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During my frequent visits to the old GDR, I would trawl bookshops to find works interesting to those not necessarily allegiant to the party line, and, schooled by experience, the first thing I did on inspecting a possible purchase was to turn to the last page, often to discover that there was no index, on which I returned the book to the shelf. I was reminded of that manoeuvre on reading this book. There is an index, but at two-and-a-half pages it is quite disgracefully inadequate: for example, even important figures in GDR music, such as the world-famous opera directors Walter Felsenstein, Harry Kupfer and Joachim Herz (not to mention the GDR’s top critic, Dieter Kranz), though all discussed at some length, do not figure in the index. Ironically, there is a lack of editorial energy and wholehearted commitment here reminiscent of GDR publishing. Also, in spite of the copious notes after each chapter, often giving details of works cited, there is no overall bibliography. This is a great pity, as the editors have otherwise produced a valuable addition to the field – one chapter, by Jonathan L Jaeger, on the composer Friedrich Schenker, even providing much new information.

Of the 12 chapters, by East German and US academics, the keenest insights are possibly offered by the former, into musical life in the years 1945-1989. There are chapters homing in on the composers Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler (who was not alone in never adopting GDR nationality, even though he wrote the music for the national anthem), and others on film music and the perpetual negotiations on what was and what was not permitted. The choice of authors offers a many-faceted picture: of musical life in the provinces, the uneasy relationship between Marxism and Germany’s musical heritage, Mahler’s music in the GDR, and the nifty footwork of some players, eg the composer Ernst Hermann Meyer, a real ‘Rote Socke’ (‘red sock’), as fervent communists were called – mostly behind their backs. But over all hovers that grey mist of moral torpidity ever present in former eastern bloc countries. read this book and weep.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica

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