Propaganda With Feeling – Music as an Instrument of Social Purpose

Scientists study the emotions triggered by music through the ages

December 03, 2012
Music speaks to the emotions and fulfills a range of functions. It can unite people, break down boundaries—and just as easily create them again. Take, for instance, a group of punk rockers poking fun at folk music fans: that in itself is relatively harmless. But it’s a different matter when music is used for political aims. A group of scientists working with historian Sven Oliver Müller at the Berlin-based Max Planck Institute for Human Development is studying the emotions triggered by music through the ages.

In conjunction with political scientist Sarah Zalfen, Müller has put together a compendium which shines a light on this world of emotions in the early 20th century. The book is about how musical emotions were used as a form of communication in times of war and occupation, and how they exerted their effect: as a part of the propaganda, as an instrument of occupation and as a strategy of resistance.

Whereas the musical demonstration of German power was pursued with drastic means in occupied Poland, ranging from an employment ban for Polish musicians to the stoppage of musical performances for Polish audiences and even the appropriation of Polish composers as “German”, Göbbels adopted a subtler tone with strategists in France and the Netherlands. There, the music the Nazis enforced through their propaganda had little in common with folksy tunes or thumping military marches. Instead of drums and trumpets in four-four time, people in the occupied territories got to listen to Beethoven, Brahms and—over and over again—Wagner.

However, the scientists in Berlin do not believe that this forced exposure to allegedly superior “German music” in the cultural temples was merely done in the service of wanton cultural imperialism. In fact, the strategic deployment of classical sounds selected on the basis of chauvinistic criteria was more of a social conditioner. “And it worked well,” says the historian. Even before the war, the music of Wagner, in particular, was very popular in France. “Without the Franco-German cultural transfer that occurred in musical life in the early decades of the 20th century, the use of music in occupied Paris could not have been seen as a successful strategy of hegemony.” Of that Müller is convinced.

By putting Wagner operas in the concert house repertoires during the occupation, the Nazis orchestrated his music as an instrument of the occupation to pacify wide swathes of the population. “By offering the musical enjoyment to which people were accustomed, they built on the traditions the population had become fond of in peace times and thereby conveyed feelings of continuity and security,” explains the historian, “which went down particularly well with the middle classes.” At the same time, the act of upholding musical life masked another of the occupation goals: the shared enjoyment of music by the occupiers and the occupied alike was a matter of course.

Featuring three main chapters, “Music as an instrument of occupation,” “Music under threat – Music as a threat” and “Musical responses to war and occupation,” the compendium presents the different functions of music within the occupation policy of this era. One of the things the interdisciplinary research group on “Felt Communities? Emotions in European Music Performances” demonstrates in the book is that the perception, appraisal and strategic appropriation of music is often intensely ambivalent. For instance, Richard Wagner’s operas were used by the Germans against the French both as a “vehicle for the implementation of authority in France” and an “element in a ‘struggle for Rhenish liberation,’” as reported by Stephanie Kleiner, a historian from Konstanz, in her contribution which examines music policy during the occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War.

The Richard Wagner phenomenon has been a recurring topic in the work of Sven Oliver Müller, too. “Because of the ambivalence of his works, Wagner is a composer who has been appropriated by numerous very different factions in the course of history,” says the historian. Some 30 years after his ideological annexation by the Nazis, who venerated his works partly on the grounds of the Germanic cult of hero worship, the power strategists of the GDR themselves appropriated the operas of Wagner. “The Nibelung dwarves were deemed the prototypical proletarians,” explains Müller, who is keen to work specifically on the emotional problem of Wagner in more detail in the near future.

Original Publication
Zalfen, S., & Müller, S. O. (Hrsg.). (2012). Besatzungsmacht Musik. Zur Musik- und Emotionsgeschichte im Zeitalter der Weltkriege (1914–1949). Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

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