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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Makers of the modern world

By Norman Lebrecht / May 13, 2005

To millions who were born long after, the Second World War rises more frequently to mind than Iraq, the ozone layer or the European constitution. Barely a week passes without some historical revelation or political row, the unearthing of archives or the unbuttoning of ugly prejudices. As one of history’s few clear-cut conflicts between absolute evil and relative good, the Hitler war endures as a template for human conduct in a new century when the memories of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Biafra, Angola and Chechnya have been all but obliterated.

There are important cultural reasons for its persistence. This was, historically, the first continental war to be waged in the age of broadcasting. Radio and film conveyed its actuality and artists quickly converted its sounds and images into creative work. Art was a battlefront in itself. Dictators harnessed it to their propaganda machines while the democracies unintentionally inspired a spontaneous cultural renaissance.

Apart from the Napoleonic wars, which gave us the Eroica Symphony, the works of Goya and ultimately War and Peace, no conflict has produced so much art and of such elevated quality as the Second World War. A record of one nation’s achievements published by the British Council in 1947 barely scratches the surface of productivity. It lists the films of Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Carol Reed and David Lean; the choreographies of Frederick Ashton; Britten’s opera Peter Grimes and Walton’s film music for Henry V; the riveting paintings of Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, John Piper, Ben Nicolson, the young Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

But that was just us. America discovered itself in Martha Graham’s ballet of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. France found renewal in Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, and the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet. Russia, in the relaxation of Stalin’s terror, heard the finest, freest symphonies of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

The appetite for new music was universally insatiable. The fifth symphony of Vaughan Williams and the seventh of Shostakovich were crowded out by young men and women in drab uniform seeking oracular prediction. Prokofiev designated his fifth symphony, composed during the summer of 1944, ‘a symphony about the spirit of man’. Two years later in London he opened the first post-war gathering of the International Society for Contemporary Music with an Ode to the End of War. Somewhere between these titles was a tentative definition of the purpose of art in a world that would never be the same again, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima.

The meaning of art as we understand it today was forged in those years. Everything created since, including the most abstract and alienated art, is a by-product of the war that was fought at unfathomable human cost for freedom of the individual. Like it or not, the war is what we are – what we became when we stood up to tyranny.

Germans often accuse us British of displaying an unhealthy obsession with an irrelevant past when we make such harmless comedies as ‘Ullo ‘Ullo or period novels and movies like The English Patient and The Remains of the Day. What they fail to appreciate is that we have no alternative. The war is the catalyst of our cultural identity, the source of our self-knowledge. Quite apart from the transition it marked from pre-1939 imperial nation to post 1945 welfare state, the war gave Britain creative confidence and an unprecedented sense of the importance of culture. It is thanks to the war and the energies it unleashed that we have state subsidised arts and a national theatre.

For their part, the Germans with three notable exceptions - Gunter Grass, the marginalised novelist Wolfgang Koeppen and the filmmaker Edgar Reitz, whose seminal Heimat 3 has just reached our screens – wrote the war out of their culture. They are demonstrably the poorer for that omission. Purged by Hitler of its foremost creators, modern German culture was founded on a sterile myth of Stunde Null, a zero hour from which art began again from blank. German literature, music and film (Grass, Koeppen and Reitz excepted) have yet to find firm footing.

The comparative vitality of British culture is grounded in the wartime renaissance and, at the same time, in an impatience to move on. British theatre, still stuffy and suburban when the last shots were fired, was remade by the American imports Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and by Pinter and Osborne who kicked and spat against the constraints of the past.

It is neither a coincidence nor a weakness that one of the most successful literary novels of the 21st century, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, uses a backdrop of wartime London to explore the contemporary issue of child abuse. The war remains creatively useful, even in a multicultural Britain whose newer communities missed out on the experience.

The great cultural act of remembrance was Britten’s War Requiem, premiered at the reconsecration of Coventry’s bombed-out Cathedral in May 1962. Interweaving First World War poems by Wilfred Owen with traditional Christian liturgy, the Requiem points tonally and rhythmically ahead, no turning back. Its second performance, before reaching London, was in Berlin. In none of the important British art made during and after the war is there a trace of triumphalism, nothing to suggest that victory was due to the superiority of one culture over another.

Even more remarkably, the cultural rebirth contradicted the old adage that when the cannons roar the muses are silent. This was a war when, for the first time in history, every civilian in combatant countries was at risk of bombardment, dispossession or deportation. Yet the closer the threat, the more urgent was the public demand for spiritual catharsis – not in the old remedies of religion, ideology and alcohol but in the distilled products of artistic imagination. If one image prevails it is of thousands of bank clerks, civil servants and canteen staff queuing in their lunch hour to enter a National Gallery, denuded of art and under constant threat of air raids, where the white-haired Myra Hess was to play a piano sonata by Beethoven.

How pathetic, then, was the travesty that was staged this weekend on the steps of that selfsame National Gallery to mark the 60th anniversary of victory. Pop singers and petty celebs were paraded before rain-soaked veterans in a rose-tinted event, no hint of the creative energies of those great days, no intimation of the numinous. In the anti-elitist mindset of those we have re-elected to govern us, greatness and art are two dirty words.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001