Brecht for Children: Shaping the Ideal GDR Citizen Through Opera Education
by Anicia Timberlake
The essay begins:
In the spring of 1969, students from the fifth through seventh grades at the Käthe Kollwitz Secondary School of Greifswald took the stage to perform the new children’s opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The performance was well received: reviewer Gudrun Hillemann praised the music’s “simple melodic and memorable rhythmic Gestalt” and concluded that, overall, “theatrical performance with music is excellently suited for aesthetic education and for supporting the artistic [musisch] climate at a school.” Although the piece was not new to local music circles, Manfred Vetter, a professor at the Institute for Music Education in Greifswald, raised a stink a few days after the secondary-school performance. How was it possible that the librettist Hella Brock, a progressive socialist, a member of the Socialist Unity Party, and Vetter’s own colleague at the institute, had chosen a fairy tale in which an emperor, the head of a feudal society, was moved—and redeemed—by music? The opera portrayed the emperor far too sympathetically and conveyed the wrong idea about the progress of history. When other faculty members endorsed Vetter’s opinion, further performances of the opera were canceled. Several months later, after the summer vacation, the secretary of the local party organization announced that the decision had been revoked, and the opera could be performed again. But it was too late: the children were half a year older, their voices had begun to change, and they had already put the disappointment of the canceled performance behind them. Brock suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the incident and in 1972 left Greifswald to become a professor at the Karl Marx University, Leipzig.
On one level, this was simply an example in miniature of the kind of late-stage attack common in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as well as in the Soviet Union. Performances often made it through planning and rehearsals only to be savaged after the premiere. The classic Soviet example is Dmitry Shostakovich’s immensely successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which premiered in January 1934 and was denounced by Stalin two years later. Similarly, Bertolt Brecht and Paul Dessau’s opera The Trial of Lucullus was suppressed on ideological grounds in the GDR in 1951 due to accusations of musical “formalism.” Where these famous cases demonstrate the arbitrary cruelty of official censorship, the silencing of The Nightingale shows how an individual, supposedly acting in the interests of the state, could transmute personal convictions about ideology and representation into official dictates on cultural policy. But even more, Vetter’s attack against a children’s opera—surely the most harmless and charming of performances—reveals the unsteady foundations of GDR citizen formation through music education. If we look a little more closely at the educational theories and practices that underpinned this incident, the idea of a coherent or unified GDR cultural and educational policy begins to unravel in disorienting and fascinating ways. In this article, I focus on children’s operas as a site of political education. The surviving documentation around the operas for children created and performed between 1950 and 1979, and policies and debates on children’s music education more generally, reveal considerable confusion about how best to mobilize German cultural heritage for a socialist purpose. These sources show educators drawing from diverse prewar pedagogical traditions to develop techniques they employed in addition to those that state policy had mandated for use in schools. As we shall see in the article’s final sections, Brechtian dramatic theory was an important element of these performances, and the study of the rehearsal process for a Brecht Lehrstück with which this article concludes shows how the theory of estrangement sometimes proved irreconcilable with older convictions about how children felt, moved, and behaved. What is more, the vicissitudes of pedagogy and rehearsal in the staging of Brecht’s The Horatians and the Curiatians make a revealing case study of what East German musicians, educators, and performers thought Brecht’s (vexed concept of) gestus actually was, and how it might function through music. Continue reading …
East German music educators developed new children’s operas on the model of Brechtian Lehrstücke to teach critical, “dialectical” thinking, a skill they considered essential for young socialists. This essay examines how the operas offered an alternative political education to the GDR’s official program of state-loyal patriotism and explores the conflicts that arose when Brecht’s theories of gestus and estrangement came into contact with the fairy tale tradition long thought to be the center of German children’s culture.
ANICIA TIMBERLAKE works on the politics of children’s music education in the German Democratic Republic. She is a C3: Creating Connections Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at Williams College.