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Is there an ending that is not trivial?

Strauss' Capriccio and Distraction through Art during the Nazi era


Many value judgements of works of art are based on their so-called propagandistic purposes, which decide whether a particular work is included in the canon or not. Works of art that had a propagandistic purpose, in the sense that they brought over certain messages for a certain political system, have a hard time getting into the canon. In fact, those works that seem suitable for the canon are precisely those that are furthest from having fulfilled any political task for a particular regime. The exception are works that were written for a political purpose, but that purpose lies far enough in the past (think of Lully, whose immediate proximity to the court of Louis XIV seems no obstacle to the passionate excavation of his works). The French Revolution perhaps represents a limit; from then on, the above applies almost without exception. Even today, one amuses oneself with the various propaganda pieces of the Ancien Regime, but finds the Parisian musical image of the last decade of the 18th century – because it was largely politically determined – not so fitting. It is actually left out of consideration altogether, for that is what it means to make use of a canon at all.

Richard Strauss's work occupies a special place in this discourse, for it was according to that measurement of the political participation of art that the fate of his later works was decided. The opera Daphne, premiered at the Munich National Theatre in October 1938, just celebrated premiere at the Berlin State Opera at theend of February 2023, directed by Romeo Castellucci. No one seems to have a problem with it, not with the irrelevant, ahistorical late antiquity that the plot of this "bucolic tragedy" – as the subtitle puts it – reveals. The situation is different with Daphne's even less well-known twin sister, Friedenstag, also premiered in Munich, which was written almost simultaneously with it. Strauss actually planned a double premiere, in which the two short works would make up one evening. Friedenstag was brought forward at short notice to July of the same year 1938, while the premiere of Daphne did not take place until October. By the beginning of the war, Friedenstag had appeared 123 times in the repertoire of some 20 European theatres (Petersen, 2017: 134) without finding its way into the post-war repertoire: After that, it would never be staged again. One of the main reasons for this can be seen in the opera's plot:

At the end of the Thirty Years' War, an imperial fortress still withstands the enemy siege. At dawn, the gunner tells the constable of the enemy's raid on a homestead nearby. A young Piedmontese, who has come through the enemy line with a letter from the Emperor, enthuses about his Italian homeland. homeland. But the soldiers, who know only the life of war, are deaf to his evocation of a peaceful life. From afar, the cries of the starving population can be heard. A delegation from the town approaches the fortress, but the commander is adamant about their demand to surrender the citadel. Even the mayor's plea and the prelate's exhortation to humility cannot soften the commander, who is only thinking of victory. An officer reports that the ammunition has run out, a woman from the delegation accuses the emperor of being the "murderer of my children". The commander is shaken and promises the people to give a sign at noon when the gates of the city are to be opened. Secretly, however, he plans to blow up the fortress and gives orders to pile up the gunpowder from the cellar. He offers the constable, constable and gunner to flee, but the men stay with him. When his wife appears in the fortress, he implores her to flee, but Maria swears loyalty to him until death. They are all ready for death together when a cannon shot sounds from afar, which they suspect is the signal for an enemy attack. Now a ringing of bells begins, in which Maria is the first to recognise the sign of the longed-for peace. The commander is suspicious of peace. When the officer reports the approach of the Holsteins with white flags, he sees this as a stratagem of war. In the meantime, the citizens have let the enemy troops into the city and greeted them joyfully. Amid the cheers of the crowd, the Holsteiner meets the commander and announces the peace treaty of Münster. When her husband wants to continue the fight, Maria throws herself in between and begs him to trust the peace. Finally, the commander throws down his weapons and embraces his opponent. The two opposing commanders praise the reconciliation, in which Mary and the people join with overwhelmed gratitude (Opera-Guide, 03/03/2023; author's emphasis).

The opera served the National Socialists as a propaganda piece of the first order. As Dominik Frank writes, it "stylised the Germans as a people who loved honour and peace, but were also ready to defend themselves and fight to the death" (Frank, 2015: 63). The glorification of the willingness to die for the Fatherland – even worse: to kill oneself or be killed rather than surrender to the enemy – is clearly and eerily enough reminiscent of statements that would be made a few years later in the crumbling Third Reich: “The Führer won’t let us fall under the Russians; he’d rather gas us” a woman told the doctor Count Hans von Lehdorff in January 1945, who was called to one of the collective camps for refugees from the hinterland of Königsberg, a city already occupied by the Red Army, as he himself reported in his Ostpreußischen Tagebuch (quoted after Arendt, 2022 [1964]: 204). It is precisely this fact that makes the opera Friedenstag unsuitable for the canon: that it fulfilled a political task by propagating certain messages for a certain political system – and not just any political system, but a fairly recent one, and one that plays a central role in today's conception of evil and tyranny. One is familiar with the problematic effort to continue to exempt Richard Strauss from any connection with National Socialism. The sidelining of Friedenstag from the repertoires of German theatres is undoubtedly part of this effort.

Another good example of this way of selecting works of art is the composer's last opera, Capriccio. First performed in Munich in 1942, Capriccio sides with Daphne: the apparent indolence of its meta-discursive content makes it the perfect candidate for entry into the canon. And it is indeed enjoying the best of health in the repertoires of European theatres: in the summer of 2022, for example, it formed the central piece of the Munich Opera Festival, directed by David Marton and with Diana Damrau in the title role. But one crucial fact separates Daphne (1938) from Capriccio (1942), and that is the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Capriccio was written at a time of emergency, when the idea of how art should serve politics was different from that of the years immediately preceding the war. It is important here to examine the extent to which Capriccio may have had a political purpose in this context, and thus to raise the question of whether the uncritical reception of this work, which is still so popular today, is not based on a misjudgement.

If it is not idle to talk about apolitical art at all, it must at least be idle to talk about apolitical art produced under the regime of the Third Reich between the years 1933 and 1945. The centralisation of cultural policy through the founding of the so-called Reich Chamber of Culture (RKK) in 1933 – a centralisation that the Reich Constitution of 1871 still did not contemplate (Dahm, 1995: 227-228) – stipulated that everyone involved in the "production, reproduction, intellectual or technical processing, dissemination, preservation, sale or marketing of cultural property" (Splitt, 1998: 222) had to be a member of precisely that individual body. The RKK was thus responsible for and controlled the activities of its members (cited in Splitt, 1998: 222). No cultural event could be organized without its written permission. "Cultural property" for the Nazis meant any "intellectual creation" that came to the public in any form (cited in Splitt, 1998: 222), so it can be said that any artistic output that was shown publicly had to convince the RKK. It is not unnecessary to recall here that this office was established within the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda and not, as Splitt points out, within an unexisting Reich Ministry of Culture. So it seems clear what the peculiar censorship of the RKK consisted of. The fact that art served popular enlightenment and propaganda, that it therefore had to fulfil a "political task", meant an axiom for Minister Joseph Goebbels: "the purpose sought with the establishment of the Reich Chamber of Culture [was and is] to place the whole of German cultural creation at the service of the nation and thus to assign it a political task in the broadest sense [...]" (quoted from Splitt, 1998: 222; emphasis by the author).

It is therefore not enough – as is often done at the moment in academic and practical discourse – to claim that a particular work of art survived censorship during this period, or that it was tolerated or well regarded by one political body or another[1] . When dealing with works of art that were written or performed in Germany between the years 1933 and 1945, which also had an official character in the sense that they were shown publicly, one should first start from the suspicion that they performed political service for the Reich. It is also important to emphasize that Goebbels spoke of this service as being "in the broadest sense", which only heightens the suspicion that a political task was also "assigned" to those works of art that seem to elude propaganda through their paralyzing - not to use the term sterilizing, so highly valued by the Nazis[2] - indolence.

Capriccio was one of this works of art. The opera is often referred to as Richard Strauss's "testament piece" (Wilhelm, 1988: 347). It has been assigned a special place in the reception of Strauss, which makes it appear relatively frequently alongside the great works of the period before 1933 (from the time of Capriccio's composition, only the Four Last Songs (1948) have gained comparable reputation in the repertoire). Strauss worked on the production of Capriccio with two main figures of the famous political Gleichschaltung (he himself was one of them; Fröhlich, 1974: 355), namely the writer and theatre scholar Joseph Gregor and the conductor Clemens Krauss. Although the original idea came from Stephan Zweig, it has been proven that the latter distanced himself from Strauss as early as 1934, probably as soon as he learned that Strauss had been appointed president of the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK), a single chamber of the RKK, by Joseph Goebbels, and was no longer involved in the Capriccio project (Splitt, 1998: 224 f.; Riethmüller, 2003: 269 f.). All this has remained mostly unnoticed until today. Both the melodic richness of the opera, which links it to its sisters of yesteryear – and thus helps to solidify the romantic image of an outdated Strauss who was stuck somewhere in the world of yesterday and did not want to know anything about modern conditions[3] – as well as its theme, namely a quintessentially meta-discursive consideration of the question of whether in opera prima la musica, doppo le parole or vice versa applies, have made it completely innocent and alien to politics in the ears and eyes of Strauss's reception.

The opera is in fact, as its subtitle states, a "conversation piece". In it, various characters take part in an evening hosted by a certain unnamed French countess. These characters are Flamand, a musician; Olivier, a poet; La Roche, a theatre director; Clairon, an actress; Monsieur Taupe, a prompter, and two "Italian singers". In the Molière tradition (think of the theatrical experiment L'impromptu de Versailles), the only people left on stage are those who make the events on stage possible in the first place (the Countess implicitly plays the role of a patron). The "conversation" about the relative privilege of one art or the other only arises because the musician and the poet argue about whose new work should be performed on the occasion of the Countess's upcoming birthday party. Everything is cheerful. Eventually, the theatre director pleads in a monologue for the dignity of high German art. The Countess is asked to choose one of the two works, but is unable to do so and declares the question of whether text or music is more important for the genre unimportant, coming to the peaceful conclusion that the two arts cannot be separated in the context of opera.

It is therefore obvious to claim that Capriccio is a work of art about art, reflecting on itself, so to speak, and thus remaining closed in on itself. In doing so, opera creates an appearance of impartiality and indolence for itself that is anything but new in art history; think of the doctrine of l'art pour l'art. Metadiscursivity does not in principle amount to impartiality and indolence (Paul Celan famously had to defend himself against this assumption for a long time[4]). But it can certainly have that effect. And as contradictory as it sounds, it may well be that it is a party that desires precisely this effect of impartiality from art. After all, this is how it was in the Third Reich after the turning point signified by the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. In her study of the so-called "Kulturpolitische Pressekonferenzen" (Cultural Policy Press Conferences), which Joseph Goebbels organized parallel to the establishment of the RKK and throughout the Nazi era, primarily for the important task of directing the press, Elke Fröhlich shows how the ministry's cultural policy premises changed according to the different times. While readiness for battle and for war had characterized the years 1933-1938, to which, as shown, an opera like Friedenstag had given the RKK a highly satisfactory response, restraint was the order of the day in the years of war. The "people" who had to be convinced of the necessity of war in the years of peace were, ironically, to be distracted from it in the years of actual war. All "problems that incited to controversy" (Fröhlich, 1974: 377) were to be avoided, for it was important to make the people capable of maximum strain through ease and distraction. In the process, emotions such as those involving patriotism or other forms of being politically involved were also forbidden. Impartiality and indolence had thus become cultural and artistic standards, of the importance that readiness for war and sacrifice had had a few years earlier. "You don't win battles by hanging your head," Goebbels wrote in 1941 (quoted in Fröhlich, 1974: 378), thus paving the way for the appearance of works of art that provided easier problems that did not even require solving.

The consideration regarding the question raised by Capriccio, whether word or music has the prerogative in opera, clearly signifies such a problem. Above all, it could not be suspected of confronting anyone with worldly events or with the deeper questions of humanity, or of occupying anyone too intensely at all. It was "cheerful" and "relaxing", namely the way Goebbels wanted it to be, who found the "kiss of the light muse" (quoted in Fröhlich, 1974: 378) all the more important the heavier the war burden became. This, then, was the highly political task of Capriccio: to relax people through a beauty play on the borderline of triviality so that they could accept the heaviness of war with a fresh head. This relaxation happened on two levels, as indicated above: Firstly, through a total distraction from worldly events, secured by the fact that art was denied any contact with the world through its peculiar capacity for self-reflection. Secondly, by serving a theme that – as treated in the opera – was anything but profound. Indeed, this second level of relaxation, that which allowed the work to teeter on the threshold of triviality, meant the salvation of opera at a time when, with regard to allowed novelties, entertainment art had the upper hand (1974: 378). Capriccio actually continued to be performed during the war: in Darmstadt in October 1943, in Dresden in January 1944 and in Vienna in March 1944 (Wilhelm, 1988: 345).

The ever-changing position of the National Socialists with regard to the political tasks of art[5] explains the fact, perhaps confusing at first, that two works so clearly opposed in expressiveness as Friedenstag and Capriccio performed an equally important political service for the Third Reich. It would still be necessary to investigate in what way the opera Daphne should be included here, which, as mentioned above, is very close to Capriccio. Both Friedenstag and Capriccio were excellent propaganda pieces for the fascist government, just in different times that required different propaganda strategies. The case of Capriccio shows that propaganda as a "purposeful attempt to shape political opinions or public views [...] and to steer behavior in a direction desired by the propagandist or ruler" (Bender, 2021: 23) is by no means limited to the overt communication of political messages. In fact, it can take on subtler, all the more dangerous forms, which can even dialectically imply the explicit negation of that very communication. With its rejection of everything worldly, Capriccio fulfilled a very precise task in the world; to say nothing about its present was its peculiar statement. To claim that Capriccio had nothing to do with this present is to fall into the trap of the opera. For Capriccio is not simply a work of art about art. It is not only about the thematic complex prima la musica, doppo le parole, but explicitly about the distraction from very specific worldly circumstances that makes the concentration on this theme possible.

But there is also an inconsistency between the reference to l'art pour l'art and Strauss's own ideas regarding the relationship between art and the world. In the 1934 article Music and Culture published in the Atlantis Book of Music – a "preface" whose first version dates from 1903 – Strauss wrote, among other things: "Art is a cultural product. Its profession is not that of [...] leading a complacently isolated existence; its natural profession is rather: to bear witness to the culture of times and peoples" (quoted in Splitt, 1998: 223). One should therefore look at such a "complacently isolated existence" as Capriccio only with the greatest suspicion. Understanding this opera as a political tool not only corresponds to the official view of "cultural property" during the war in the Third Reich, but is also consistent with Richard Strauss's own convictions. The reception history of his oeuvre, which ultimately decides the relative canonization of particular works, seems so far to have forgotten both the Nazi art-political guidelines and Strauss's own ideas in its blinding work-centeredness. This is how it came about that for an opera like Friedenstag, because of the explicitness of its text – "Sieg! What a beacon escapes the weak mouth! Victory! What a torch you plant before me! The word that spurs me on to the highest starry flight! Victory! Inconceivable, glorious heaven-born thought: Victory!" sings the commander-protagonist (quoted in Frank, 2015) –, the doors of the canon remained closed, while Capriccio was canonized with full dignity despite its thoroughly guilty "intoxicating glitter" (Rippel, 2018).


Ensuring the most complete distraction possible had become the primary task of art in times of war. Distraction was understood as serving the possibility of the "relaxation" of the common man that the rulers desired. The access to certain arts, art movements and artistic strategies in order to produce precisely this had become commonplace by 1940 and can be viewed in Capriccio in a special way. There, as shown, it goes hand in hand with triviality, a quality of art that, interestingly, is directly addressed in the opera. Looking at her own image in the mirror, the Countess utters the following final words: "You mirror image of Madeleine in love, can you advise me, can you help me to find the ending for her opera? Is there one that is not trivial?" (Bavarian State Opera, 2022: 79). The answer is clearly no, because the very question of which art has the prerogative in opera is considered trivial ­– being trivial is its task. As clarified above, metadiscursivity in art is not trivial in itself (Strauss knew it; he had worked long and successfully with Hugo von Hofmannsthal), but it is undoubtedly trivialised in Capriccio by its getting stuck on a superficial, aestheticizing level. This particular access to the art strategy of metadiscursivity, which exploited its aestheticizing potential, corresponded to the art policy of National Socialism during the war period.

But the Countess's significant last words are to be further questioned. At the end of the opera, she actually addresses the triviality that characterizes the opera by admitting through a rhetorical question that there could be no ending to the whole story that was not trivial. In doing so, she achieves something special as the main character: namely, that the hitherto simply cheerful piece acquires something like a self-awareness. Its final meta-discursive gesture consists of placing not art in general, but itself as a work of art in front of the mirror. The fact that the Countess's words form the end of the text only serves to strengthen the impression that the play itself somehow "knows better than it says", to use Friedrich Schlegel's clever expression[6]. The final confession of its own triviality transforms the play into a two-hour ironic assertion; everything that has been said so far seems to be suspended in a special way by the Countess's words. For it is no longer art but precisely its triviality that is suddenly thermalized, namely by being acknowledged. It is therefore insufficient to say that the opera is about the genre of opera. It is also, as mentioned above, about the triviality of this theme and about the distraction from a very specific reality that makes the concentration on it possible. The Countess's last words clear the way for a distancing from precisely this distraction – because recognition always means the possibility of distancing – which makes the whole thing all the more perverse. They imply something like this: “We distract ourselves from reality in full awareness of the fact that we are engaging in distraction”. This peculiarity only made the piece more versatile and effective in its context: it served to distract those whom Joseph Goebbels liked to have paralyzed, but also those who had set the death machinery in Auschwitz in motion in the same year, 1942. On the day of the premiere, it was indeed not only Goebbels who sat in the stalls, but many other major personalities of the political apparatus of the Third Reich (Frank, 2017: 242).

The thematization of the escape from reality through the Countess's final, appreciative words emphasizes a multi-layeredness that interestingly rescues Capriccio from its own triviality. Not only did the opera fulfil the political task of distraction, but it spoke quite decidedly to the fulfilment of such a task. In this respect, Capriccio can be said to be an ironic, if not cynical, attempt: The triviality of the play was and remains a triviality recognized by the play itself, and this recognition brought with it the possibility of a thoroughly deliberate distraction. This – with Brecht – alienated distraction now throws a clear light on the gesture of “drawing a line”. For with this kind of flight from the world, which is suddenly thrust into the limelight, a boundary is drawn between the real world, where war is currently raging, and the sphere of art, in which the spectator seeks security. To put it better, it is precisely this demarcation that makes possible the conscious escape from the world that is carried out through art. We will now try to explain how this specific demarcation is to be framed in the National Socialist cultural context.

The concept of the border, together with that of the foreign, has been an ideological pillar of the National Socialist conception of culture. Well enough known is the racial theory on which it was based, with its distinction between Aryans as "founders of culture" and non-Aryans as "destroyers of culture" (Fröhlich, 1974: 356). As a consequence of this distinction, another border was drawn, namely between the genuine, which was identified with Germanness, and the inauthentic, which was attributed to the non-German, or the foreigner. The border in National Socialism had not only an ideological dimension, but also a physical one. The barbed wire, which after 1945 became an unmistakable symbol of the crime of the concentration camps, literally separated two worlds. Significantly, in most concentration camps, if not the barbed wire, then the posts along which the barbed wire was drawn are almost the only physical evidence of the crime that still exists today. This is the case, for example, in Dachau, in Buchenwald, in Auschwitz. The metaphorical nature of the border, which has proved to be unmissable in interpreting what happened in Germany and the rest of Europe between 1933 and 1945, is based on a very concrete fact.

The importance of the concept of the border in approaching an understanding of Auschwitz is also shown by the central role it plays in Primo Levi's Se questo è un uomo (1947). Levi returns again and again to the border to emphasize the unimaginable difference between the reality inside the barbed wire and that outside it. Levi speaks very clearly about "il filo spinato che ci segrega dal mondo" (Levi, 2014: 35). The idea that the world is outside, and that Auschwitz is in itself something other than the world – an idea that informs the totality of his testimony – entails yet another radical demarcation. What is outside and what is inside correspond respectively to those states that are livable and those that are unlivable. The careful description of the unlivable life inside the concentration camp is interestingly paired, in Levi, with the need to claim something like "moral survival" for the victims. Adherence to the so-called "comune mondo morale" (2014: 82) is interpreted for the first time as the only possibility of survival at all. Levi reports the following about the hygiene routine of the camp:

Per molte settimane, ho considerato questi ammonimenti all'igiene come puri tratti di spirito teutonico, nello stile del dialogo relativo al cinto erniario con cui eravamo stati accolti al nostro ingresso in Lager. Ma ho poi capito che i loro ignoti autori, forse inconsciamente, non erano lontani da alcune importanti verità. In questo luogo, lavarsi tutti i giorni nell'acqua torbida del lavandino immondo è praticamente inutile ai fini della pulizia e della salute; è invece importantissimo come sintomo di residua vitalità, e necessario come strumento di sopravvivenza morale (2014: 32).

Later in the book, however, this clinging is described as impossible, or as something whose renunciation makes physical survival in Auschwitz possible. In the important chapter "I sommersi e i salvati", where through four short biographical contributions the author attempts to describe different forms of survival in the camp, this second perspective becomes more important:

Il sopravvivere senza aver rinunciato a nulla del proprio mondo morale, a meno di potenti e diretti interventi della fortuna, non è stato concesso che a pochissimi individui superiori, della stoffa dei martiri e dei santi (2014: 89).

In Levi's case, one senses the need to justify oneself before the "voice of conscience" (Arendt, 2022: 259-261). The recognition of one's own criminal act, or that of a fellow human being, indicates a certain moral superiority. By insisting on having to renounce that "common moral world", a not-wanting-to-renounce is implied. Levi thus adds another boundary dimension. The inside and the outside of Auschwitz – the reality of the victims and that of the perpetrators – also separated the validity of two opposing moral systems. In Hannah Arendt's words: whereas in Auschwitz, as a pure survival strategy, one tried to still adhere to the voice of conscience, and thus to continue to understand evil as a temptation that had to be resisted, evil in the National Socialist world had lost this quality of temptation. For in this inverted reality, the Führer's order to murder entire peoples had been elevated to the status of law. Hitler's "new law" (2022: 260) also had the voice of conscience as its ultimate support, only it was identified with the voice of the Führer. Thus, the National Socialist legal system no longer started from the assumption that conscience told man "thou shalt not kill", but from the assumption that it told him its exact opposite: "thou shalt kill". Thus, it is conceivable that victims such as Primo Levi were able to feel pangs of conscience because of their largely minor crimes, committed almost exclusively for the sake of survival, even in the state of emergency of the Auschwitz camp, while the perpetrator Adolph Eichmann, for example, claimed until the end of his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 that "he had done his duty, (...) he had not only obeyed orders, he had also obeyed the law" (2022: 241). The National Socialist moral world was the perfect reflection of the "comune mondo morale" of which Levi speaks. The axis or surface, the border after all, was the barbed wire.

But there is another level of this cruel border to be discussed. It arises in turn from the confrontation of the drawing of the border that Capriccio addressed with the relationship to the border that music had in Auschwitz according to the important report by Primo Levi. Indeed, the different tasks that music fulfilled for the Third Reich inside and outside Auschwitz correspond to different ways of dealing with the concept of the border. It has already been shown how an opera like Capriccio, with its enthronement of triviality, provided a distraction from the reality of war that was more than welcome by Nazi cultural policy, and how the same opera also thermalized that distraction so that the gesture of drawing a line between the real world and the sphere of art came to the fore. Primo Levi also speaks of a certain distraction with regard to the role of music in the camp – he is primarily concerned with the music used by the perpetrators, i.e. explicitly not that which the victims may have made voluntarily; here, too, only that first one is meant –: "l'ipnosi del ritmo interminabile, che uccide il pensiero e attuisce il dolore (...)" (2014: 44-45). The majority of references to musical events in Se questo è un uomo speak to art's ability to distract from the inhuman circumstances of the camp. This distraction, however, identified with "hypnosis", is fundamentally different from the one Capriccio breathes upon. For it is not appreciative or self-referential, but results from pure stupor. In words reminiscent of Brecht, Levi describes what it was like to momentarily regain distance from the unlivable, namely during his stay in the so-called "Ka-Be", the lazaretto or "infirmary" of the camp:

Anche quelli del Ka-Be conoscono questo uscire e rientrare dal lavoro, l'ipnosi del ritmo interminabile, che uccide il pensiero e attuisce il dolore; l'hanno provato e lo riproveranno. Ma bisognava uscire dall'incantamento, sentire la musica dal di fuori, come accadeva in Ka-Be e come ora la ripensiamo, dopo la liberazione e la rinascita, senza obbedirvi, senza subirla, per capire che cosa era; per capire per quale meditata ragione i tedeschi avevano creato questo rito mostruoso, e perché, oggi ancora, quando la memoria ci restituisce qualcuna di quelle innocenti canzoni, il sangue ci si ferma nelle vene, e siamo consci che essere ritornati da Auschwitz non è stata piccola ventura (2014: 44-45).

If music outside Auschwitz had allowed distraction in a way that did not prevent being aware of that distraction, the use of music inside Auschwitz had to fulfil the important task for the perpetrators of providing the most numbing, alienating distraction possible for the victims. What it had to distract from were the conditions of work and life in the camp, i.e. the exceptional state of the concentration camp. Here again a mirroring between both sides of the barbed wire emerges: While in Capriccio's case the thematization and recognition of the demarcation between the real world and the sphere of art made possible something like a Brechtian alienation, whereby said demarcation was celebrated, the "enchantment" ("incantamento") inherent in Auschwitz's music was designed to distract from and make one forget the most fundamental demarcation of all; namely, that which separated livable from unlivable conditions. In Auschwitz, music did not serve to draw the border, but to make it forgotten. This task was fulfilled by pieces that, because of their structural nature, provided a distraction from the burden of the camp routine, e.g. fanfares or marches, especially through a very distinctive, repetitive rhythm. Distracting from the fact of the unlivability of the camp was not only the military repertoire, but also contemporary pieces that, because of their popularity, introduced the appearance of normality in the camp. Accordingly, popular pieces that were recomposed into fanfares and marches seemed to have been most effective. We should recall here the song Rosamunde, originally a Bohemian polka composed by Jaromír Vejvoda in 1927, whose mention at the very beginning of Levi's testimony constitutes one of its most famous episodes:

Una fanfara incomincia a suonare, accanto alla porta del campo: suona Rosamunda, la ben nota canzonetta sentimentale, e questo ci appare talmente strano che ci guardiamo l'un l'altro sogghignando; nasce in noi un'ombra di sollievo, forse tutte queste cerimonie non costituiscono che una colossale buffonata di gusto teutonico. Ma la fanfara, finita Rosamunda, continua a suonare altre marce, una dopo l'altra, ed ecco apparire i drappelli dei nostri compagni, che ritornano dal lavoro. Camminano in colonna per cinque: camminano con un'andatura strana, innaturale, dura, come fantocci rigidi fatti solo di ossa: ma camminano seguendo scrupolosamente il tempo della fanfara (2014: 22).

It seems most important to Primo Levi throughout his book to constantly contest this appearance of normality by pointing to the strangeness of those elements that conveyed or were supposed to convey ordinariness within Auschwitz: "Si vedevano a mezzogiorno le montagne; a ponente, familiare e incongruo, il campanile di Auschwitz (qui, un campanile!)". (2014: 67). From his words, it reads that the use of music for these purposes was simply an ultimate torture strategy. The victims, who were known to have been completely deprived before internment, were left with nothing; not even the recognition of the exceptional nature of their condition was allowed to them. Here, another level of the border opens up that differentiates two different ways of behaving towards the exception: Inside Auschwitz, the use of music forced upon the victims, to be understood with Primo Levi as torture, served to conceal the camp's state of exception, while outside Auschwitz, works such as Capriccio instigated and even addressed a state of exception – the one that prevails in the sphere of art – that was favoured by the perpetrators. The cheerful, conscious distraction from the circumstances that prevailed outside was inside an acceptance of those very circumstances that had become unconscious. In both cases, music had a leading role to play. Capriccio found in Auschwitz, as it seems, an uncanny negative.


Arendt, H. (2022). Eichmann in Jerusalem. An account of the banality of evil. Piper.

Battegay, C. (2009). In Praise of Stuttering. On poems by Ghérasim Lucas. Variations, 17, 45-57.

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Fröhlich, E. (1974). The Cultural Policy Press Conference of the Reich Propaganda Ministry. Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 22(4), 347-381.

Frank, D. (2015). Unpolitical art? Capriccio in the mirror of its time of origin. In Theater an der Wien (ed.), Programmheft zur Neuinszenierung Capriccio (pp. 63-69).

Levi. P. (2014). Se questo è un uomo. Einaudi.

Opera Guide. (3 March 2023). Synopsis: Friedenstag from Richard Strauss.

Petersen, P. (2017). "Friedenstag" by Stefan Zweig, Richard Strauss and Joseph Gregor. A pacifist opera in the "Third Reich". Waxmann.

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Schläder, J., Crome, R., Frank, D. and Frühinsfeld, K. (2017). How to become what you are. The Bavarian State Opera before and after 1945. Henschel.

Schläder, J. (2022). Verstandestheater, Kopfgrütze, trockener Witz. In Bayerische Staatsoper (ed.), Programmheft zur Neuinszenierung Capriccio (pp. 120-127).

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[1] See, for example, in the programme booklet for the Munich performance of Capriccio at the Bavarian State Opera (July 2022), Jürgen Schläder's contribution, "Verstandestheater, Kopfgrütze, trockener Witz", pp. 120-127.

[2] In "Eichmann in Jerusalem. An Account of the Banality of Evil", published in Germany in 1964, Hannah Arendt repeatedly emphasises the willingness of National Socialist medical professionals to collaborate in the so-called "solution of the Jewish question" by introducing sterilisation methods. See e.g. Arendt, 2022 [1964]: 207 f. and 263 f.

[3] See e.g. Wilhelm, 1988: 346-347.

[4] As Caspar Battegay writes: "If one declares that a text is primarily concerned with its own textuality, i.e. with the conditions of its own creation, the accusation of 'playing around' is not far away". Immediately afterwards, the polemic about the poetry volume Sprachgitter (1959) is discussed, prompted by an article by the critic Günter Blöcker in the Berlin Tagesspiegel, who made precisely this accusation against Paul Celan's work (Battegay, 2009: 45).

[5] Elke Fröhlich speaks of the "eclectic character of National Socialist worldview and art theory" (Fröhlich, 1974: 355).

[6] "Every excellent work, of whatever kind it may be, [knows] more than it says, and [wants] more than it knows" (Schlegel, 2018b: 191).

Signed: Schattenhaar

Bayreuth, June 2023

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