Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXVII, no. 1 (Spring 2001)

Letter from Leipzig

Letter from Leipzig: Or: A German Americanist on the Traces of American Music History in New England and East Germany, Somewhere in the Point of Intersection Between Musical Boston and Leipzig.

Boston and Leipzig are, at least musically, not as far apart as one might assume. Both have an immense cultural tradition, which the local sights themselves seem to narrate.

Throughout history, Leipzig has been a wealthy town, economically important because of its central location and renowned for its trade-fairs as well as its institutions: the Gewandhaus Opera, and Conservatory; the famous churches St. Thomas and St. Nikolai; and of course, Leipzig University. The university, one of Germany's oldest, attracted not only Gottsched or Goethe, but also the young American Theodore Baker, who at the end of the last century submitted a musicological thesis Uber die Musik der amerikanischen Wilden. As the academic sphere of the university was the reason for the nickname "Pleiss-Athen" (with Dresden as the "Elb-Florenz"), so was the title "musical Mecca" due to the fame of the Gewandhaus and conservatory. After its foundation in 1843 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the latter quickly became a center of musical training. The names "Athens" and "Mecca" have been applied to Boston as well: the first because of the intellectual power in the emerging universities and academic institutions, the second obviously an allusion to Leipzig. Boston's flourishing musical institutions, the New England Conservatory, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and, for a short term, an opera and an opera house, were seen as centerpieces, which made musical life not only as pwoerful, but even more splendid than in the Old World.

Without doubt, Leipzig has recently undergone the more significant changes. After World War II, Leipzig was still well known for its fairs and for its many publishing houses. Yet it was no longer an international center, but one restricted to that part of the world now on the east side of the wall, cut off from the west. Suddenly concerts of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra or the St. Thomas choirboys became as exotic enterprise as a performance of the Peking Opera. Even worse, socialist politics did not shy away from destroying parts of the visible memorials of Leipzig's blossoming cultural life in former times. The Gewandhaus, damaged, but not irreversibly ruined in WWII, and the university church, one of the churches connected with Bach, were blown up, because they were interpreted as symbols of the bourgeois and thus hindered the development of socialism. Nevertheless, music remained one of Leipzig's most important features and trademarks. With the reunification of the two parts of Germany in 1989, the world seemed to change. Kurt Masure, the Gewandhauskapellmeister, who had participated in the revolutionary Monday marches, became a symbol of the link between Leipzig and the musical America.

What has now become of Leipzig and its relation to America? The Gewandhaus and the conservatory are still important institutions in musical life. American professors have joined the academic staff; many American students are enrolled. Vice versa, German students travel to the United States, kparticipate in exchange programs, join master classes or summer schools. Furthermore, a well-known bank sponsors a grant for a Leipzig music student to study at the Juilliard School for one year.

American studies as an academis subject can be found at nearly all German universities. In the nineteenth century, Leipzig University had been amongst the first to establish an institute for studies of English language and literature.

After 1989, huge donations helped the East German Americanists update their library stacks with recent literature, catalogued now, of course, according to the Library of Congress cataloguing system. American studies at German academic institutions are usually connected with literature, linguistics, cultural studies or history. To choose Americanistics as a main subject or research field is very popular. Since the sixties, interest and knowledge in American culture in West Germany have grown immensely, due to the post WWII policy of German-American friendship ("German" of course meaning West Germany exclusively). But neither there nor in East Germany, where the interest in American studies is increasing steadily, have musicology and American studies thus far come close.

Which, of course, has to do with Germany's musical soundscape. In the classical genre, American composers of the twentieth century are played rather frequently. But where Ives, Copland, Babbitt or Cage have become familiar names, American composers of the nineteenth and the turn-of-the-century are still terra incognita -- John Knowles who? Everyday life, however, seems to be pervaded with music from the United States. The music industry has spread American pop, rock, and even country music as far in East Germany as it had already been in the West. Jazz as well is very popular, as it has been since after WWI, when Dada and other movements discovered it as a thrilling new sound and used it as an acoustical challenge in the mid-European generation conflict. If it sometimes bears a slight German flavor, I would rather call that a charming distinctive feature than a defect; in a world of universalizing sound, accents still offer variety.

All sorts of Americanisms have conquered the New East quickly. Baseball caps, sneakers and jean fashion, hardly accessible only fifteen years ago, are by now as common as the heroines and heroes of American soaps, bought, or better, adopted by German TV (amongst them even Providence!) The wave of Kentucky-fried-MacWhopper and recently discovered muffinology have entred the sphere of homemade cuisine. And finally the Internet seems to united everything and everybody. Bill Gates and company have made the world appear smaller, as if the distances had shrunk and the continents somehow shifted.

But in spite of all global thinking, there is still something different. Leipzig is still a town in East Germany. East signifies more than a geographic direction; it has become the synonym for a quality, often equalized with a moral value. "Oh, you are from East Germany" marks identity, while being West implies to be a foreigner. The wall is mentally not yet really torn down. The two parts of the country are still apart. And it is still easier to be non-German than West German in East Germany.

Throughout history the way towards the West was emphasized as the journey to the better, a thought that is still in our minds (especially in those of historians). The way to North America for a German Americanist from West Germany, now in East Germany, in the beginning of the twenty-first century is accompanied by various reflections. It is no longer a simple passage from good old Germany to the land of Mickey Mouse, Woodstock, and the Minimalists. The experience of the East has changed the experience of Going West. It has sharpened the senses, made eyes and ears more acute for the charms and pleasures of differences, unfamiliar accents and habits. And somehow it seems to be the irony of destiny to dig up the history of (musical) passages across the Atlantic and the experiences and reflections connected with these transatlantic movements. East and West seem to me more than ever a matter of perspective. I enjoy differences, as long as they are not classified into good or bad. And I do not want to miss them.
--Marianne Betz
Hochschule fur Musik und Theater Felix Memdelssohn Bartholdy

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