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MUSIC AND THE NAZIS: an interview with Raphaël Jerusalmy


There’s an audio cassette that belonged to my mother, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 conducted by Furtwängler in 1938 in a performance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of the Nazi top brass were in attendance. It’s an extraordinary recording and the audience can be heard applauding when the last notes have died away. That sound always brings me out in goosebumps: one of the people I can hear clapping is actually Adolf Hitler.

The Nazi attitude to music is well-known: there was redemptative music (Wagner and Co) and degenerative music (Mahler, Mendelssohn and any other Jewish composer). Those composers and musicians who were able to flee, either because of their race or because they opposed National Socialism, did so. But a very large number did not. They included conductors like Furtwängler, but also other well-known musicians, such as the soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan.

Indeed, von Karajan and Böhm were vocal supporters of Hitler’s new Germany. And it is this inconsistency, the fact that brilliant artists who went on to have long-term careers after the Second World War, were actually Nazi advocates and collaborators, that lies at the heart of Raphael Jerusalmy’s Saving Mozart.

Sauver Mozart – a slim volume, a mere 125 pages – was originally published in France in 2012 and brought Jerusalmy to immediate world-wide attention. The story is a simple one: at the onset of the Second World War, the music critic Otto Steiner is slowly dying of TB in a Viennese sanatorium.  The gracious world he knew of music and culture is swiftly vanishing. In its place is violence, racial hatred, cynicism, and perhaps for him, worst of all, the exploitation of music as political propaganda.

He plots his final stand – a radical, incendiary gesture that will transform forever the music programme of the Salzburg Festival that Otto has been asked to compile. What ensues is a novel that writer Peter Goldsworthy calls: “veined with humour and love and hope… this novella offers the near-impossible: a fresh take on the Holocaust.”

At first glance, Jersusalmy seems an unlikely novelist. A graduate of Paris’ prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, he emigrated to Israel in 1980. After spending time in the army, he joined Israeli intelligence where he served for most of his life before becoming an antiquarian bookseller. During this time, however, he dreamed of writing fiction.

We correspond by email. “I only studied and acquired degrees to please my parents!”, he writes. “I always dreamed of action and adventure, hence joining the Israeli army. My plots and characters are all inspired by true events that took place in the field, in the Middle East, while I was serving in the army. I just transposed them into fiction.

“All my life, I lived close to books or rather with them. My grandfather and uncles were book binders and printers. I have collected beautiful volumes all along, repaired and designed some, bought and sold many, read hundreds. All that was left for me to achieve in that domain was to write one.”

He grew up with stories of the Holocaust. His father’s entire family perished in Auschwitz and Jerusalmy dedicates Saving Mozart to his cousin, the youngest member of that family. The plot for the book emerged from his own research into the way the Nazis manipulated music to further their political objectives.

“Whether played at military parades, in the concert halls of Salzburg and Berlin or at the gates of Dachau, music was an integral part of the Nazi era, and a direct accomplice”, he writes to me.  “In Otto, I see the cynical use of art and culture by the Nazis as the very last degree of horror. In Cambodia, it was ‘Year Zero’ – a total rejection of the past – whereas the Third Reich attempted to deprive humankind of its very essence (the love of beauty, the creative power of the mind), not by destroying it, but by stealing it and enslaving it to serve its diabolical purpose.  In the novel, music will eventually turn into the last stronghold of freedom and dignity but, at first, it is brought to trial (as are religious faith and culture). It is this trial that gives the novel its subversive streak.”

Although not a musician himself, Jerusalmy’s research enabled him to envelop himself in Otto’s world. “I decided to address my intuitive feelings as to what music is all about. For me, music is the ultimate literary tool since it transcends language”, he explains.

He agrees with me that the sanatorium is a symbol of a corrupt and wounded Austria. And  Otto himself – half Jewish, half alive, is also an outcast. He’s an observer who identifies with the sick and the oppressed, with no power to change society. What he is trying to redeem is the essence of music itself. His final act of resistance is one of  courage and conviction, despite its seeming futility. That, says Jerusalmy, is extraordinarily powerful.

Jerusalmy is scathing of collaborators like Böhm and von Karajan. “They willingly joined the Party (not under any duress)”, he writes. “There are no extenuating circumstances here. Not even that of sheer survival. Near illiterate Polish peasants risked their lives and the lives of their own families in order to save others, against all odds. So you would be entitled to expect just as inspiring an attitude from the élite.”

He identifies, he says, with underdogs, and his new novel, La Confrerie des Chasseurs de Livres, is a study of the medieval poet Franҫois Villon, who was hanged for his underworld activities. “Like Otto, Villon is a lone ranger, a rebel without a cause. Instead of saving Mozart, he will save the written Word (of Christ, but also poetry at large).

“Villon is full of contradictions and thus many facetted: a learned poet and a hooligan, a bad Christian but a true believer, a nostalgic of the past, like Otto, but also a revolutionary figure. Add to that the legend and mystery surrounding his life and you obtain the ‘novel hero’ par excellence. The challenge then resides in revealing the richness of such a character through situations and adventures in keep with his many aspects, the main one being that he is totally unpredictable (as when he’ll resort to poetry or just stab you with his dagger). Like Otto, he is a truly free man.”

Saving Mozart (in an excellent translation by Howard Curtis) is published by Text, $19.99

La Confrerie des Chasseurs de Livres was published in 2013 by Actes Sud and yet to be translated.