Bach overtakes Wagner as Nazis' most revered composer
'Blood and Spirit' examines the treatment of Bach and Mendelssohn under Hitler and how their music shaped the Nazi idea of 'Germanness.'
Richard Wagner is the classical composer most associated with the Nazis, but Johann Sebastian Bach was the one the party dubbed "the most German of Germans" and whose music was played at rallies to stir up nationalist zeal.
The Nazis praised Bach for his "racially pure" family tree dating back to the 11th century and for the "German" discipline of his baroque-style music. Felix Mendelssohn, on the other hand, who revived Bach's concertos and overtures in modern concert halls, was scorned by the Nazis for his Jewish roots.
This complex relationship between Bach's and Mendelssohn's works during the Third Reich is the focus of an exhibit called "Blood and Spirit," which runs through Nov. 8 at the Johann Sebastian Bach Museum in Eisenach, the eastern German town where the composer was born in 1685.
It examines the treatment and abuse of both composers' music under Hitler and how their works shaped the Nazis' idea of "Germanness," museum director Joerg Hansen said.
"We had a lot of positive reactions," said Hansen, who said that around 15,000 visitors, among them many foreign tourists, have seen the show since it opened in May.
"Most visitors are very surprised, because they didn't know about Bach's [music's] role under the Nazis," Hansen said. "They had no clue, for example, that he was played at Nazi party rallies."
Visitors entering the show are confronted with an irritating cacophony of the composer's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 interspersed with the staccato voice of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels coming from a documentary playing in the gallery.
Bach's pieces were performed by members of the Hitler Youth and played almost daily on the radio. In 1935, festivals were organized in several cities across Germany to mark the composer's 250th birthday, peaking in the "Reich Bach Festival" in Leipzig, attended by Goebbels and Adolf Hitler himself.
"The Fuehrer followed the austere music of Bach seriously ... It is a music in harmony with his spirit ? austere, disciplined to its core, and German through and through," a newspaper reported from the festival.
Mendelssohn, whose discrimination under the Nazis is examined in a second gallery, was considered "unbearable for a cultural movement based on race," as one Nazi musicologist put it.
His romantic compositions "utterly failed to speak in the great German language of feeling and form" and "possessed too much that was unreal and sentimental," Third Reich-era music critics quoted in the exhibit wrote.
In part of the anti-Semitic push, a statue of the classical composer in the city of Leipzig vanished overnight in 1936. It proved more difficult to remove Mendelssohn's music from the country, where it was extremly popular with the German public.
While there was no formal ban on his work, the Nazis forbid male choirs from singing popular songs by the composer at party events. They hired several Nazi-friendly composers to rewrite and "Aryanize" some of Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," with its famous Wedding March. Composer Carl Orff, who wrote "Carmina Burana," was among them.
The exhibition also confronts visitors with a piece of German postwar history that is often overlooked: Many of the musicologists who wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets during the Third Reich and helped shape the two composers' public reception at the time, became prominent academics after the war.
"One often says, that we've dealt with our Nazi past in every way, but that did not really happen," said Hansen.