The most oppressive regimes of the last century didn’t only use their military strength to maintain a hold over people. As the documentary Tunes For Tyrants: Music and Power with Suzy Klein (BBC4) shows, both the Russian and German states used music to reinforce compliance. The series’ three episodes cover the years between the end of the First World War and the end of the second, when both states were moving towards totalitarianism, reminding us of the similarities between the extreme left and right wings of capitalism. They endorsed and encouraged particular styles of music, but the styles they suppressed reveal just as much about politics and culture during this turbulent era. In the programme, alongside archive footage and performances by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Klein talks with experts and people who played music at the time.
In the first years after the Russian Revolution, its state used music to try and engineer a cultured and united working class, such as through the appropriation of The Internationale as an anthem. Another approach was the founding in 1922 of the Persimfans orchestra to bring classical music to the populace. The orchestra played without a conductor to emphasise its collective approach and egalitarian principles, a method which Klein snippily compares to communism itself: ‘a good idea in theory but hard to achieve in practice’. Around the same time, avant-garde music was used to promote Russia as forward-thinking and experimental, such as the Lenin-sponsored tour by Leon Theremin of his eponymous electronic musical instrument, and composer Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Factory Sirens, which also incorporated car horns, machine guns and foghorns. Avraamov called for the destruction of all pianos, as they were a symbol of the old order, and because the Russian word for ‘grand piano’ also translates as ‘royal’. These lofty ideals quickly became corrupted as the Russian state solidified its power. In a more brutal way than Lenin, Stalin wanted music to be infused with the state’s values, and those outside this narrow vision risked being sent to the Gulag. The careers of composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev hinged on whether their work met with Stalin’s approval. Theremin moved out of Russia before the end of the 1920s, while Avraamov fell out of favour with the elite and died in poverty.
In Germany of the 1930s, the Nazis also began controlling what music was considered acceptable. They devised the notion of ‘degenerate music’, that which was judged to ‘contaminate’ German ‘purity’ because it was influenced by other traditions. Jewish musicians were all branded ‘degenerate’, and the Jews and Music ABC directory blacklisted thousands of people, from prominent composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler to part-time pianists. Other ‘degenerate music’ included the avant-garde and modernist, cabaret music (which had embraced satire, pacifism and gay rights in its lyrics) and jazz. This music provided an outlet for expression and a sense of community for those who played and appreciated it, these groups being targeted by the Nazis. So, the notion of ‘degenerate music’ is more about oppressing others than any abstract idea of ‘pure’ art. Perhaps surprisingly, music was permitted in concentration camps, as long as it helped subdue or control the prisoners. Camps had their own orchestras (Auschwitz had 12), and footage of the concerts they performed was used as propaganda to downplay the holocaust.
The classical music of which the Nazis approved gave them ‘a veneer of respectability’, according to Klein. Hitler admired Richard Wagner’s operas for conveying fantasies about nationalism, heroism and mythology, and ordered performances of them to be staged before rallies, and even as a show of strength as the Nazis were close to defeat. For Klein, the toxic spirit of the age is summed up by Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1937), popular with both Nazis and later aftershave advertisers. For Klein, this tune has become a ‘cliché of macho apocalyptic glory’.
A state – especially a totalitarian one – needs its citizens to accept an ideology and situation that isn’t in their best interests. Trying to convince someone to do this through rational arguments isn’t likely to work, so states have capitalised on how music affects us on a non-rational, emotive level. Strident, passionate music like Carmina Burana and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is undoubtedly rousing to hear. As Professor Erik Levi says in the documentary, Wagner’s music can be overwhelming, bypassing thought to seduce the audience. The effect is amplified if music is part of a rally, with thousands of people marching in time, the scene dressed up with flags and banners. Such an imposing spectacle could sweep someone up, deafening them to the vile ideas behind. The same process applies to the patriotic anthems sung by organisations like the Hitler Youth and Pioneer Movement; a choir of people all singing the same song implies and forges unity. In Britain, music encouraged by the state reflected the stoicism and respectability seen as the values which would win the war; Vera Lynn’s songs were judged to be too ‘slushy in sentiment’ by the BBC. Radio programmes like Workers’ Playtime and Music While You Work were broadcast to and from factories, intended to boost morale and improve productivity among the workforce.
Although states no longer use music to manipulate to the extent they used to, the same kind of bombastic marching songs are still played at military parades, whether in Russia, America, North Korea or Britain. Music’s power to stir our emotions has instead largely shifted to the market, where it’s been commodified, whether through advertising jingles or Ed Sheeran albums. The working class has still kept a hold on music’s ability to reinforce a message, through protest songs, punk, rap, rave, even through the chants heard at football matches. As Tunes For Tyrants usefully explores, it’s the message, the ideology behind music that we should listen out for.