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The Inextinguishable Symphony, A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany, Martin Goldsmith (345 pp., John Wiley and Sons, HB $24.95).

The Inextinguishable Symphony, A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany, Martin Goldsmith (345 pp., John Wiley and Sons, HB $24.95)

Martin Goldsmith hosted NPR's Performance Today for well over a decade and is well known among classical music aficionados as an erudite commentator on the whole of classical music literature as well as its current and former practitioners. The Inextinguishable Symphony, part gentle memoir, part periodic history, and part collaborative indictment, is first and foremost an eminently readable tale of Goldsmiths's parents' (Gunther Goldschmidt and Rosemarie Gumpert) musical maturation and eventual flight from pre-War Nazi Germany. It is also a studied look at the Kulturbund deutsche Juden or Judischer Kulturbund, the "Jewish Culture Club," the "Kubu," which flourished under the aegis of the National Socialists both as a haven for Jewish actors, writers, singers, and musicians and as Goebbels's propaganda tool. It is finally a chilling and very personal recounting of how the Nazis disenfranchised a significant portion of the indigenous German peoples solely on the basis of race.

Goldsmith lays bare the systematic degradation of Germany's Jews starting with the civil service "reforms"of 1933, through the Nuremburg laws, Kristallnacht, and a steady stream of progressively repressive measures, the slightest transgression of which was dealt with swiftly and harshly, offenders shipped off at first to forced labor camps and later concentration camps. The Goldschmidts and their families experienced all of these. In fact, there seems to have been a Goldschmidt or a Gumpert at or near nearly every significant event during those fateful years prior to the War. One uncle, Hugo, and a cousin were even aboard the doomed St. Louis as it languished in Havana's harbor, eventually depositing its refugee cargo into Vichy French detention camps. Eventually, they would suffer the fate of any Goldschmidt or Gumpert not fortunate enough to have emigrated.

However, among the three central themes, the most riveting is the rise and fall of the Kubu, first under the direction of the irrepressible promoter, Kurt Singer, and then under the careful guidance of Werner Levie. The Judischer Kulturbund was created by Goebbels's propaganda office essentially to provide cover for the Nazis' persecution of Germany's Jews. It served, initially as a series of regional organizations and later centralized in Berlin, as both an employment bureau for actors, musicians, singers, and so on, and an outlet for the arts: theatre, opera, poetry, chamber music, and larger-scale orchestral works. Since the civil service "reforms" denied any Jew of state employment, and since most theaters and orchestras in pre-War Germany were state contrivances of one stripe or another, literally thousands of musicians, singers, and actors relied on the Kubu's largesse for their livelihood. Goldsmith describes the Kubu's lurching existence with sympathy and candor. He portrays Singer's megalomania without apology, while putting Levie's comparatively weak leadership into context: the Nazis couldn't resist playing high-stakes games with their cynical showcase.

The story of how Gunther Ludwig Goldschmidt and Rosemarie Gumpert Goldschmidt meet, join the different Kubu orchestras, and finally flee Germany for the United States is riveting. At one point Gunther emigrates to Sweden and safety only to be drawn back to Berlin, apparently bewitched by the comely Rosemarie: a clear case of love overcoming better judgment. Nonetheless, the smitten Gunther and the shy, coy Rosemarie fall deeply in love and marry, all the while plying their trade in one Kubu or another. In a sense, Rosemarie and Gunther's experiences are typical of too many German Jews' reactions to the Nazis' repression. They accepted the restrictive measures so long as they could continue to work, never contemplating that the Nazis' "final solution" was indeed final.

Martin Goldsmith is above all a lover of all things musical. In a sense, the real protagonist of The Inextinguishable Symphony is the music, conveyed affectionately through Gunther's and Rosemarie's love of it and each other and the desperate allegiance of the Kubu's players and patrons. Extended passages about Dvorak, Beethoven, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky, among many, compel the reader to rush to the CD player, symphony or quartet in hand, to re-experience familiar works through Goldsmith's eyes and prose.

Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable," provides the book's overarching metaphor and, of course, the title. Nielsen virtually despaired of civilization at the outbreak of World War I, writing, "National feeling, which up to now was regarded as something lofty and beautiful, has instead become like a spiritual syphilis that has destroyed the brains, and it grins out through the empty eye sockets with moronic hate." Nielsen wrote of the war's savagery, but could have easily been describing the Germany of the National Socialists.

Goldsmith writes tenderly of his parents' harrowing tale, but reserves his best prose for the music. His description of "The Inextinguishable's" first movement clearly betrays an ardent, lifelong passion first nurtured in the home:

"The Inextinguishable Symphony begins aggressively, almost violently, as if reflecting the `syphilitic' condition of its origins. But less than two minutes in, a calm settles over the orchestra and the clarinets announce a sweet little melody that will recur several times throughout the next forty minutes. Nielsen describes a great struggle, suggesting the guns of the war with a volley of blows hammered out by two sets of kettledrums on opposite sides of the stage. But through it all, the sweet melody persists, eventually taking on a defiant note of triumph in the symphony's final measures. It is a particularly moving and yet ambiguous triumph; the melody has a downward rather than an upward arc, as if Nielsen is emphasizing both the victory and the forces of destruction that must always be overcome."

This passage could well describe Goldsmith's own effort, limning a sweet, recurring love story amid the destructive ravages of pre-War Germany. The story is well rendered with tenderness toward his parents, sympathy for those who remained behind, and a matter-of-fact loathing for the National Socialists, all written with nary a trace of melancholy or bitterness. The Inextinguishable Symphony is as compelling as its characters and its music. Perhaps Nielsen himself, describing his Fourth Symphony, expresses the book's sentiments best, "This is music's own territory. Music is Life, and like Life, inextinguishable." --KE
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:East, Kevin
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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