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Botstein Revives The East German Avant-Garde

On Jan. 25, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the American Symphony Orchestra will perform an unusual program of works from composers of the former East Germany. With a program featuring composers mostly unknown to American audiences, most of these works will be U.S. premieres.

Leon Botstein, the musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra since 1991, says he had the idea for a concert focusing on East Germany after he saw two films: The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin. He says he wanted to have the same effect as the films.

"Can we give a concert that is kind of a musical equivalent of these two very popular films?" Botstein says. "What can we retrieve from obviously a terrible and repressive regime? What can we retrieve from the East German tradition that is worth remembering?"

A Rich Musical Culture

Botstein says he wanted to remind people that the Soviet bloc nation known as the German Democratic Republic had a great musical life, including renowned publishing houses, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Dresden's orchestra and the opera house in Berlin under Felsenstein.

And while much of East German culture has been seen as tainted because of the huge presence of the Stazi (the secret police), the music is often politically ambiguous. Someone like the Soviet Union's Shostakovich could be loved by the authorities most of the time, but still have messages for dissidents.

"Music has a way of pleasing authorities and telling the truth at the same time," Botstein says, "so the question was, 'Is there East German music that qualifies in this way?' "

Reviving Eisler

He picked five composers: some dead, some still living and working in a unified Germany. He starts with the most well-known stateside: Hanns Eisler. Eisler lived in the U.S., wrote film scores for Hollywood, and — like Kurt Weill — wrote songs with Bertolt Brecht as well as music for Brecht's plays. Eisler later had his career cut short during the Cold War. He was blacklisted by Hollywood after facing the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of being "the Karl Marx of music." In addition, his brother, Gerhardt Eisler, was accused of being a Communist agent.

Eisler had studied 12-tone music with Schoenberg, but the question he wrestled with his whole life was how to write good music that was also accessible and popular. In Goethe Rhapsody, which receives its U.S. premiere at Avery Fisher Hall, Botstein says he takes Germany's "most arcane poetry" and sets it in a populist context.

Experimenting Within The Tradition

Botstein says that, for most artists in the West, there is a premium on being different and original.

"East Germany and the Communist regimes believed something different — they believed Beethoven, Mozart and Bach were for the masses and masses would love them," Botstein says. "Therefore, the modern music always made reference to the tradition: Eisler quotes Mozart, Matthus quotes Bach. What is great about these pieces is they never forget the audience — they are writing for someone who is actually listening."

The most familiar piece on the concert program, by Eisler, happens to be the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic. Some have called it one of the most beautiful national anthems ever written. But one wonders whether such a piece, however beautiful, can ever be disassociated with the repression of East Germany.

"We live in a world of collective Alzheimer's," Botstein says. "People's memories are very short."

It will probably take a long while, but it could happen.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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