluralism predominant in the early 20th century did the rest, and thus Prague became a veritable hothouse for creative cosmopolitans, magically attracting sharp minds of the time. Between 1911 and 1927, the opera company of the Neues deutsches Theater (today’s State Opera) was helmed by Alexander Zemlinsky, who maintained close contacts with Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schreker and Arnold Schönberg, to name but a few.

On 15 March 1939, the Nazi forces marched into the Czechoslovak capital. The occupation authorities went on to wantonly wreck the treasures of the abundant and diverse artistic creation, which resulted in disastrous irredeemable cultural losses. Not even dead composers, such as Alban Berg, were spared. Works by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Gustav Mahler, figures who had significantly influenced the development of European music, fell victim to the racist madness too. Can we sense in the music dating from that era an impending catastrophe, and can the years preceding WWII be characterised as a dance on a volcano? Per Boye Hansen refers to the composers of “degenerate music” as “children of their time, each with a specific background and sources”. Therefore, as he points out, they cannot be collectively and automatically considered a musical seismograph with a kindred musical idiom, a barometer of the atmosphere of an imminent disaster. “The time was not gloomy, oppressive, late-Romantic, merely linked with dark, complex issues of humankind. It was also a time of entertainment, a time of many joys, with theatre thriving – and Zemlinsky profiled himself in this area adroitly. It is important that we don’t see these years only in the shadow of the Holocaust and the related colossal tragedy, we should comprehend and rediscover this time in all its facets and contrasts.”

Living history

To carry out the project, Hansen and his team have available three Prague opera houses: the State Opera, the centre of the Jewish-German interwar culture; the National Theatre on the bank of the river Vltava; and the Estates Theatre, which went down in history as the venue of the world premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The three historical buildings host the events of the Musica non grata cycle, featuring a refined and challenging programme. Besides staged opera productions, symphony and chamber music concerts and song recitals, it encompasses symposia and research projects focusing on the subject of “degenerate music”, whose aim it is to provide new food for thought for musicologists and music lovers.

Although World War II eventually ended, these themes would remain overlooked for a long time. The “Golden City” was not what it used to be. A large proportion of the Prague Jewish population had been “eradicated”, the Germans expelled, while the Czechs were traumatised – and soon, as citizens of a satellite state of the Soviet Union, they were engulfed by another 20th-century totalitarian regime and disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. The erstwhile “hub of the Central European opera scene” would be muted for decades. “Bringing the impulses back to life took a long time. The Russian government strove to cover up and conceal the German tradition,” Hansen explains. “What’s more, the aura of the late-Romantic composers was no longer ‘comme il faut’, with the 1950s and 1960s modernists even perceiving it as reactionary and outmoded.”

A great project with a symbolic nature

Hansen is not the first to have set the objective of bringing Prague’s musical past back to the public consciousness. In the wake of the Velvet Revolution, the 1990s saw attempts at making amends with music by Jewish composers, particularly Hans Krása and Pavel Haas. Yet, 75 years after the end of WWII, it is surely not by chance that the current cycle has been promoted and generously funded by the Czech government and the German foreign ministry alike. Virtually the whole Czech operatic landscape is participating in the coproduction of the four-year artistic project, including the Eternal Hope festival, dedicated to the work of the Theresienstadt composers. A specific and highly intriguing item is the theme “Music from a female hand”, as the 1920s and early 1930s was the time of emancipation of female composers such as Vítězslava Kaprálová and Geraldine Mucha. These are signals of a symbolic nature, reaching far beyond Prague. All the performances and concerts to be given within the Musica non grata cycle will be streamed, while some of them will also be available on DVD, CD and in online archives.

Loosely paraphrasing the legendary sentence “Yet it moves” reputedly uttered by Galileo Galilei, Per Boye Hansen and his team furnished the cycle with the telling subtitle “… and yet it resounds”, entirely in the sense of belated justice for many wrongfully excluded, persecuted, expelled and murdered artists. Their music lives on, whereas dictators – supposedly powerful – were overwhelmed by their own powerlessness. But Musica non grata is also a project that, with regard to the current global political upheaval and repression against artistic independence and freedom, could not be more up-to-date. And, by giving appreciation to the 20th-century musical creativity, it is a vital memorial for the future of our society, a “homage to the art that cannot be silenced”. Let us hope that the pandemic will not thwart this ambitious project.

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