The reception of Beethoven’s Music in Occupied Europe during World War II

Erik Levi delivered a paper on Beethoven interpreters, conductor Hermann Abendroth and pianist Elly Ney, and their role as agents of Nazi cultural transfer throughout occupied Europe between 1939 and 1945, at the first international workshop for the research forum “The reception of Beethoven’s Music in Occupied Europe during World War II” which took place at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn in early September 2022. The project, organised by research director Professor Michael Custodis at the University of Münster in collaboration with the Beethovenhaus, brought together distinguished scholars from all over Europe and from many different nations, and in a jam-packed workshop that spread over three days many fascinating topics were explored.            

A website detailing this exciting project is accessible at https://musicandresistance.net/beethoven-in-nazi-occupied-europe/ and a series of podcasts featuring some of the academics who are involved in the project is being made available.   

A summary of the aims and objectives of the research project  is presented below:

Although cultural life in various Nazi-occupied countries manifested distinctive differences in outlook between 1939 and 1945, partially accountable to specific national traditions and their historical and ideological relationship to German music and the political situation, one factor that appears to bind all musical activity in these areas is the consistent presence of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The underlying motivations for giving Beethoven’s music special emphasis are as different as musical life in dictatorships and the occupied territories is controversial. Thus Beethoven was honoured not only in official propaganda and military events, as well as in innumerable public concerts, but was also venerated in clandestine and resistance music making and in enforced circumstances in concentration camps. That Beethoven was able to serve the needs of the diametrically opposed ideological agendas of the German imperialists and the resistance movement is in itself a remarkable and unique phenomenon. It is undoubtedly a topic that warrants far more detailed scrutiny that hitherto, and for this reason a team of international researchers has been brought together with the experts of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn to examine Beethoven reception during this problematic period in the greatest possible detail for an anthology scheduled for the upcoming Beethoven-year 2027.

This project has five specific aims:

  1. To reconstruct the presence and purpose of Beethoven’s music amongst others in Belgium, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland.
  2. To examine the importance of persecuted musicians as cultural ambassadors of an alternative, anti-Nazi Germany for example in Swedish and Swiss exile.
  3. To understand the reasons why some pieces were of special importance and to what extent this predilection for certain repertoire resonated with long-established traditions that may, or may not have been specific to a particular country.
  4. To learn whether this focus on Beethoven reception can lead to a more nuanced understanding of musical life in the occupied territories and their relationship to German culture. 
  5. To ascertain whether the politicization of Beethoven during this period may have influenced the reception of the composer’s music in post-war Europe where once again Beethoven’s music played an important role in determining cultural diplomacy and international collaboration. 

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