For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the storm, it says in the Book of Hosea. Nazi Germany set the world ablaze after creating a climate of hate against Jews and anyone opposing the Nazis’ imperialist dreams. The German attack on Poland triggered World War II, and by February 1944 the Germans were reaping the storm, the storm of fire and destruction. On this day 75 years ago the Allied Command launched massive aerial attacks by day and by night, targeting the cities of Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg and Stuttgart. More than 10,000 tons of bombs were dropped within a week on Germany to destroy its aircraft factories.
Why am I telling you this? In 1802 Ludwig van Beethoven wrote Piano Sonata No. 17-2 “The Storm”. The first time I heard this sonata was on a recording by the German pianist Elly Ney. What a revelation! The piece, the pianist… The sonata is radically departing from the traditional sonata form. An unusual first movement, probably inspired by Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”. A revolutionary second movement where the composer uses a variety of timbres and where the piano seems to replace a whole orchestra. A finale dominated by rhythmic figures driving the section in a contnuous impulse forward.
Elly Ney (1882-1968) has captured my attention through a recording of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 “Waldstein”, one of my favourite Beethoven piano pieces. Such a nuanced play! Such an impetuous energy! All of Beethoven’s fury seems to flow through this exceptional pianist. She was a precocious child and at the age of 22 she started to teach music at the conservatory of Cologne. In the 1920s she lived in the United States where she performed Romantic music with a focus on Chopin, Brahms and Beethoven. In 1930 she returned to Europe. Today she is being remembred as one of the best Beethoven performers of her time
Elly Ney – how I admire her! How I despise her! Elly Ney was an ardent supporter of the Nazis and an outspoken anti-Semite. In 1933, after having heard a speech of Adolf Hitler, she wrote to her husband: “This is the truth of a deeply emotional human soul, a human soul on fire.” She became a party member in 1937 and later a honorary member of the Nazi’s association of young girls, the Bund Deutscher Mädel. She would give speeches in front of the girls drawing a link between Beethoven and what the Nazi’s labeled “Nordic Music”, music composed by the Nordic race, superior to all others. In 1944 Ney, along with 1040 other artists, was registered on the list of the most important artists in terms of Nazi propaganda.
After the war, many Germans chose to forget what had happened between 1933 and 1945. Ney was not allowed to perform in Bonn until 1952, but she continue her career elsewhere in Germany. She was not an exception. Somehow collective amnesia helped many artists linked to the Nazis to avoid acknowledging that they had been part of a totalitarian state.
Two things terrify me in this respect. First the idea that being an artist under the Nazis was easier forgiven than being a politician, a company director or a soldier. By definition, in a totalitarian state the totality of the population keeps the autoritarian system alive, the doctrine permeates every aspect of life and every citizen is supposed to function as a small part in a huge, anonymous machinery. And artists played a vital part in propaganda. Second the fact that an artist such as Ney, with a well developed sense for beauty and empathy, could blindy support a regime advocating mass murder. Was Ney then an opportunist, free-riding on the powers that be to advance her career? Probably. And this I can never forgive. She should have been called to account as a human. No matter how good a pianist she was.
© Charles Thibo