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Robert Gore-Langton talks about musical

life in Nazi Germany


San Francisco Sentinel, 27th July 2008


Nazis in the theatre liven things up. They provide the hilarity in The Producers, the creepiness in Cabaret. And when you can’t take any more bright copper kettles or warm woollen mittens in The Sound of Music on comes the SS, arguably the best moment in the show. Now there’s a new play about music in Nazi Germany, a sobering reminder of just how seriously the Third Reich too its music and music-makers. Collaboration is about Richard Strauss and his relationship with the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who together wrote an opera in the 1930s while the storm was gathering over Europe. The play is by Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Ronald Harwood and is at Chichester Festival Theatre in a companion piece with Taking Sides, his 1995 hit about the post-was American “denazification” trial of the famous conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was eventually cleared of having served the Nazi regime.


The elderly Strauss – a national figure – was certainly a very big catch for Hitler. These days musical plebs (like me) tend to think of Strauss not as the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, but as the guy who did the intro music to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elvis used the same music – from Also sprach Zarathustra – during his Las Vegas period.


Strauss died in 1949, his reputation tarnished by having written cheap swastika music for the regime. The other character in the play is Stefan Zweig (to be played by the superb David Horovitch), who was a best-selling author in the thirties and one of Europe’s most deeply cultured intellectuals. He got out of Austria in time, fled to England, briefly lived on Lyncombe Hill in Bath, before finally ending up in Brazil where he and his young wife, homesick and utterly despairing, jointly committed suicide in 1942.


Harwood wrote the play partly because he is obsessed with moral and political dilemmas faced by artists and partly as an antidote to war documentaries with titles like (as he puts it) ‘I was Hitler’s chiropodist’. ‘I was put on to Strauss when writing about Furtwängler in Taking Sides,’ he told me down the phone. ‘Years ago I was given a book of letters between Strauss and Zweig. I forgot about it and it came back to mind. The Strauss story is not well known, even in Germany.’


With plays about Mahler, Furtwängler and now Strauss, Harwood is doing for the lives of musicians on the stage what Ken Russell did on the screen. His latest play will certainly be much nicer about Strauss than Ken Russell was in his 1970 Omnibus film about him, The Dance of the Seven Veils. Russell’s controversial film – never shown and unavailable of DVD – sound slavishly over the top even by his own lurid standards. Russell regarded Strauss as not just a second-rate composer but also a bedroom pervert and a Hitler sycophant to boot. In it (I am told) there’s a moment when Hitler plays the piano and Strauss dances to his tune. The play Collaboration is an extension of that metaphor. But Harwood comes to Richard Strauss without prejudice and makes it clear that the man is horribly blackmailed. The story goes that Strauss followed orders because the Nazis discovered that he had a Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice. The price of her survival was his co-operation with the State Music Bureau. His one moment of defiance seems to have been in his refusal to allow the librettist Zweig’s name to be removed from the poster for Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), an act which cost the opera its run and the theatre manager his job.


‘The really low point for him was writing kitsch music – from hymn for the (1936) Olympic games, and the wedding march for the Japanese royal family – he found that appalling,’ says Harwood. ‘But what would any of us have done? As a writer I am fascinated by the question: how would I have behaved? It wouldn’t have happened to me being a Jew, but if Hitler had called and said, “You’re my favourite playwright, come and read to me,” I can’t say what I would have done. I can’t answer and I have never been tested.’


The seasoned actor Michael Pennington feels the same way. He played Furtwängler’s foul-mouthed American interrogator in the original production of Taking Sides directed by Harold Pinter. This time round he’s playing Furtwängler, and  Strauss in Collaboration.


‘It’s great to revisit Taking Sides – it’s a modern classic,’ says Pennington. ‘ but I think Strauss’s reputation has been tarnished more than Furtwängler’s, but I warm to Strauss as a man slightly more. Furtwängler is not a natural hero – he had this patrician Prussian arrogance – but you might argue that, if he did help the Jews to escape (as he claimed), then that was at least constructive. But Strauss was the more likeable, genial man. The rights and wrongs in either case are completely insoluble. To what extent anyone is entitled to make any retrospective judgement of people in their situation – that’s the question.’


Were the Nazis real music lovers at heart? ‘Yes. The Nazis had a mystical connection with music,’ says Harwood. ‘And yet Mendelssohn was banned, The Magic Flute had to have another libretto because da Ponte was Jewish – it was all utterly insane. The Germans were, I think, deeply cultured but totally uncivilised. For the British, I think, it was the other way round. Totalitarian governments always have to control the arts because they know their power.’


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