Reorchestrating Germany's Culture: Music after World War II

By Beal, Amy C. | Humanities, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview

Reorchestrating Germany's Culture: Music after World War II

Beal, Amy C., Humanities

Though the final months of of World War II had been catastrophic for Germany's, cultural infrastructure, a lively new music community emerged during the Allied occupation. In the American zone, music became an important part of reconstruction efforts.

"One of the miracles of this period was that, despite all of the unfortunate circumstances in the bombed-out cities, attempts were made to continue cultivating culture even while most concert halls, theaters, and cinemas were destroyed," wrote Erich Hartmann, a double bassist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in mid-1945. "One didn't just think of making money, rather that life should just go on."

Firsthand descriptions of Germany after the surrender emphasize that culture was essential for spiritual survival, possibly more crucial than the need for food, water, and coal.

Appealing to an American audience in Modern Music in January 1946, another eyewitness named Arno Huth wrote that artistic life had been paralyzed long before the end of the war, but had been boosted rapidly with the help of the western Allies. "After the surrender," Huth continued, "hardly any opera groups or complete orchestras were left, nor were many theatres and concert halls usable because heavy bombings during the last months of the war had destroyed or badly damaged most buildings of any size. In spite of this, artistic life has picked up rapidly, thanks chiefly to aid from the allied occupation forces. In several large cities, symphony orchestras and opera companies now give performances. . . . The radio stations of the military governments have become artistic centers, especially in the American zone."

By early 1947. U.S. military documents boasted that "in contrast with the eleven orchestras permitted by Goebbels in the whole of Germany between the years 1943 and 1945, 110 U.S. licensed orchestras, opera companies, concert agencies and producers of musical performances are working now alone in the U.S. Zone of Germany and in the U.S. sector of Berlin." Efforts to promote American music in the midst of the burned and bruised city met with guarded enthusiasm.

Although the war nearly destroyed Berlin and the first postwar winters were notoriously harsh, by the late 1940s cultural life flourished. The city hosted more than 120 premieres between June and December 1945. By early 1946, the city boasted nearly two hundred stages and halls used for performances. And while Berlin's facade still displayed a mountain of rock and ash, by June 1949 the American sector of West Berlin maintained seventy-six movie theaters, fifty-six licensed publishers, two daily newspapers (with a circulation of 212.000 readers), two U.S. "information centers," and one radio station. During the initial reconstruction, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's early postwar concerts gave Germans a chance to hear American music again.

In May 1945, some thirty members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were dead, scores had been destroyed, and many of the musicians' instruments had been confiscated by the Soviet Army for their own military bands. After receiving authorization from the local Russian commander and district mayor on the seventeenth of May, the first orchestral rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic took place in the still-intact city hall of the district of Wilmersdorf just thirteen days after the surrender was signed. According to the orchestra's bassist Hartmann, the musicians assembled for an organizational meeting at the Gasteiner School in Wilmersdorf five days after the official end of the war. Because of the decrepit state of public transportation at the time, Hartmann had to transport his bass fiddle to the rehearsal in a borrowed baby carnage. The Soviet authorities issued musicians a certificate that allowed them to pass through checkpoints and to travel by bicycle to rehearsals with their instruments. During the first weeks of rehearsals, the entire orchestra was provided a threecourse meal daily; many of them were weak, undernourished, or ill after years of war. …

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