Chanukah Music In German Orchestras



January 10, 2003

In response to a lister who asked why German orchestra do not do seasonal Chanukah music.

As for Chanukah music, due to reasons that need no explanation, there is only the tiniest of Jewish communities in Austria and Germany. If I remember right (and don't quote me on this) there are only about 60,000 Jewish people in Germany out of a population of 85 million. In this sense, there would be only a very limited public for Chanukah music. I think there might even be an odd feeling playing Chanukah music for a public who isn't there, and for the most horrible of reasons. This contrasts greatly with the USA where Jewish people form sizeable communities in most major cities and are especially active as patrons of classical music. 

Germany still clings to a belief that it should be a mono-cultural country. In 1994, Edmund Stoiber, the Minister President of Bavaria, made a speech warning about the "dangers of a mongeralized society." In the national elections last summer, he failed to become the Chancellor of Germany by only 1 percentage point. The ruling Socialist/Green government is considerably more progressive.

In the late 1980s, Yoav Talmi, who is Israeli, conducted Prokofiev's "Five Jewish Songs" (if I remember the title correctly,) with the Munich Philharmonic. Talmi had huge conflicts with the orchestra and even ended up taking the city of Munich to court. One day during the rehearsal for the Prokofiev, my wife, who was an orchestra member, walked into the rehearsal room and saw a group of men over in the corner loudly laughing. One of the orchestra chairmen was doing caricaturizing imitations of Jews. I know that sort of thing happens everywhere, but under the circumstances it seemed especially inappropriate. 

During the Third Reich, the Munich Philharmonic was known as "The Orchestra of the Fascist Movement." It stamped all of its sheet music with an insignia containing those words circumscribing an eagle holding a swastika in its talons. After the war, the words were blotted out, but the swastikas were never removed. Since the insignia was on a number of important works, including Buckner Symphonies, tone poems by Strauss, and waltzes used for the yearly Philharmonic Ball, the swastikas appeared several times a year.

In the summer of 1991, I had to write -two- letters to the Munich cultural ministry to have the swastikas removed from the music. Naturally this caused a good deal of commotion. One of the colleagues somewhat resentfully commented, "They're just little swastikas." 

It's one thing to succumb to tasteless ethnic humor, and another do so when you still haven't taken the swastikas off your old music.

On the other hand, I would discourage people from expanding these events into an anti-German attitude. There have also been very many positive developments in Germany and Austria that in the end more than counter balance the negative. Unfortunately, because my wife is an orchestral trombonist, I have had to deal with an inordinate amount of the negative side.

There are about 5 million Turks in Germany who are permanent residents and who work as "guest laborers." They are almost all Muslims. Their cultural interests and perspectives are sometime attacked with the concept that they should submit to the "Leitkultur" or the ruling culture of Germany.  What this Leitkultur might be, has never been clearly defined.

William Osborne