Sunday, July 29, 2007

Book Review: When Great Art Meets Great Evil

Lebrecht Music Library, London--Wilhelm Furtwängler, at the end of a concert in 1939, reaching out to shake hands with Hitler rather than responding with the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

July 29, 2007
When Great Art Meets Great Evil

FOR those who find inspiration and edification in great art, it is always painful to be reminded that artists are not necessarily admirable as people and that art is powerless in the face of great evil. That truth was baldly evident in Nazi Germany and in the way the regime used and abused music and musicians, to say nothing of the way it used and abused human beings of all kinds.

Two new novels touch on these issues in very different ways. In “The Savior” (Simon & Schuster), Eugene Drucker, a violinist in the Emerson String Quartet, creates Gottfried Keller, a violinist made to perform for suffering and often unruly patients in army infirmaries and for doomed inmates in a concentration camp. In “Variations on the Beast” (Dragon Press), Henry Grinberg, a psychoanalyst, posits Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder, a powerful maestro, as a fictional rival of Wilhelm Furtwängler (whose qualms about working under the regime he does not share) and Herbert von Karajan (whose vaulting ambition he does).

Mr. Drucker and Mr. Grinberg recently discussed their books and the issues they raise with James R. Oestreich. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

OESTREICH Gene, give us a sense of what your book is about, how you came to this.

DRUCKER It’s a story that first came to me when I was preparing for the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium about 30 years ago. I played a lot of concerts to prepare myself for any kinds of distractions that might occur during the first two rounds of the competition, in which I knew that the jury was going to be seated directly in front of the stage. I knew that they might be writing comments at a certain point, and I felt that I needed to arm myself with as much experience as possible.

So I arranged a number of concerts in churches and private homes. And I enrolled in an organization called Hospital Audiences, which sent young performers out to hospitals, drug rehabilitation wards, veterans’ hospitals, alcoholics’ wards. And I got experience playing for people from all different strata socioeconomically, a lot of different ethnic backgrounds. And I had some distracting experiences while I was doing that.

In an alcoholics’ ward in the Bronx, when I was unable to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on request, which is what they seemed to think a violinist should be able to do, they were really ticked off at me. And one woman turned her chair around and faced the wall the whole time I was playing. I could just feel a lot of bad will coming from some of the people as I was playing. I don’t mean to characterize all of the hospital performances like that. Some of the people were very attentive.

So I guess all of these observations were in the back of my mind as I went through the competition. I made it to the finals, and I was preparing for my New York debut recital later that year.

But I knew that I wanted to write something. I thought there was some material here about the relationship between a performer and his audiences. And perhaps it would be interesting to push it to the most extreme possible circumstances to see what effect that would have on the performer, and if music would have a different effect from usual on audiences in extreme situations as well. And somehow the idea of basing a story in Nazi Germany, in which a great deal of the action would take place in a concentration camp, came into my mind.

So I imagined the encounter between the violinist and his audience as a series of performances as part of an experiment. I never intended this to be a completely realistic story. The amount of change that occurs within three or four days in the camp, both in the violinist and in the inmates, is perhaps more metaphorical than intended to be accepted as something that could really happen in such a short span of time.

OESTREICH Your father’s experiences are also reflected.

DRUCKER Absolutely. But those I added somewhat later, as I was trying to flesh out the idea and add some subplots, which involve flashbacks to the period from 1933 to ’35. My father told me a great deal about his experiences as a Jew in Germany. When he graduated from the Hochschule in Cologne, he was supposed to play the Brahms Violin Concerto with the school orchestra. Then one day, after a Nazi administrative director had been appointed, he found his name crossed off the program posted on the bulletin board and went and told his teacher, Bram Eldering, one of the most revered violin teachers in Germany.

Eldering went with my father to the director’s office and said, “If Drucker can’t play the Brahms concerto, I will resign.” And it was early enough in the Third Reich that that kind of thing was not dangerous to do. So they made a compromise: My father was allowed to play the first movement of the concerto. He came out onstage and saw the first three rows of the audience lined with brownshirts. So I can imagine that the vibes he was getting from the audience were a lot more negative than the ones I was getting when I couldn’t play “Flight of the Bumblebee” in the alcoholics’ ward.

OESTREICH I started with Gene because Henry was saying the other day that he intended to write much the same kind of novel, but it went in a different direction once he started writing. Gene’s antihero is just somewhat uncomprehending, it seems to me.

DRUCKER Well, he tends to be naïve. But I tried hard not to make him too naïve, you know. I needed him to be believable.

OESTREICH But Henry’s antihero is grasping and cynical and altogether unpleasant.

GRINBERG He’s altogether unpleasant. But in a similarly — I shouldn’t say similarly, but in a strikingly naïve way. What characterizes him is that he’s an arrant opportunist. And he takes advantage, not too much pleasure, in whatever comes his way. And what doesn’t destroy him permits him to survive.

Can I tell a little about myself?

I was born in London of Eastern European Jewish parents in 1930 and spent the war years there, which did much to shape me. Thank God the British were never occupied by the Germans. But they were only 21 miles away across the channel. And it was hairy.

So I formed an absorption with the war, the events of the war. I didn’t know much about it while it was going on, but I’ve permitted myself to be consumed by histories, biographies, accounts, memoirs and movies of all kinds.

And this has existed on an equal plane with my passion for music, which is also all-consuming. My mother thought I had a good singing voice when I was a small child. And she thought if I only learned to play the piano, I could make myself a good living playing in cabarets. I don’t know why this idea seized her, but I’ve always been absorbed by music. So I was driven by these dual passions: music and the war.

And it soon occurred to me — when I was big, when I was able to sort my thoughts out — that, my God, a lot of the famous, the notable, the moving, the magnificent composers in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier were Germans. And I tried to understand, how did such a nation turn out to be so bestial and cruel, so indifferent to the suffering of others? And I have no explanation for it.

As a practicing psychoanalyst, I can see individual expressions of rage and their causes and their so-called justifications. But for a whole nation to be consumed, to be seduced by an overwhelming idea — well, there are rationalizations, I guess, but not explanations. There’s no forgiveness for this. And I tried to put together a story of a person who was a participant and a causer of these kinds of things. At first I had it in mind to write a book something like Gene’s, from the point of view of a horrified observer. But I thought that it had been done. I’d read everything. What more could be said?

So I sort of poured my feelings of contempt and rage into the character I was devising. And I have to admit, after having been psychoanalyzed myself in preparation for the training, that something of Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder exists in me. I shudder to think that this may be so, but I have to accept the possibility. Murderous thoughts may have occurred to me, but, thank God, I’ve never killed anyone. Yet. So I framed a story from his young childhood — he is a winning child, a very attractive child — through his progressive deterioration as a contemptible character become more and more despicable.

OESTREICH Both of you, I’m sure, have thought of the larger issues involved in this. It’s almost a cliché to say that great art can’t coexist with cruelty and inhumanity. But, of course, it does. What do you make of those larger issues?

DRUCKER Great art is no protection against cruelty, bestiality. I think that both of our books show that. I do think there’s some possibility, if not for redemption, at least for some kind of solace in great art.

I’m thinking of Adorno’s famous phrase that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry. But the fact is that of course the world picks itself up — never fully recovering from the wounds, but the world picks itself up and goes on with its business in every sense of the word.

Maybe humanity saw in the Second World War, on a larger scale than ever before, the depths of depravity to which human nature could sink. And maybe it was more curious than ever that you could have people so involved with great art and willingly consenting to and ordering horrible mass executions to take place. But the fact is that art has continued. And if art could go forward, that means that people could draw some comfort from it.

And you could also say there’s a possibility for greater humanity through art than if you just let yourself be totally pulled down by the horrible things that have happened in the 20th century and that are now happening in various parts of the world. If you just let yourself get pulled down by it, then there’s even less hope for humanity.

GRINBERG One of the things that intrigues me is that art is devised by individual human beings. National policies or regional policies are products of organizations — governments, communities — for good or ill. And great artists themselves can be, as we say in psychoanalysis, compartmentalized: capable of the most magnificent instincts and thoughts and products, and at the same time capable of the most sordid conduct. So it’s a constant puzzle. And I draw from this no greater or more profound observation than that we’re all capable of it. What prevents us from doing the worst? Or what prevents us from doing our best? Or what doesn’t spur us on to do our best? Circumstance? National pride? Countless things. We all have to watch ourselves.

OESTREICH Is there any lasting effect on the music itself?

DRUCKER I think that classical music may have lost some of its status, position, in society for various reasons. And the main one, in my mind, is that popular culture has diverged, has gone much farther away from classical music, as far as I can tell, than it was 60 or 80 years ago. Whether that has anything to do with the Second World War, I’m not sure. I do know, from watching American movies from the 1940s and ’50s, that classical music was much more part of the general culture then than it is now. I can think of specific examples where people just let casual remarks drop, even if the movie’s not really about music, when you realize: “Oh, these people knew about Jascha Heifetz. They knew about Brahms’s Second Symphony.”

Usually nowadays when there’s a reference to classical music, I find it very stereotyped. It’s meant to almost caricature the way classical musicians might seem. And I don’t know if that has anything to do with what happened in the Second World War. I would tend to doubt it.

OESTREICH Are there any other thoughts on any of these issues?

GRINBERG I took great pains in trying to sketch out and to develop a character unable to form an independent conviction: political, social, moral. Because I don’t think the bulk of the German nation was psychopathic. But they, in the popular phrase, went along. And that’s a great bafflement to me: Why do people go along? And if I can refer to the current political situation, lots of people simply, to my mind, just go along for the sake of good old slogans, good old traditions and a blind belief that if we do it, it’s O.K.

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