Beethoven in the Bunker Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Apr 11, 2023

272 pp


List Price US: $14.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-330-3


List Price US: $25.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-329-7

Trim Size: 5.82 x 8.55 x 0.98 in.

Beethoven in the Bunker

Musicians Under the Nazi Regime

by Fred Brouwers Translated by Eileen J. Stevens


Music in the Bunker

In the late 1960s, including that magical year of 1968, I was a student of Germanic languages at the university in Leuven, the city where I was born. Student protests were raining down in Paris; in Leuven, there was a slight drizzle. As students, we rebelled against the blind authority imposed on us by our institution of higher learning, our parents, and the political establishment. Power for power’s sake was thrown overboard and multiple political leanings were welcomed. This extended to the realm of my greatest passion, music. Various musical streams were mixed together. While marching in the streets, we sang “We Shall Overcome.” Deep Purple played their Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Arnold. I still get goosebumps thinking about Jon Lord’s entrance on the organ! Classical composers like Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski wrote politically charged works. We embraced protest songs by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. Their European counterparts inspired us too, including Wolf Biermann in East Germany; Ewan McColl and Leon Rosselson in the United Kingdom; Boris Vian, Jean Ferrat, Georges Brassens in France; and our own Belgian Jacques Brel, who took aim at the bourgeoisie. We were familiar with bootleg tapes by the dissident Vladimir Vysotsky, which circulated clandestinely in the Soviet Union. Musicologists explained that Beethoven was both a musical genius and an enemy of dictatorial authority, as was clear from his Third Symphony. And hadn’t Bach, the great master, been reprimanded during his years in Weimar for daring to clash with a student who happened to have wealthy parents? Pure class justice!
From the early 1970s on, I worked in the world of radio and television, and I carried the political sentiments of the 1960s with me. But let me be clear: the beauty and power of music and words always remained paramount. The connection with politics and the world at large was an extra dimension. My first project was a radio program entitled Politheek, a combination of politics and the Flemish word for “discotheque.” Every week, I selected a political or social theme. I found an hour’s worth of music to illustrate an endless stream of topics including sexism, homosexuality, racial discrimination, political dictatorship, slavery, the women’s movement, anti-Semitism, and war. The music ranged from Bob Dylan’s song about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to Joseph Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. The 1970s were followed by decades of working on programs, both on radio and television, dedicated exclusively to classical music. Perhaps the best known of these is the Queen Elisabeth Competition, which I presented for thirty-five years. In 1983, Frederic Rzewski even wrote the required piece for that competition, although it was 100 percent music, unlike The People United Shall Never Be Defeated, a 1975 work in which the soloist was expected, among other things, to whistle and slam the piano lid.
My fascination for the connection between music and society never waned. In 2014, shortly after I retired, the city of Leuven commissioned me to organize a concert commemorating the start of the First World War. Leuven had been devastated by that conflict, becoming what is known as a “martyr city.” It received attention and genuine support from the United States and the United Kingdom. For the memorial concert I chose the Mozart Requiem and a new work entitled The Sack of Louvain. Written by Belgian composer Piet Swerts, the work was based on four poems by war poets. The four vocalists chosen represented both reconciliation and the hope for peace: a Belgian tenor and soprano, Thomas Blondelle and Ilse Eerens; a German baritone, Dietrich Henschel; and an American mezzo-soprano, Vivica Genaux, all conducted by a British conductor, David Angus.
While working on that project, I often thought about the Second World War. It had ended in 1945, so 2020 was to be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the cessation of hostilities. Because of my background in media I always try to find ways of contributing to important historical landmarks. During my research, I stumbled across an article from August 2007 in the German magazine Der Spiegel. It was about the Russian invasion after the liberation and described the astonishing discovery made by a music-loving Russian soldier in Hitler’s Berlin bunker: music written and performed by some very unexpected musicians. The idea for a book was born, focusing on the complex relationship between Hitler, the Nazis, and music.
After the Germans were defeated in 1945, a Russian military patrol led by Lev Besymenski searched Hitler’s secret bunker in Berlin. There, various items were found (and greedily snapped up), but Besymenski, a music lover, focused on the record collection. Soldiers were grabbing jewelry, paintings, and other valuables, but he was content to take the gramophone records home with him. For many years, he never mentioned this unique collection to anyone. Instead, it’s thought he played a few of the records for a couple of distinguished musicians. Emil Gilels was one: a pianist and the winner of the 1938 Queen Elisabeth Competition, known before the Second World War as the Eugène Ysaÿe Competition. The other was Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor.
When Besymenski died in 2007, his daughter Alexandra stumbled upon the remarkable record collection while clearing out her father’s attic in the Russian village of Nikolina Gora. She mentioned her discovery to the German magazine Der Spiegel. A lot of people were keen to know which records the dictator had listened to. The resulting interview was revealing and raised a few eyebrows.
The inclusion in the collection of the Flying Dutchman Overture was no surprise. It’s commonly accepted that Richard Wagner, although he’d been dead since 1883, was seen as the Nazis’ composer-in-residence. In his operas Wagner delved into the Teutonic history of pure-blooded Germanic heroes. What’s more, he wrote a book, Das Judentum in der Musik (usually translated as “Judaism in music”), bluntly asserting that Jewish people had poisoned the public’s taste in the arts. This didn’t hurt his reputation with the Nazis.
Ludwig van Beethoven was another composer seen as a German symbol. In the bunker, Besymenski found recordings of his Ninth Symphony and two piano sonatas, no. 24 in F-sharp and no. 27 in E Minor. The melodious and emotional accessibility of Sonata no. 24 was a good match with Hitler’s tastes. Still, there were extra-musical aspects, as well. One of Beethoven’s sayings was, “Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest.” Hitler could easily identify with such principles; he recognized something of himself in Beethoven, another man who had worked his way up from humble origins. That forged a bond. All the more surprising, then, that the performer on the recording was Artur Schnabel, a Jewish star pianist who had fled Germany in 1933. He had managed to escape, but sadly, his mother perished in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. In other words, while Hitler viewed Jewish people as sub-human Untermenschen, if they played enjoyable music he was prepared to look the other way. But, of course, that would have dented his credibility in the eyes of his supporters. This is why he kept the gramophone records carefully under lock and key. At least, until Besymenski stumbled across them.
Hitler was a great lover of opera. It’s said that when he lived in Vienna, he attended a performance every day. Wagner is obviously one of the composers he admired — but the Russian Modest Mussorgsky? Mussorgsky was another Untermensch. Yet one of Hitler’s favorite excerpts was the “Death of Boris Godunov,” a dramatic scene from the opera of the same name. The version found in the bunker could hardly have been more Russian, with the bass Feodor Chaliapin singing the lead. Peter Tchaikovsky, thought to have been homosexual, was also one of Hitler’s companions in the shelter. Tchaikovsky’s famous Violin Concerto was in the drawer, performed by Bronisław Huberman (I’m starting to sound like a broken record), a Polish Jew who fled Europe in 1937. It turns out Huberman was notable for more than simply “being Jewish.” He actively opposed Nazism and wrote a letter to several key German intellectuals and artists asking them to stand up to the regime. He was officially declared a “public enemy of the Third Reich.”

Hitler’s List of Five Records

Anton Bruckner rounds out the top three favorite Germanic composers, alongside Wagner and Beethoven. It didn’t hurt that he was both a follower and loyal admirer of Wagner. But Bruckner also had something in common with Hitler. Like Beethoven, his background was humble, and yet he reached great heights. This forged another bond. After the announcement of the Führer’s death on 1 May 1945, the Reichsrundfunk (or public radio) played the Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, presumably from the 1942 recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. It was no coincidence that Hitler had chosen that music himself. He had always compared that symphony with Beethoven’s Ninth. Bruckner had written the slow movement — which features instruments known as Wagner tubas — a few weeks before Richard Wagner died. So there’s that symbolic connection again: Beethoven-Wagner-Bruckner: perfect background music for Hitler’s death.
The Russian patrol also found several banned Jewish composers: the long-dead Felix Mendelssohn and Jacques Offenbach, and many “despicable” Russians, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Borodin. These composers cheered Hitler’s spirits in his Berlin bunker. He’d made a list of five records that were to be taken with him — at any cost — if he suddenly was suddenly forced to flee, which proves that he’d given the matter considerable thought. Included on the list were the Beethoven piano sonatas, the Flying Dutchman Overture, the Russian arias with Chaliapin, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and last but not least, Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 8 in A Minor, performed by none other than Artur Schnabel. When referring to the Nazis’ preferred music in general and the choice of Mozart in particular, Robert Stolz, an immensely popular composer of operettas and light classics who had emigrated to the United States, once made a brilliant remark during a radio program: “It seems as if the Nazis put a steel helmet on Mozart, girded Schubert with a saber, and wrapped barbed wire around Johann Strauss’s neck.”
Hitler had fallen under the spell of the music and the talent of particular performers to such an extent that he forgot they were the enemy. This has led some historians to suggest he was not such a bad fellow, really. In this, however, they are overlooking the death toll weighing heavily on his conscience. While Hitler sat secretly enjoying previously recorded forbidden music in his bunker, musicians made of flesh and blood were denied a means of making a living. They died in concentration camps or in other war-related circumstances. Or they survived but ended up in psychiatric care; they managed to flee just in time; they sided with the regime, out of conviction or coercion; or they joined the resistance. All of which makes this an extraordinarily fascinating chapter in music history.

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