Jewish centre JW3 revives music banned by the Nazis on Yom Hashoah

Peter Braithwaite

Peter Braithwaite - Credit: Archant

So-called degenerate music, art and books were vetoed by the Third Reich but a British baritone is bringing a selection to JW3 on Yom Hashoah to highlight the intolerance that underpinned Nazi ideology.

May 4 is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day: a time to reflect on the six million lives that were lost to the collective evil of the Third Reich.

But it’s also a time to think about the underlying issues of intolerance that made the Third Reich possible.

And with that in mind JW3 in Finchley Road, is marking the day with a concert of music, images and readings that explore the art banned by the Nazis in the 1930s/40s as “Entartete”. Degenerate.

Devised by the British baritone Peter Brathwaite, who performs with pianist Nigel Foster and an array of technological back-up for projections and lighting, it’s essentially a song recital that explores what’s now recognised as the specific genre of “Entartete Musik”.

As Brathwaite tells me, “there’s political cabaret, protest songs by Hans Eisler, music by Krenek, Weill and Schoenberg. And the images I’ve chosen give a sense of life in Germany and Austria at the time when this music was being written. Much of it, of course, by Jews”.

Brathwaite isn’t himself Jewish.

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But he is of Caribbean heritage. And one of the things that first drew him to this repertory was the infamous poster that circulated in Germany in 1938 warning people of the dangers of degeneracy.

Featuring a dark-skinned ape wearing a Star of David and playing the jazz-saxophone, it summed up various things the Third Reich didn’t care for: blacks, Jews, and the liberated spirit of the modern.

Homosexuals weren’t specifically referred to, but perhaps suggested by the monkey’s noticeable ear-ring.

Finding himself hooked, Brathwaite spent time researching the subject in Munich: home to the 1937 “Entartete Kunst” exhibition which contained 650 items forcibly removed from collections throughout Germany and comprising a rogue’s gallery of the kind of culture healthy Aryans were meant to despise.

The objects came with labels that read “Nature seen by sick minds” or “Insult to German womanhood”.

And although only six of the 112 artists exhibited were actually Jewish, it gave the impression that whatever counted as degenerate in the work had been inspired by Jewish influences.

After the Munich opening, the exhibition went on tour and was extended to embrace degenerate music.

Hence the monkey poster. But the curious thing about all this was that although intended to denounce the art it featured, the Degenerate exhibition did the opposite. It gave these works a platform that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.

During the first four months two million people saw them.

And though many came to scoff, they didn’t all. Prize items from the show were subsequently spirited away into the homes of senior Nazis who in private rather liked what they officially deplored. And in the long term, the Degenerate exhibition failed in its objective.

With assistance from the gas chambers, the Third Reich silenced many artists. But their work lives on, their voices rediscovered.

Peter Brathwaite’s voice is what he self-deprecatingly calls “bog-standard baritone”; but it’s exceptional enough to have established him on the first rungs of a rising career-ladder.

Born in Manchester to parents from Barbados, his introduction to singing was through church choirs and cathedrals (where would music be without them?) before graduating from the RCM and further studies at the Opera Studio in Ghent.

Since then he’s sung for Glyndebourne, ETO and Opera Holland Park.

And he’ll be prominent in the forthcoming ETO tour of Handel’s Xerxes Cavalli’s La Calisto, and a staging of the St John Passion.

The show is on May 4, 7.30pm. Details.