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Contemporary Music - Made in East Germany

An international conference is investigating how artists in communist East Germany tried to defend their artistic freedom against the influences of the state


The Berlin wall was the most visible symbol of the divided Germany

Cultural life developed very differently in East and West Germany during the four decades that the country was divided prior to the fall of the wall in 1989. A four day conference "Music - Power - Perspectives" which began in Weimar on Thursday now sheds light on how political ideology influenced the contemporary music scene in the communist East.

According to Albrecht von Massow of Weimar's University of Music, the conference is the first attempt to analyze this part of music history systematically. Massow told ddp news agency that the music scene of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) shows on the one hand how the authorities aimed to control artistic output and how the artists in turn often tried to transgress the boundaries the regime set to assert their artistic freedom.

Politics and art in the GDR

The regime of the GDR aimed to instrumentalize art, but it was also afraid of its subversive power. East Germany's political leaders walked a thin line between giving artists the freedom to produce original works and regulating their output. Among the fine arts, music was the most difficult for them to control, because of its non-representational nature.

One way in which the regime in East Germany was able to influence the artistic community was by granting - or withholding - travel documents. Only those artists whom the political leadership considered to be died-in-the-wool communists would be granted passports and visa to leave the country and promote their works elsewhere.

Any singer, composer or songwriter who was critical of the regime was confined to the territory of the GDR. There was too much fear that these critical artists would speak freely about the regime while abroad or that they would not return to East Germany altogether.

It was only when such oppositional artists became too vociferous and began to cause unrest among the East German population that they were allowed - or forced - to leave the country. One such case was the songwriter Wolf Biermann, who was expelled from the GDR in November of 1976.

Artists in a ghetto

Barbara Sanderling, who worked taught at the Academy of Music "Hanns Eisler" in East Berlin from 1981 until 2000, says the artistic community of the GDR was living in a kind of ghetto.

In an essay by Christine Lemke Matwey, Sanderling is quoted as saying: "Of course music in the GDR had a political slant because of the image it had to present. Nonetheless, there were many people who never acted against their conscience. I wish that were better understood. We too had responsibilities, our children, our jobs, and making music for all those who were unable to leave."

Weimar conference

The organizers of the Weimar conference hope that it will help people understand under which circumstances artists lived and worked in communist East Germany. Many of them will actually be taking part in the meeting. Albrecht von Massow says the conference will offer a unique opportunity to talk to these witnesses of the time while they are still among us.

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