Normality and emplotment: Walter Leigh’s 'Midsummer Night’s Dream' in the Third Reich and Britain
Music & Letters, 94, (2), . (doi:10.1093/ml/gct048).
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This article explores current controversies in the historiography of music in Nazi Germany by focusing on the case of the English composer Walter Leigh’s acceptance in 1936 of a commission from the German pedagogue Hilmar Höckner to write incidental music for a schoolboy production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Leigh, who was killed in action in North Africa in 1942, has been criticized for taking this commission, notably by Fred K. Prieberg in his ground-breaking study of ‘replacement’ compositions for Mendelssohn’s iconic work, which had fallen into disfavour (for obvious reasons) in Nazi Germany. In this essay I attempt a detailed micro-history of this piece, beginning with Leigh and Höckner’s first meeting in the later years of the Weimar Republic and following their collaboration across the watershed of the Nazi assumption of power in 1933. I show that while neither man followed an overt political agenda, both were at some level aware of the political implications of their collaboration. Leigh, for instance, included an obvious quotation from Mendelssohn’s setting in his own, and Höckner attempted to explain the commission defending it as an experiment in good pedagogy ‘also’ made necessary by the impossibility of performing the Mendelssohn version. I also trace Höckner’s two tours of Britain (in 1938 and 1939), both of which included performances of Leigh’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, one sponsored by the pro-German Anglo-German Fellowship. Finally, I consider both Höckner and Leigh’s own political writings: the former defended his Hindemith-inspired pedagogic approach as late as 1943, and the latter, in public and private, took a decidedly anti-pacifist position in the run-up to the outbreak of war in 1939. The essay ends with a discussion of current approaches to narrating the history of music under Nazism. I argue that influential work in the field does not consider the special ‘modes of emplotment’ (Hayden White) this history requires.
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