Arts & Culture

Rehding finds ‘monumental’ works key to German political history

5 min read

In December 1989, a few weeks after the reunification of Germany, Leonard Bernstein ’39 raised his baton above the ruins of the Berlin Wall and conducted a special arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The central statement of the work — “all men will be brothers” — captured the sentiment of those who saw a brighter future for the nation.

According to Alexander Rehding, professor of music at Harvard, the Beethoven performance offers one example of how 19th century German music has played a key role in forging a sense of national identity. Rehding has identified what he calls a “monumental” quality in the 19th century repertoire, which was employed in specific cultural contexts to bestow a sense of “Germanness” onto the listener.

“We can think of monumentality in two ways,” Rehding says. “First, monumentality is a stylistic property which is often described as ‘big’ or ‘over-the-top.’” The dramatic gothicism of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” for example, illustrates this first conception — one that is widely recognized among music critics and historians.

Rehding departs from convention, however, with his second definition. According to Rehding, musical “monumentality” is a form of expression that conveys a sense of history and tradition in the same way as a national monument or heroic statue.

“A monument serves as a shining example from the past, inspiring a group of people to repeat the achievements of their forebears,” Rehding says.

Rehding studies the works of Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, and Bruckner to illustrate how music served as a monument for the German nation.

“For many, these works embodied the best of German cultural values and traditions,” he says. At various points in history, Rehding explains, German leaders sought to harness that sense of national virtue to inspire patriotism in the populace.

According to Rehding, much of the inspiration took place in subtle fashion, through outlets such as journals, concert programs, and choral societies.

“A lot of this occurred on the cultural level, without any overt political engagement,” says Rehding. “The notion that music might contribute to social adhesion was often below the surface.”

In the 1860s and 1870s, when Bismarck was leading the charge to create and then consolidate a unified German empire, illustrated popular magazines provided an ideal outlet for disseminating patriotic music. Songs and choruses — sometimes printed alongside the latest news and gossip — encouraged domestic singing, while elaborate illustrative artwork invited patriotic contemplation.

“The role of domestic music-making should not be understated,” says Rehding. “Many people had pianos, so even if they could not attend performances of big new works, they could still re-create the experience in the comfort of their own home.” According to Rehding, the richly decorated scores were often seen as commemorative works of art.

In Nazi Germany, the 19th century repertoire was manipulated to serve the political interests of the fascist state. Hitler, Rehding explains, viewed the “monumental” works of Anton Bruckner and others as a tool for validating the Nazi project of pan-Germanism.

In 1937, just prior to the annexation of Austria, Hitler installed a bust of Bruckner in the Walhalla temple in Germany. The hall of fame, situated on the Danube River, was constructed in 1807 by Prince Ludwig to honor German luminaries in the arts and sciences.

Hitler had a special affinity for Bruckner because they hailed from the same region of Austria. His motives extended beyond the personal, however. Historians suggest that by adding Bruckner’s likeness to Walhalla, Hitler demonstrated his belief that the Nazis could lay claim to Austria on the basis of cultural unity.

“It was believed that there was something fundamentally ‘German-sounding’ about Bruckner’s symphonies,” Rehding says. The “Germanness” of Bruckner’s oeuvre was appropriated to fit the National Socialist political agenda.

Brief selections of Bruckner’s music were arranged to mark the installation ceremony.

“Bruckner’s symphonies are quite long,” Rehding says, “and officials knew that few participants would have the stomach to sit through an entire piece.” Instead, short clips were played as Hitler marched into the palace when the bust was unveiled, and again as he returned to the motorcade.

“The longest snippet was four minutes,” Rehding says. The accompaniment “was almost film-like in its arrangement.”

Strangely, the clip marking Hitler’s departure — taken from the last movement of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony — mistakenly ended one note short of the final resolution.

“The listeners were just left hanging,” Rehding says. “It’s a prime example of the difficulties of using high art for popular purposes.”

That sour note, immortalized forever in a newsreel of the ceremony, symbolizes for Rehding the often imperfect fashion in which music was appropriated to fit political agendas.

Rehding says that Bruckner and other famed composers of the era are not the only musicians whose work served the rhythm of German politics.

“We still remember these composers because we play them in concerts,” says Rehding, “but some others whose music was no less ‘monumental’ are now forgotten. Those pieces can be enlightening because they show us how values change over time.”