"The world turns on its dark side", proclaims the opening music of A Child of Our Time, the Oratorio which English composer and pacifist Michael Tippett began writing on the day that Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, and which tells the story of the murderous events that led up to Kristallnacht in 1938.
In The Art of Fear, the sixth instalment of The Rest is Noise, we look at music composed in the dark times of the 1930s and 40s under the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, both of whom had pretensions of being enlightened patrons of the arts. "At last, a Reich Chancellor who is interested in art!" declared Richard Strauss, at best naively, when Hitler came to power in 1933. Strauss had an uncomfortable relationship with the Nazis, at first accepting honours and the official position of President of the Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Bureau) but subsequently being dismissed because of his unwillingness to distance himself from Jewish colleagues and extended family. By now elderly, Strauss settled into an uneasy accommodation with the regime. In 1944, as his beloved Austro-German civilisation collapsed around him, he composed Metamorphosen for string orchestra, a searing lament for what has been lost. At one point, he quotes Beethoven's Eroica, and wrote "In Memoriam" in the score.
Strauss had unsuccessfully tried to rescue a Jewish relative from the Terezin concentration camp, a place that embodies one of the great tragedies in the history of music. A group of remarkable Jewish composers and musicians were imprisoned there, and the camp was used as a showcase to dupe the Red Cross that the Germans were allowing culture to flourish for Jews and other prisoners. Viktor Ullman's opera The Emperor of Atlantis, composed in the camp, is a small-scale masterpiece, although the authorities got wise to the fact that it was a thinly disguised lampooning of Hitler and it was not allowed to be staged. Composers Gideon Klein and Hans Krasa were also in the camp. Krasa's children's opera Brundibar did get a staging, with the Red Cross in attendance. But soon afterwards the composers and performers, including the children, were transferred to the death camps and murdered.
Another major work from the war years was written in captivity. Quartet for the End of Time was composed when the conscript Messiaen was imprisoned in a German POW camp on the German Polish border. Messiaen found himself in the Stalag with three other professional musicians: a clarinettist, a violinist and a cellist and so, with himself at the piano, wrote for this unusual quartet. The devoutly catholic composer used a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the angel clothed in clouds and rainbows announces the end of the world. The first performance, of this rapt, ecstatic music, performed in a freezing hut to an audience of prisoners who were farm labourers, intellectuals, priests and factory workers has gone down in musical mythology. Messiaen said of it "Never have I been listened to with such concentration or such understanding".
In Moscow in 1936, Stalin visited the Bolshoi Theatre to watch a performance of Shostakovich's new opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. Two days later there was a headline in Pravda which read "Muddle Instead of Music". Shostakovich had been denounced as "formalist", a catch-all term of imprecise meaning, and from then until Stalin's death he trod a nervous and fearful path. He achieved some sort of rehabilitation with his Fifth Symphony, which has just enough triumphalism to be acceptable to the regime, but became a national and international hero with his Seventh Symphony (The Leningrad). Written during the Siege of Leningrad and performed in the city by an orchestra of musicians who were on the point of collapse from hunger and cold, the symphony was broadcast on loudspeakers onto the streets and beyond to embolden the people and as an act of defiance to the German lines outside the city. The score was smuggled out on microfilm and the symphony became an international symbol of resistance.
But after the war, the screws tightened on Shostakovich again with the notorious Zhdanov decree, where he was denounced as a bourgeois sympathiser. His first Violin Concerto is the first of a number of works in which he encodes the letters of his name DSCH (in German musical notation) into the music, perhaps the statement of an artist under pressure who is defiantly repeating "look, I exist!"
Prokofiev had left the Soviet Union for the US and France in 1918, but was unable to resist returning in 1936, with the promise of celebrity, special privileges and freedoms. He was homesick, and had a strong desire to be "of use" in Soviet society, and his early Soviet works include the still unsurpassed educational piece Peter and the Wolf, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the film Alexander Nevsky, a collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein. But the timing of his return was ill advised and, as the promised freedoms failed to materialise and he witnessed the disappearance and murder of friends and colleagues, Prokofiev's disillusionment began to show in his music. One of his three piano sonatas (The War Sonatas) written at the outbreak of the second world war won him the Stalin Prize, but are widely seen to be bitter criticisms of the regime. Prokofiev's bad sense of timing seemed to haunt him till the day he died, on 5 March 1953, the very same day as Stalin.
From the archive: How the Guardian and Observer reported it at the time
Picture gallery: people and places from the Art of Fear
This article was written by Gillian Moore, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 8th May 2013 21.42 Europe/London
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