What is Musical Germanness?

This month sees the publication of Dreams of Germany: Musical Imaginaries from the Concert Hall to the Dance Floor, which Neil Gregor has co-edited with University of Southampton musicologist, Thomas Irvine. Here, Neil considers some of the ways the book rethinks both the histories of national identity and modern and contemporary music.

Dreams of Germany: Musical Imaginaries from the Concert Hall to the Dance Floor is a book about music and ‘Germanness’. The collection takes its inspiration from Celia Applegate and Pamela Potter’s 2002 intervention Music and German National Identity, a book that did much to bring historians and musicologists together to recognize and define a field of mutual interest. Three years ago, at a conference held in collaboration with partners at the German Historical Institute, London, Thomas Irvine and I assembled an international team of scholars to assess the state of this now burgeoning field: the volume presented here is the result.

The idea that Germans are inherently musical, or that their music is historically superior, is heavily embedded in popular notions of what German culture is — both in Germany and in the wider world. Up until recently, that assumption has been underpinned by a focus on the Austro-German art-musical canon, with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at the centre. But, as this volume shows, notions of ‘musicality’ and ‘Germanness’ have been sutured together in a much wider variety of places than this implies. The volume foregrounds essays on the Beatles in Hamburg, on queer dance club culture in Berlin, and on the reception of Kraftwerk in America to demonstrate that when people think of Germany and music nowadays, they have long since moved on from relating it solely to the rich traditions of orchestral music found there.

As the volume also shows, ideas of German musical superiority were not just made in Germany. British composer Sir Hubert Parry reinterpreted the story of German superiority in music to make it an Anglo-German story about white supremacy; in Japan, avid acolytes of Wagner translated his works into Japanese decades before they were able to hear them. In the wake of war, histories of German supremacy left their mark in various musical attempts to come to terms with the violence — either through dissociating formerly ‘implicated’ composers such as Bruckner from the crimes of Nazism, or through compositions that addressed the fact of Nazi criminality head on.

Through its diverse case studies the volume thus demonstrates the highly varied ways in which ideas of ‘Germanness’ were found in moments of music — fleetingly yet powerfully — throughout the twentieth century.

Neil Gregor

Dreams of Germany: Musical Imaginaries from the Concert Hall to the Dance Floor is published by Berghahn Books in the Spektrum series of the German Studies Association.

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