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Composing the Canon: The Individual and the Romantic Aesthetic in the GDR

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2023

Matthew Philpotts
Affiliation:
University of Manchester
Sabine Rolle
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
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Summary

NARRATIVES OF THE PAST are inevitably subjective. They reflect prevailing structures of power and encode the social and cultural discourses in which they are conceived. This is particularly the case where cultural canons are concerned. Canons embody contemporary values and effectively function, as Paul Lauter observes, as “a means by which culture validates social power.” This phenomenon can be perceived clearly in the constructs of the musical canon that pervaded in the early years of the German Democratic Republic. Portrayals of composers such as Bach, Handel and Beethoven as precursors of socialism reinforced official narratives of the GDR as the true successor to the ideals of the German Enlightenment. The historicization of socialism served not only to unite the nation and legitimize the state, it also embodied the Marxist conception of history as an agent of change. In the GDR of the 1950s and early 1960s, narratives of the canon were implicitly didactic, prescribing the socially engaged role of artists in a communist society. Characteristic is the manifesto that was published by the SED to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Beethoven's death in 1952. The composer is depicted as a proactive supporter of social reform with a clear message for his contemporaries:

Die Botschaft, daß durch Träumen und Warten, Hoffen und Ausweichen Frieden und Freiheit nicht gewonnen werden, sondern daß man dafür kämpfen muß. Für ihn war ein Held, wer sich tapfer für die Sache des Volkes einsetzte, wer für sein Vaterland und für den Fortschritt der Menschheit kämpfte; wer bereit war, dafür auch sein Leben hinzugeben. In Beethovens Heldenideal tritt uns die Persönlichkeit als Volksheld, als Repräsentant der fortschrittlichen Kräfte der Gesellschaft entgegen.

The humanistic musical tradition was heralded both as a collective memory and as the foundation stone for a collective socialist future. The emphasis on the revolutionary spirit of Germany's pantheon of composers functioned as a template for GDR citizens, urging them to galvanize themselves into the action needed to achieve a socialist utopia. Thus composers were invariably discussed in terms of their radical qualities and their struggles against bourgeois oppression. Hans Pischner, for example, writing in the journal Musik und Gesellschaft, describes the “Vehemenz” with which Schumann employed his Davidsbündler in the fight “gegen das ‘zwergige Philistertum’, gegen das deutsche Kleinbürgertum des zersplitterten Vaterlandes.”

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Edinburgh German Yearbook 3
Contested Legacies: Constructions of Cultural Heritage in the GDR
, pp. 198 - 217
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2009

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