Exhibition highlights works of German composers in Nazi era | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 18.05.2009
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Exhibition highlights works of German composers in Nazi era

Germany is marking the 200th birthday of composer Felix Mendelssohn, an important figure in the revival of the music of Bach, with a first ever exhibition focusing on how the Nazis treated the two artists.

An exhibition in Eisenach about the composers Mendelssohn and Bach and their works during the Nazi era

The exhibition shows various publications from the Nazi era on Bach and his music

Called "Blood and Spirit -- Bach, Mendelssohn and their Music in the Third Reich," a controversial exhibition opened on Friday at the Bachhaus in the eastern city of Eisenach, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

The show uses photographs, documents, books, instruments and detailed explanations to show how vastly different the two musical icons were treated by the Nazis and how their works were manipulated and distorted.

Museum director Joerg Hansen said Hitler's reception of the two composers offers an "important lesson" about the Nazi rhetoric of "German superiority" and "Jewish threat."

Mendelssohn denigrated by the Nazis

Mendelssohn (1809-1847), born to an illustrious Jewish family in Hamburg, sharply divided opinion in the music world. During his lifetime he was considered a musical genius by some while others found his style too conservative.

A painting of German composer Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn is considered one of the most important composers of the Romantic period

But Mendelssohn is largely credited for playing a pivotal role in the revival of interest in the music of Bach, which had largely been forgotten around that time. Just a century later, the tables had turned -- when Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi regime cited Mendelssohn's Jewish origin as a reason to ban performance and publication of his works.

Once the co-founder of the New Bach Society in Leipzig, Mendelssohn was denigrated by Nazi musicologists as having contributed to the "effeminacy" of German music in the 19th century.

The show documents how the Nazis in 1936 removed a statue of Mendelssohn erected in Leipzig in 1892 and his works from all the important concert halls in the country. It also touches on the 1938 Duesseldorf exhibition "Degenerate Music."

Bach the most "German of all Germans"

Bach, on the other hand, was celebrated by the Nazis as a "northern" musical artist. His music was played during Nazi party conferences and the texts to his works were tweaked to suit the party's propaganda. A special unit set up by the regime to rework music ensured that Bach's music was "purified of Jewish references."

German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is widely considered one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition

Museum director Hansen said Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels publicly paid homage to Bach as the "most German of all German composers" while Mendelssohn the "Jew" was considered a dangerous "accident" in music history.

One of the exhibits in Eisenach includes a choral piece by Bach which was reworded to be the battle song of the Hitler Youth movement. Another photograph shows the Leipzig Thomas Choir which joined the movement in 1937.

The exhibition spans the period from 1829, when the then 21-year-old Mendelssohn performed Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie, to the persecution and death of Jewish artists in Nazi concentration camps.

A view of the Bachhaus in Einsenach in the state of Thuringia, the birthplace of Bach

A view of the Bachhaus in Eisenach in the state of Thuringia, the birthplace of Bach

The success of Mendelssohn's Berlin performance, the first since Bach's death in 1750, was an important element in the renaissance of Bach's music in Germany and, eventually, throughout Europe. It earned Mendelssohn widespread acclaim.

Hansen said the exhibition remained a controversial one because it touched on a difficult chapter of history. As a result, the museum director said it cannot be shown in the eastern city of Leipzig -- an important city where both Bach and Mendelssohn spent important and productive parts of their careers and where Bach is a larger-than-life figure.

The exhibition in Eisenach runs through Nov 8, 2009.


Editor: Kristin Zeier

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