Thursday, August 3, 2017

Lesson from the Past

Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

In 1932, Carl Orff  was 37 years old and had worked some eight years now in the Guntherschule, a radical experimental school investigating a new way of learning, feeling and creating music and dance. The students were all young women in their late teens exploring the new concepts of dance unleashed by people like Isadore Duncan, Mary Wigman, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Orff was hired as the music teacher training the dancers to create their own accompanying music using their own bodies and voices, small percussion instruments and later xylophones.

During this time, Orff became friends with Eberhard Preussner who was the Director of the Music Department of the Central institute for Education and Training in Berlin. (Preussner appeared again some 30 years later as an important person in the Schulwerk when he much later became the head of the Mozarteum and invited Orff to create the Orff Institut as a department within the Mozarteum in 1961.)  Preussner introduced Orff to one of his important colleagues, Leo Kestenberg, who in turn invited Orff to begin introducing the Schulwerk into Berlin schools. This was the first time the work was turned towards children and Orff was feverishly excited about the possibilities.

Consider the place. Preussner describe Berlin in 1932 as “a place that had something to offer that could be described as an attempt to build a new society, a city whose intellectual life was shaped by Einstein, Planck, Spengler and where Schoenberg, Hindemith, Busoni worked, indeed, a metropolis of minds and music. Certainly those ten or twelve years were full of tensions that were not, however, pushed to one side, but were experienced, suffered and used. One was full of hope and of apprehension…”

Consider the time. 1932. Just one short year later, Hitler was elected chancellor and within three short months, everything that leaned toward social justice, religious freedom, intellectual activity, diverse thinking was slammed shut and 12 years of nightmare ensued. As a Jew, Kestenberg was forced to flee, first to Prague and then Paris and later Israel. All his notable reforms in music education in his former role were overturned and Orff’s possibility to introduce his humanistic ideas in Berlin were closed.

Note the parallels with today. Hope and apprehension mixed, a society vibrant with diverse people, diverse thinking, intellectual rigor and imaginative vision shut down in three short months. If you were a Jew or a Jehovah’s Witness or gay or Sinti/Roma gypsy or disabled or a political dissident or a socially misfit person who listened to jazz, you were already being herded into “starter” concentration camps and later part of the genocide of some 6 million Jews and some 5 million “others.”

Now compare this to Trump’s attempts in the first six months of his office: The Muslim Ban, hope to overturn gay marriage, defund schools and arts program, deny science and intellectual thought, mock the disabled, keep transgender people out of the military, fire anyone who asks too many questions. It all adds up to the same idea of killing diverse thought and diverse living and diverse worship and reducing it to the narrow bandwidth of rich, straight, white males. He pushes aside the Montenegro President and stands with his jaw out like Mussolini, talks to the French president’s wife about her body, tells the Boy Scouts that Obama was a disaster.

But there are three significant differences:

1)   Hitler had an ideology of the Master Race that captured the imagination of a beaten-down people, allowed them to commit atrocities in the name of a beautiful imagined future. Trump’s idea of a Master Race is he, himself and him. Yes, he hits on the same human flaws that Hitler did, fooling poor whites into thinking that they’re part of the good ole boys club, but not with the same ability to articulate and ultimately fool them.

2)   Our 250-year history of free speech, flawed as the free part may be, makes it much more difficult for him to shut down dissent. The fact that I can give this talk without fear of storm troopers, post things about Trump’s idiocy on Facebook, teach children in my school about social justice, put a RESIST bumper sticker on my car and freely watch Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Rachel Maddow, Samantha Bee and more on more or less mainstream TV is a sign of hope that we can educate people who might eventually vote more intelligently. And that is why it’s more important than ever to keep speaking up and speaking out while we have that privilege. It could change. While we can speak, this is not a time to keep silent.

3)   The one thing the German citizens didn’t have as they went along with the lemming-like rush to disaster is the story of something like Nazi Germany to guide them. For this willing to look into it, we know where this can lead and thus, have the possibility of choosing not to repeat history.

There was much criticism of Orff in the 1990’s for not speaking out more strongly or fleeing and much conjecture about how much he collaborated with the Party.  That’s the subject for another talk. In his favor, we can say with authority that even when Gunther required all her teachers to join the Nazi Party, Orff did not. I see him as a musician who hoped to stay to the side of politics and did what he could to survive. Which mostly meant trying to stay under the radar and out of the way even as Carmina Burana had its premier performance in 1937.

What I’d like to accent here is his profound understanding of the role of art in human culture and creativity within art and the special promise of young children. In my experience, the Orff idea and ideal of music for all realized in an inclusive musical community that welcomes diverse expression is the exact antithesis of everything Hitler stood for and Trump stands for. When done with integrity and intelligence, it offers precisely the healing our broken world needs. Most of the teachers I meet who come to the Orff trainings come to further elevate both their integrity and intelligence in thinking about how to teach humanistically through this vibrant pedagogy. For it’s only by creating a new generation of children who feel comfortable with ambiguity, who feel welcomed and celebrated, who have the means to find their power through artistic and spiritual expression that we have any hope of surviving—and indeed, thriving—in the future. 

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