Great Conductors of the Third Reich – Art in the Service of Evil

by | May 20, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Great Conductors of the Third Reich – Art in the Service of Evil

The Berlin Philharmonic and Bayreuth Orchestra
Studio: Bel Canto Society
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: PCM mono
Extras: 20-p. booklet “Music in the Third Reich” and bios of the conductors
Length: 53 minutes

came across an article by the CEO of Bel Canto about his achieving
improved sound quality on his restoration CDs and DVDs thru the use of
very high end A-to-D converters and offering the more data-intensive
PCM option on DVDs rather than the data-reduced Dolby Digital. That led
me to the online Bel Canto catalog. When I saw this DVD listed I was
dumbfounded. And saw that one of our writers – Gary Lemco – had rave
reviewed it in the past. But more so to see another review excerpt from
a fellow reviewer who had taken over editorship of a publication I had
edited many years ago. Her excerpt spoke solely of how highly glorious
all the music-making was, with no mention (as made by the other
reviewers) of the horror of these conductors turning their art into
part of the Nazi propaganda machine.

I found it
difficult as an audiophile to appreciate the high standards of music
making. First, nearly everything is an excerpt. Second, there are two
repeats of the beginning of the Ode to Joy section of Beethoven’s Ninth
with different conductors (one on a stage emblazoned with huge
swastikas, which is chilling in the extreme considering the words being
sung!). Third, the sound is fairly impressive on some of the excerpts
and thoroughly awful on others such as the Beethoven Ninths. I have
heard some painful distortions involved with audio all my life, but the
big climaxes here surpass anything my ears have ever been subject to.
Even the worst sound on early Soviet sound films isn’t as poor as this.
The excerpts are designed to show that in Nazi propaganda Beethoven was
promoted as a supreme German nationalist who shared the Nazi ideals.
Many of the top Nazi leaders were failed artists themselves and they
made their version of the arts an important part of their political

This is not really a documentary but
little clips of film and stills assembled into a grab-bag. Some of the
other music excerpts include The William Tell Overture (with Karajan –
who joined the Nazi party not once but twice to further his career),
Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and a bit of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger
at Bayreuth. There is newsreel footage of Hitler arriving at Bayreuth
and being sucked up to by the Wagner family and fans, also of Karajan
conducting the Prussian State Orchestra in occupied Paris intercut with
shot of the Nazi tanks rolling down the Champs-Elysee. But perhaps the
most chilling is the footage of Goebels smiling an evil smile at the
conclusion of the music Furtwängler has conducted, and then going down
to the edge of the stage to shake the conductor’s hand.

The note booklet is in some ways more interesting than the video. It
gives a concise description of the situation with Furtwängler including
actual quotes of his strong anti-semitic, antidemocratic statements. It
was surprising to read that one conductor – Leo Blech – remained as one
of the leading conductors in the Third Reich although Jewish. But only
until 1937, when he fled.

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