Music of the Weimar Republic: a silenced archetype

Dr Peter Tregear

Dr Peter Tregear

By Dr Peter Tregear

Political crises.  Economic turmoil.  Moral confusion. Well we might describe our own times in such terms, but this is also how we have typically imagined the Weimar Republic, that period of government in modern Germany that encompassed the end of the First World War to the rise of the Third Reich. This is the world we have come to know from the musical and film Cabaret, but such a representation does not reflect the extraordinary range of creative activity that flourished at this time, nor its continuing relevance to our own.

The cultural windfall of the Weimar Republic is as much sonic as visual, theatrical and literary. This should not come as a surprise to us, given that of all the art forms, music was especially important to German culture. Composers in the 1920s were, indeed, quick to exploit music’s privileged status to explore, in many of the same ways that visual artists, filmmakers and authors, were doing, the pressing social issues of the day, and with a similarly striking originality.

Compared to fine art, though, our historical awareness of the music of the Weimar period is impoverished. And make no mistake, it is our loss as much as Europe’s. Weimar Germany was, arguably, the last great experimental laboratory for music in which the ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ truly intermingled. The result was a musical culture of extraordinary ambition and depth. We too easily forget, for instance that works like Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, had genuine mass appeal as well as being challenging both musically and politically. And we have certainly forgotten that these works were more the rule than the exception; there are many more like them that are never heard today.

While images and words do not easily lose their potency, music is much more at risk of falling outside of our consciousness. Even after the advent of high-fidelity recordings in the 1950s, music still required an advocate prepared to turn a score back into something that could be experienced as living heritage. And Weimar by and large lost its advocates after 1933.

The immediate cause is as obvious as it is grim. After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany such music, and the musicians who created and performed it, were systematically suppressed. The cultural loss that accompanied the political and humanitarian catastrophe of the Nazi era was profound, and of all the art forms, music arguably suffered more than most.

From the perspective of today, we can also recognise the terrible irony in the fact that, in the years that followed World War Two, a new generation of ultra-modernist ‘classical’ composers reacted to the barbarity of the war years by promoting a musical ‘year zero’ from 1946. Thus, they unwittingly continued in the Nazi’s path.

If Weimar culture had preceded Nazism, the logic went, there must be a causal connection between that culture and what followed, and thus we should, if not suppress it, at least forget it. Thus, while many of the Weimar-era musicians who escaped into exile went on to make substantial contributions to the musical life of their adoptive countries, their own musical past was largely struck from the historical record. 

There are, nevertheless, many direct and indirect traces of this musical culture to be found in Australia and elsewhere, as indeed no less a figure as Barry Humphries has been frequently at pains to point out. (The son of one of the greatest operatic composers of the Weimar age, for instance, Franz Schreker, settled in Melbourne). Overall, however, we lost the influence of a musical culture that, briefly, seemed to presage our own, but with a more robust idealism and, arguably, critical acuity.

Certainly classical music has never regained anything like the intensity of engagement with the listening habits and cultural realities of the age that we can hear in the music of the Weimar era.

Of course it is true, too, that after 1945, American music, above all rock and roll and its successor styles, replaced the music of old Europe. But maybe the lonely fate of modern classical music is also because history denied us, all of us, an opportunity to build upon a tradition that, for a brief moment, seemed to demonstrate that a critically involved popular musical culture, combining mass accessibility with aesthetic integrity, was in fact possible in our time.

The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910–1937 is a major exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery of Victoria (and which previously was seen at the Art Gallery of NSW).

Performance: Music from Weimar Germany

The Mad Square.  A musical companion to this exhibition which explores the extraordinary breadth and depth of this last great age of music. Join Ensemble Liaison and friends for rare and Australian premiere performances including Franz Schreker's Der Wind and Ernst Krenek's Die Nachtigall. Supported by the Jewish Music Institute (SOAS University of London), International Centre for Suppressed Music, Monash University.

The performance will take place on Sunday 26 February at 2pm, National Gallery of Victoria, St Kilda Rd, Melbourne. Entry is free.

Dr Peter Tregear is the Director of the Monash Academy of Performing Arts (MAPA) at Monash University.