Dr Richard Holloway to offer his thoughts and reflections arising from Lovesong and Lament

Posted on 25th June 2014 by admin

Lovesong and Lament is a concert at East Neuk Festival on 2 July that brings together two masterpieces for strings written some 80 years apart. Brahms’ Sextet is quintessential Late-Romantic German music, a reflection on lost love: Brahms had come close to marrying a woman called Agathe von Siebold, but at the very last minute he quite cruelly abandoned her. Years later he revisited the scene of that young love and was inspired to write this wonderful piece with regrets, almost certainly, since a theme inspired by Agathe dominates the first movement. Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, written in the last days of World War II is a lament for the destruction of that whole civilisation of which Brahms was a great representative. “On 1 May ended the most terrible period of mankind; twelve years during which the fruits of Germany’s 2000-year-long cultural evolution were condemned to extinction and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by a criminal rabble of soldiers.” Yet Strauss himself had been drawn into the Nazi’s world and to this day there is debate about how innocent was his involvement in their cultural ambitions. Questions of personal and national guilt, regret, culture, savagery and cruelty run through this programme, questions that can never easily be faced. I am delighted to invite Dr Richard Holloway to offer his thoughts and reflections arising from it.                                                                                                                             

Svend Brown

At the end of the most powerful novel written about the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were exterminated by the most cultured nation in Europe, there is a scene I find almost impossible to read aloud.  The novel is ‘The Last of the Just’ by André Schwarz-Bart.  In Jewish tradition, every generation thirty six ‘just men’ are born to take the burden of the world’s suffering upon themselves.  Ernie Levy, who died in Auschwitz in 1943, is the last of them and this is his story.  He arrives at Auschwitz with a band of children he has been shepherding on their long journey to death.  This is the final scene.

The building resembled a huge bath-house…At the foot of the small wooden stairway an S.S. man, moustachioed and benevolent, told the condemned, ‘Nothing painful will happen!  You just have to breathe very deeply…It’s a way of preventing contagious disease.  It disinfects’.  Most of them went on in silently, pressed forward by those behind.  Inside, numbered coat-hooks garnished the walls of a kind of gigantic cloakroom where the herd undressed one way or another…encouraged by their S.S. cicerones, who advised them to remember the numbers carefully; cakes of stony soap were distributed.  Golda begged Ernie not to look at her, and he went through the sliding door of the second room with his eyes closed, led by the young woman, and by the children, whose soft hands clung to his naked thigh; there, under the shower-heads embedded in the ceiling, in the blue light of screened bulbs glowing in the recesses of the concrete walls, Jewish men and women, children and patriarchs, were huddled together; his eyes still closed, he felt the pressure of the last packets of flesh that the S.S. men were clubbing now into the gas chamber; and his eyes still closed, he knew that the lights had been extinguished on the living…And when the first waves of ‘Cyclon B’ gas billowed among the sweating bodies, drifting towards the squirming carpet of children’s heads, Ernie freed himself from the girl’s mute embrace and leaned out into the darkness towards the children invisible even at his knees, and shouted, with all the gentleness and all the strength of his soul, ‘Breathe deeply my lambs, and quickly!’

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, but many believe someone else died as well: God.  Where was he when darkness covered the earth? Theologians jumped to his defence with an old argument that worked for many, though not for me: they blamed the Holocaust on human free will.  God loved us so much that he limited his own power and gave us freedom to disobey him; and even though it broke his heart to watch what we were doing, he would not take back the dangerous gift he had given us.  In Dostoevksy’s greatest novel, Ivan Karamazov knocks the whole case over like a house of cards.

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end… but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature … And to found that edifice on its unavenged tears: would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell me the truth!

God was not the only casualty of such engulfing evil.  Adorno said that after the Holocaust there is no language. But can there even be music?  That was a question German Jews struggled with as they watched the darkness descend upon a culture they loved and had helped to nurture.  George Steiner wrote about this issue more profoundly than any other 20th Century thinker, and in his memoir, ‘Errata’, he describes how the ascent of National Socialism affected his father.

The proud Judaism of my father was, like that of an Einstein or a Freud, one of messianic agnosticism.  It breathed rationality, the promise of the Enlightenment and tolerance….By virtue of what was to become an unbearable paradox, this Judaism of secular hope looked to German philosophy, literature, scholarship and music for its talismanic guarantees.  German metaphysics and cultural criticism…crowded the shelves of my father’s library…even in the thickening political twilight, a Schubert song, a Schumann study could light my father’s haunted mien.  When concessions had to be made to the encroaching reality, my father gave them an ironic touch; recordings of Wagner were now played in French.

That device worked for Steiner’s Papa, but it did not, does not work for everyone, which is why there are many Jews who still cannot listen to Wagner.  So, almost as morally important as the question the Holocaust poses for God is the question it poses for music, especially for those of us who are occasionally tempted to accord it an almost transcendental power.  If it is impossible to justify God after Auschwitz it is no less difficult to justify music, because even in the death camps the Nazis could not live without it.

Let me quote from a radio broadcast made by Rabbi Hugo Gryn in 1991 when talking about a poem by Paul Celan, whose parents both died in the death camps. Though Celan survived the horror, he later committed suicide because he believed the Holocaust rendered not only God and music impossible, but life itself.  By the chemistry of great art, his poems become the thing they are about: the Holocaust itself.  His most famous is ‘Todesfuge’ or ‘Death Fugue’, and it was about this poem Hugo Gryn was speaking in that broadcast.  Here are his words:

When I first read “Todesfuge” or Death Fugue, I was sure that like me, Paul Celan must have been in Auschwitz-Birkenau. How else could he capture the early rising, and going to bed, the non-nourishing and mostly liquid meals served more out of habit than the desire to keep us in life, the elegant SS officers with their beloved dogs and their love of music, and their strutting above powerless prisoners totally at their nonexistent mercy.

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends

wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts

wir trinken und trinken


Black milk of dawn we drink it at even,

We drink it at noon and mornings. We drink it at night.

We drink and we drink.

We are digging a grave in the skies. There one lies uncrowded.

A man lives in the house, he plays with the serpents. He writes.

He writes when the dark comes to Germany. Your golden hair Margarete.

He writes it and steps from the house and the stars flash

He whistles up his dogs, he whistles out his Jews.

“Let a grave to be dug in the earth” he commands us. Now play for the dance.


… Black milk of dawn, we drink you at night

We drink you at noon. Death is a master from Germany.


… He hits you with a lead bullet . His aim is true.

A man lives in the house. Your golden hair Margarete.

He sets his dogs upon us. He gives us a grave in the sky.

He plays with the serpents and dreams. Death is a master from Germany

Your golden hair Margarete.

Your ashen hair Shulamith.


‘…the elegant SS officers with their beloved dogs and their love of music’.  I met a woman who was saved from death at Auschwitz because she played the cello.  Seventeen at the time, she was an old woman when I interviewed her, but she was still haunted by the fact that music was her curse and her salvation.


Your golden hair Margarete.

Your ashen hair Shulamith.


The justification of music after the Holocaust turns out to be surprisingly like the justification of God: it separates music from those who compose it as if, like God, it had a separate existence.  Arturo Toscanini said of the composer of the Metamorphosen: ‘To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it on again’.  Toscanini never forgot that Strauss stepped in to conduct the production of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1933 when he had himself withdrawn in protest at Hitler’s ban on Jewish artists.  He is telling us that it is all right to hate the artist while loving his art.

This was the line taken by W.H.Auden about bad men who were good writers.  It’s the art that matters, he tells us, not the foul rag and bone shop of the human heart it emerged from. That phrase from Yeats guides us into what Auden meant, and it is best expressed in his own poem about the death of Yeats.  Here’s a bit of it:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:

The parish of rich women, physical decay,

Yourself.  Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making…

A way of happening, a mouth.


If poetry makes nothing happen, must not the same thing be said of music?  Like poetry, it can only survive as ‘A way of happening, a mouth’? Can any human art be untainted by our own capacity for evil and selfishness? And would it be any good to us if it were?  An art immaculately conceived would be as useless to us as the God who stands aside wringing his hands at our wickedness but unable to intervene.  We must either live with the knowledge that all art is compromised by our humanity and partakes of its corruption, or refuse to live any longer with its contradictions and do what Celan did and remove ourselves from the scene.

All that said, something more possibly redemptive does occur to me, and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen provides the clue. Personally compromised and emotionally shattered by the horror that had engulfed Europe, Strauss composed a work that made present the tragedy he himself had contributed to.  This is what great art always does.  Becket said of Joyce that what he wrote was not about something, it was that something itself.  Art makes experience manifest so we can enter it.  Arthur Danto, the American philosopher who died last year, said that it was in our nature to do this.  Humanity was an ens representans, a being that represented the world back to itself, and that constant work of representation has to include the horror as well as the beauty of life.   And that is what we experience both in Brahms’ Lovesong and Strauss’ Lament.

Though there is an eighty year stretch between Brahm’s treatment of Agathe von Siebold and Hitler’s Final solution, they are on the same moral continuum.  Brahms honestly told the woman he loved that he was ‘incapable of bearing fetters’ and must therefore abandon her; and that acknowledged selfishness was transmuted into art in his Sextet in G, Opus 36.  So in this extraordinary programme of music we are on a journey that takes us from the biting pains of ordinary selfishness to the scorching ordeals of monstrous evil.  The music cannot redeem the sorrow of it all but it gives it a mouth so we can hear it. But I’ll give Shelley the last word.


Most wretched men

Are cradled into poetry by wrong:

They learn in suffering what they teach in song.


© Richard Holloway


A shorter version of this essay will be included in the concert on Wednesday 2 July at Crail Church.