Studying Music and Violence

Heidi Hart

The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars.
Thank God there’s no one left for me to lose –
so I am free to cry. This air was made
for the echoing of songs.

–Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet, 1944
  • Random cannonfire punctures the sound-space in Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory.
  • Wagner’s Ring Cycle idealizes an imaginary world of Germanic “blood and soil,” later to be appropriated even more brazenly under National Socialism.
  • Ravel’s La Valse breaks into a dance of death after the First World War.
  • Hanns Eisler sets to bristling music Bertolt Brecht’s bitter 1939 poem for “those who come after.”
  • An orchestra of prisoners plays at Theresienstadt, the “model” concentration camp.
    During the First and Second World Wars, peppy military anthems vie with stark Leftist protest songs, which give way to gentler music in the Sixties: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Give Peace a Chance.”
  • The Civil Rights movement marches to “We Shall Overcome.”
  • From Greece in the 1970s to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in our own time, music torture inflicts heavy metal or Sesame Street songs at earsplitting volume, twenty-four hours a day in solitary prison cells.
  • Daniel Barenboim leads an orchestra of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians, seeking musical and political understanding.
  • In John Adams’ 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, Robert Oppenheimer sings an agonized aria set to John Donne’s most famous “Holy Sonnet”: “Batter my heart, three-personed God …” as a giant atom bomb looms overhead.

These are a few examples of the intersections of music and violence that I investigate as a doctoral student in German Studies. As novelist Barbara Kingsolver put it in a reading I attended years ago, “I write about what breaks my heart.”

Yes, it is possible to approach academic work from this personal perspective. For many years I didn’t believe this. I imagined a scholar’s life as dusty and out of touch with real, engaged life. My vocation came for me as an insistent leading as I neared forty, though had I listened more carefully, I might have heard it calling earlier.

I’ll tell the story here. At age ten, in 1981, I moved with my family to then-West Germany, where my father worked as an attorney for the Mormon Church. My safe childhood world exploded as I encountered the twentieth century’s violence in traces and resonances all around me. The impact came quickly. I could no longer sing the Mormon children’s song “Called to Serve,” an anthem that exudes proselytizing zeal, with a breezy sense of belonging to something grand. I could no longer hear my father’s recordings of Brahms and Wagner and Strauss with my former innocence. I was hearing too much that complicated this musical tradition for me.

I heard about Hitler’s love of Wagner’s operas, and about Beethoven played in the Nazi rallying grounds. I was still too young to know about Günter Grass’ 1959 novel The Tin Drum, in which the three-foot-tall Oskar Matzerath beats anarchic rhythm under a proscenium on one of these rallying grounds, disrupting the collective march beat.

Sponge-like only child that I was, all I heard were snatches of historical information and stories the next-door neighbor would tell my mother in our kitchen late at night, stories of the war, some of them about people we knew: “He keeps an apple on his nightstand, after being in the camp, he’s so afraid he’ll wake up with no food …”

“He thought he was escaping but realized he’d been running in a circle, all night long …”

“And the women came back to find all the men hanging from telephone poles …”

I shuddered and felt sick. I felt I carried a dark secret that I couldn’t share with anyone. I didn’t have the words to express my queasiness to my father, who, in his grim enjoyment of the Cold War’s threats, sometimes took me out onto our balcony and said, “The Soviets have missiles pointed right here.”

I didn’t know who was more frightening – my youth leader, a U.S. Army wife who barked out orders in our cross-stitching class, or our neighbor the former S.S. officer who sometimes appeared in his wool overcoat to perform furniture inspections in our all-Mormon settlement, to be sure each family’s sofas and dressers conformed to social-ecclesiastical rank.

All the while, my mother was practicing her Schubert songs for voice and piano, some of them so beautiful, they hurt to hear. They hurt because I now knew what no one would say explicitly: that this culture steeped in Bach and Goethe and Beethoven had wreaked unspeakable horrors on the world, not in spite of but in the name of that culture. My sense that Beethoven would have been horrified to know his Ninth Symphony was played for Hitler’s birthday didn’t help my heart.

Returning to the U.S. after a difficult year, I could no longer fit into the safe bubble of my childhood. I spent hours curled up under my desk, reading books about the two world wars, half on the sly; what I was learning felt too explosive for my outward life. All Quiet on the Western Front swept away any belief I might have had in the optimistic patriotism that saturated my small private school. As I was becoming a fierce but silent pacifist, again with no one to tell my painful inner experience, I was also waking up at five a.m. to practice the piano. Mostly Bach and Brahms. I still couldn’t get enough of the music that now seemed as tainted as it was beautiful.

I carried this unsolvable problem with me through college, into marriage and motherhood, until I entered the MFA program in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in my late twenties. Here I finally found people who could help me take on the problem. Working in the “poetry of witness” tradition, I learned the power of naming what made me uncomfortable, of drawing on ancient poetic forms to speak to present injustice, and of listening for language that “rang true” amid a sea of cliché.

One poem that spoke to me particularly was Muriel Rukeyser’s “St. Roach,” which reads like a biblical litany: “For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,/ for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth.” Rukeyser breaks the poem’s incantatory pattern with the line, “Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.”

My mentors helped me break my own habit of circling difficult material with lovely language; after a painful bout of writer’s block, I pounded out fourteen “Body Sonnets” in a week, addressing my religious history and the pressurized silences in my marriage: “I play my little shells, the meter/ of the speech I want to make, the piano/ for the singing in my head, the piano/ with its bony, knowing hammers.”

Another gift at Sarah Lawrence was an opportunity to study in the music department, where my voice teacher insisted that I reckon with the meaning of the words I sang. “Sing to express, not to impress,” he said. He asked me to listen for the most important word in each phrase and to speak the words aloud, to hear them as communicative utterance. I also studied with a pianist and musicologist whose “Words and Music” seminar helped me hear the political resonances around every work I studied, from Schubert’s Winterreise to Bernstein’s West Side Story.

During the next ten years, I left the Mormon Church to become a Quaker and became more tuned to my own tainted world: ongoing racism and sexism, corporate-sponsored, oil-driven warfare, torture, the widening gap between rich and poor. At the same time, I was pursuing projects as a writer and musician that came up against my old question of music and violence, again and again. During the year I prepared Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle for performance, I found myself researching the composer’s life in conservative, post-Napoleonic Vienna and drawing on new queer-theory scholarship to allow for the possibility that this work might have been a way for Schubert to voice his pain as an outsider, his “winter’s journey” a way of circling in the margins of society. Rehearsing Schumann’s Dichterliebe (“Poet’s Love”) cycle, I started to hear in it the poet Heinrich Heine’s love-hate relationship with Germanness, both text and music making fun of the very Romantic tropes (lilies, doves, beautiful broken chords) it can’t quite let go. In one song, the flowers in a garden talk back to the poet with gentle irony: “you sad, pale man.”

In 2007 I received a grant to research intersections of the arts and violence in Vienna; this opening led me to research and write on music in the conscience-calling postwar poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. A quotation of Schubert’s beautiful “Lindenbaum” (“Linden Tree”) song from the Winterreise cycle that I knew so well, in Bachmann’s poem “Early Noon” (“Seven years later/ this pain returns to you/ at the well in front of the gate/ don’t look too deep inside/ you can’t stop the tears”), hit me with painful resonance. Seeing an enormous painting by Anselm Kiefer in Vienna that depicts the hair of the all-too-German Margarethe (a reference to Goethe’s Faust) and the Jewish Shulamith (a reference to the Song of Songs) in Paul Celan’s post-Holocaust poem “Death Fugue” left me speechless.

Shortly after this, a pianist friend suggested that I look at Hanns Eisler’s settings of Bertolt Brecht’s wartime poetry. We focused on “An die Nachgeborenen” (“To Those Born After”), a three-part elegy that protects traces of lyric beauty, so compromised in the Nazi era, in bristling twelve-tone textures. This project led to a collaborative concert we called “The Body Politic,” with music ranging from Beethoven’s working out of his own “Napoleon issues” at the piano (his Sonata no. 18, “Les adieux”) to an aria sung by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca before his assassination under Franco, in Osvaldo Golijov’s 2003 opera Ainadamar.

During this time my nonfiction writing started leaning more heavily on research; I wanted to learn everything I could about what made music politically charged, or not, and how it could work on the human body and spirit, for better or worse. A month at an artists’ colony in Wyoming drew me further into the Schumann-Heine Dichterliebe cycle, in which I now heard the poet as a “mask” for the exiled Heine, his beloved in the poems not a woman but the German culture that he felt had betrayed him, threatening to arrest him every year for his political poetry, failing to understand his ironic take on the lyric beauty he did actually love. Consider this late passage in the cycle:


The old, angry songs,
the dreams angry and nasty,
let us now bury them,
fetch a great coffin.

In it I will lay very many things,
though I shall not yet say what.
The coffin must be even larger
than the Heidelberg Tun.

And fetch a death-bier,
of boards firm and thick,
they also must be even longer
than Mainz’s great bridge.

And fetch me also twelve giants,
who must be yet mightier
than mighty St. Christopher
in the Cathedral of Cologne on the Rhine.

They shall carry the coffin away,
and sink it down into the sea,
for such a great coffin
deserves a great grave.

Heine is known for the “Stimmungsbruch” or “tone break” that interrupts much of his poetry, calling the reader to come out of the lyric dream and think about what it means, instead of staying caught in a hypnotic spell. This kind of spell was exactly what the composer Richard Wagner was cultivating in his operatic music in the mid-nineteenth century, going so far as to express hope that listeners would leave the opera house with his music stuck in their heads, music they would not actually be able to hum.

For all my excitement about what I was learning to hear in music and poetry during this time, I was not ready to take on an academic vocation. I loved teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college in Salt Lake City but didn’t believe my research and critical writing could make a difference in a broken world. I started taking harp lessons, and during the first years of the Iraq war, I participated in peace vigils my Quaker meeting organized, sometimes schlepping my harp to play in our quiet circle in front of Salt Lake City’s federal building. For three years I studied in a rigorous music thanatology program, preparing to play “prescriptive music” vigils to aid the dying process.

I learned the many subtle – and not-so-subtle – ways music can affect the body, from “binding” it into regular march beats to releasing its pulse and breath rates with unmetered music like medieval plainchant. I loved what I was learning, but a painful divorce and time of soul-searching led me to a new crossroads: I realized I was not that person I so wanted to be, or to be seen as, playing gently by the bedside; my vocation lay elsewhere. Though I came close to beginning an internship at a veterans’ hospital, I realized that as much as I wanted to help those affected by violence in this way, my deeper inclination was toward learning more about music’s painful intersections with war and genocide. Reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak helped me see my way through this difficult time, as I came to see “how one’s values can do battle with one’s heart.”

As several doors slammed shut in my personal life and publishers returned my nonfiction manuscripts (“We really like this, but it wants to be an academic paper”), I knew it was time to face the truth I’d encountered in a Kafka seminar as an undergraduate years before: it’s possible to spend your whole life running from your own vocation. For me, now swimming like a fish in water in a PhD program, I can see that my vocation is to research, write, and teach – as well as to practice and perform the music that I love, with deep attention to its history and political resonance.

In my Kafka seminar years ago, I also learned that in German you can call your job a “Beruf,” which includes the word “Ruf,” or call, but the word “Berufung” gives this word a more spiritual resonance, in the sense of “calling.” In that same seminar, taught by an inspired professor, I caught an early spark of my own “Berufung,” reading Kafka’s scene in which Gregor Samsa secretly listens to his sister’s violin music, his whole beetle-body vibrating in response, until the family sees him and is so embarrassed in front of their guests, they violently punish him.

Reading Kafka’s “Metamporphosis” again thirty years later, as I was brushing up my German before returning to graduate school, this moment in the story brought me to tears. How could a family entranced in their daughter’s music turn so cruelly, minutes after, on their son? Attempting to answer questions like this is what my calling is about.

Now I find myself more moved, not less, by the dissonances in music and literature and history that I encounter every day. My work does not mean sitting in a dusty office, analyzing paragraphs to their own dusty death, as I once feared it would. It’s about reading my way into moments like the one in Kafka’s story, writing my way through what I don’t understand, learning what others have had to say, and sharing what I find, both in my writing and in the classroom or at conferences around the world. Applying theoretical approaches, from Nietzsche’s idea of the “chorus” as collective voice to Giorgio Agamben’s concept of “bare life” as what humans were reduced to in the Holocaust, reminds me that I am part of a larger conversation through time and space.

My work means singing my musical examples during a conference presentation in Stockholm, to show the subtle beauty protected in Brecht’s thorny wartime elegy. It means sitting down at the piano to test an opera score with hands and voice, trying to understand how a nineteenth-century writer like Heinrich von Kleist could end up on a stage in 2008 Berlin, surrounded by radio static in a junkyard where terrorists are preparing a car bomb. It means tracking rhythmic “breaks” in Hanns Eisler’s “Solidarity Song,” stumbling moments that keep the singers from falling too easily into a collective march, and reading Paul Celan aloud, to hear the painfully ironic dance rhythms in his genocide-haunted poetry.

It means asking my creative writing students in Berlin to write 12-bar blues lyrics on their experience of the city’s history, and taking fifty undergraduates to the Friday service in Dresden’s newly restored Frauenkirche cathedral, which sat as a pile of rubble for decades, and where the bombing of Coventry is now remembered in music and words.

A dear friend once described her spiritual journey as learning to live in the “difficult interval” between two close pitches. If you play two notes next to each other on the piano, say a whole step between C and D, and try to sing the pitch right in between, your voice can easily waver, wanting to gravitate toward one note or the other on either side. This metaphor could apply to my research, writing, and teaching as well. Holding one’s pitch even in straightforward chord patterns is a tricky enough skill, both musically and existentially; keeping a sense of center between two closely competing notes – to apply the metaphor, keeping from falling into easy relativism (“music can mean whatever you want it to”) on one side and narrow ideological conviction (“lyric melody is forever tainted by fascism”) on the other – is an even greater challenge.

This is why community is essential to me in my academic work. I need guidance and thoughtful conversation to approach these dissonances wisely. Collaborating as a musician with professors and fellow students is a visceral way to engage with my material. Working with professors who can hear clashing intentions in an opera or symphony (“Listen to this passage in Richard Strauss! Such cruel manipulation, and yet such metaphysical longing!”) helps better tune my ear.

Meeting other scholars around the world who care deeply about problems of beauty and violence is a gift as well. Through them I am learning a provisional vocabulary for the dissonances I work with – the “ideology of pathos” with reference to beautiful music accompanying concentration-camp scenes, for example – and am repeatedly challenged by difficult questions, such as “If you perform this wartime music now, does it risk coming across as a museum piece, not as something that can move us?”

I am also hearing music that my colleagues and mentors write themselves, such as Lawrence Kramer’s Short History of the Twentieth Century, which recently premiered at a Krakow conference on music and genocide; this work for soprano and percussion simply lists place names where atrocities have occurred (there are actually too many, Lawrence told me, to include even in a not-really-so-short work like this). In addition, thanks to my Quaker meeting, I’ve had the opportunity to think back along the thread that has led me toward my vocation and present a forum on witnessing through music in a world still very much torn by violence.

Sometimes, amid all my teaching and reading and paper-writing, I do feel that scholarship falls short in addressing “what breaks my heart.” I hope to schlep my harp to peace vigils again, and to find new music that speaks to our collective condition in a world of ongoing drone attacks, school shootings, and less “newsworthy” but just as damaging institutional violence.

I want to live my own belief that music isn’t just a personal soundtrack or a temporary transport out of this world’s cares, but a whole-body experience deeply embedded in the world, just as, for me, the spirit isn’t a mere wisp but just as present and as vulnerable as our own bony flesh. How to raise awareness of what wakes us up, body and soul, and what keeps us asleep? Maybe learning a new instrument or discovering new songs can help, as can paying close attention to the music in the movies that we see.

Keeping a “music journal” could help, too. As a poet, a sidelong vocation I still work at, I find that creative work allows me to think aloud in a more embodied way than I can in academic writing.

I will conclude this essay with a response to Paul Celan’s poem “Abend der Worte” (“Evening of Words”) that haunted me during my recent summer in Berlin. After taking on my own working translation of Celan’s poem (some telling lines: “time’s scar/ splits itself/ and spreads the land with blood – “) and seeing the artist Anselm Kiefer’s visual responses to the piece, I answered with my own remaining trust in music as kind of “divining rod” when I come up against the limits of language:

Abend der Worte
after Paul Celan
unbegun poem
already gone/undone
the alphabet of columns
the film run out
negative: found
evening of words
gone underground
sunflower husk
lost seeds the keys
the printer’s mold
at Buchenwald
I only photograph
two shards and stones
in Bach’s church
the altar of the Word
the song long gone
even as it’s sung
divining rod into my spine
the chime
the babble rhyme
for memory
before there was an alphabet
flea market
typeset in my hand
East German font
the lost keys free
of signifying

For Further Reading/Listening:

Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History by Lawrence Kramer (University of California Press, 2002)

The Seduction of Culture in German History by Wolf Lepenies (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Symphonic Aspirations: German Music and Politics by Karen Painter (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Terezin/Theresienstadt (2008 recording of music composed in by prisoners in the “model” concentration camp)

Paul Celan reading “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), worth hearing for the rhythm in his voice, even for non-German-speakers:

Interesting “music video” approach to Schubert’s Winterreise with amazing duo Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake:

Classic recording of “Der Lindenbaum” with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Clip from The Tin Drum (here Oskar Matzerath plays an alternative, not anarchic, rhythm as suggested in the book):

Short clip of Gerald Finley in the role of Oppenheimer in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic:

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