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(Re)defining the Musical Heritage: Confrontations with Tradition in East German New Music

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2023

Matthew Philpotts
University of Manchester
Sabine Rolle
University of Edinburgh
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NEARLY A DECADE AGO, the Deutscher Musikrat began an ambitious project entitled “Musik in Deutschland, 1950–2000.” This recorded anthology of East and West German music would eventually include over one hundred compact discs covering themes such as electronic music, jazz, and musical theater. The series offers a comprehensive presentation of music from both Germanys; composers once physically separated by barbed wire and the Berlin Wall now reside together on the same CD. In some cases, “Musik in Deutschland” unearths striking similarities between East and West German composers, particularly among those who came of age prior to the Second World War. Indeed, one of the stated purposes of the series is to “shed light on historical connections” — connections that, presumably, had been obscured by political, cultural, and geographical divisions. Yet more often than not, the series reinforces the now-common wisdom that East and West German approaches to the composition of new music diverged quickly and dramatically after the Second World War.

Divisions in German musical life were by no means limited to new compositions. Although all Germans shared the same musical heritage, and even though concert programs in the GDR and Federal Republic similarly emphasized eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters, East and West Germans conceived of their heritage in remarkably different ways. Conflicting attitudes toward musical tradition colored both musicological scholarship and contemporary compositional practice. Moreover, the development of two distinct music cultures did not take place in isolation. East and West Germans followed with interest and suspicion the way in which the “other side” treated the German heritage. West Germans were horrified by the SED's politicization of classical composers. Condemning the party's secularized portrayal of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, an article in Der Tag dismissed East German celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the composer's death as “nichts anderes als eine großangelegte kulturpolitische Demonstration für die kommunistische ‘Nationale Front.’”

Public discussions of the musical heritage took on particular urgency in the GDR. Because East Germany lacked the political legitimacy and economic strength of its western sibling, the SED relied on culture to bolster its claims that the GDR was the only “real” Germany. Consequently, the party cultivated an image of the GDR as the exclusive heir to the German musical heritage. In an address to the 1968 Congress of the East German Composers’ Union, Wolfgang Lesser acknowledged that West German concerts featured the same classical composers heard in the GDR. Nonetheless, he argued, “[es ist] eben nicht derselbe Bach, Beethoven, oder Brahms, weil der ideelle Gehalt der Werke in direktem Widerspruch zur spätbürglichen Wirklichkeit steht.”3 Like Lesser, many cultural bureaucrats, composers, and musicologists publicly insisted that “late bourgeois” decadence in the West silenced the humanist message that music of the past conveyed.

Edinburgh German Yearbook 3
Contested Legacies: Constructions of Cultural Heritage in the GDR
, pp. 124 - 140
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2009

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