After World War II, the Soviet Union organized a reconstruction of cultural life in the eastern zone, with a focus on the arts. The Soviet army had folksong ensembles, and the German population was understandably in need of some cheering up. This documentary presents a western-bias perspective on the German Democratic Republic (GDR)’s involvement in Berlin’s music scene from 1945 until the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1990. This film shows some fabulous footage of the rebuilding of Berlin, including astounding camera sweeps of a 1948 concert held in Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt, showing Soviet soloist Victor Nikitin and his comrades in the Alexandrov Ensemble performing Schubert’s “Heidenröslein” in German. An audience of 30,000 people sits in the square and covers the rooftops of the nearby war-ravaged French and German Cathedrals and the Konzerthaus Berlin. In the film, we follow the developing tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. For the arts, the initial effect of the Soviet occupation of Berlin’s eastern zone was positive. Concert halls and opera houses were rapidly rebuilt and staffed. Footage of the ruined State Opera House underscores the need for reconstruction. Eastern authorities decided to maintain prominent church choirs as good publicity for the GDR. Conductor Kurt Masur, tenor Peter Schreier, countertenor Jochen Kowalski, and bass-baritone Theo Adam are all interviewed. Schreier recalls that he got his break with the Berlin State Opera because more experienced singers were engaged in performances outside the country. Eventually, musicians who resided in West Germany could no longer perform with the Staatsoper. Soon after the wall was built in 1961, artists even of the caliber of Schreier and Adam were not allowed to perform in the west. In the film, Adam shares his experience of putting his foot down and threatening to no longer sing in East Germany if he could not accept engagements elsewhere. After that, the GDR’s State Arts Commission allowed artists to travel while overseeing the work of agents and keeping a percentage of the artists’ earnings, foreign currency that was much welcomed in the East. The film wraps up with poignant clips of the “Prisoners’ Chorus” from a 1989 production of Fidelio, the opera chosen by the Dresden State Opera to “celebrate” the 40th anniversary of the GDR. A very interesting, emotional film with incredible archival footage — highly recommended.
Completed in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the International Music and Media Centre, this film is a buffet of fascinating video clips and commentary that document classical music on television from its genesis to the present. Director Reiner Moritz worked in television; more specifically, he was on the 1967 film crew for Verdi’s Requiem, conducted by Herbert von Karajan and featuring a young Luciano Pavarotti. We’re treated to interviews with Pierre Boulez, who recalls his favorite moment in Die Walküre (Bayreuth, 1980) as the scene where Wotan removes his eye patch; Gerald Finley, who shares his experiences with the “singback” technique during a 1970 filming of the dinner scene from Britten’s Owen Wingrave; and Christopher Nupen, who discusses the invention of the more portable 16mm camera that could follow musicians where cameras had never before been able to go, and as an example we see Jacqueline du Pré rocking out with her cello on a charter bus in motion. Given Karajan’s deep interest in filming concerts, his pioneering interest in the capabilities of the camera, and his insistence on being very involved in post processing, the conductor receives plenty of coverage in the film. Other notable segments include RCA president David Sarnoff introducing the first televised broadcast of Toscanini conducting Die Walküre; Bernstein’s first Young People’s Concert as the newly-appointed director of the New York Philharmonic (in which Bernstein tries to convince his impressionable audience of 2nd graders that music is just notes and not stories); Poulenc talking about his relationship with Milhaud and performing Satie; and video of what was anticipated to be Stravinsky’s last engagement, conducting his own Firebird suite. This film assumes the viewer knows by sight each monumental conductor or composer covered in the film; it does not introduce the subjects of the film by, say, flashing descriptive text on the screen. Transitions between the different sections are also very subtle, so it’s recommended to have the accompanying booklet close at hand while viewing. From a single black-and-white camera in a high-culture concert hall to a flash-mob opera shot in the Zurich train station and streamed online, this film tells the captivating story of classical music in television broadcasts over the past 60 years. Highly recommended.
– Anne Shelley