I asked a cellist friend of mine if there's a reason a disproportionate amount of great composers came from Germany. After all, Germany's level of industrialization, education, etc. was always relatively similar to that of England or France, but those countries produced mostly second-rate composers, not the constant stream of first-raters from Germany. Unfortunately, my friend doesn't have an answer to this.
I wonder, though, if it relates to how Germany became unified a lot later than England or France. I've always been fascinated by this aspect of German history: a crazy patchwork of principalities, nominally controlled by the Holy Roman Empire but nothing like a modern nation-state. Maybe each city-state's ruling prince sought to attract the best musicians and artists? Maybe this spurred them on to creativity?
The play Bach at Leipzig uses the idea of warring city-states in early 1700s Germany for farce. All the characters come from different territories and think differently about music and religion, which foments competition. And at the climax, Bach's transcendent music is the only thing that stops a violent fight. I think this is a funny exchange, between two organists from warring states:
KAUFMANN. Think! That is what unites us! Our art! Our theatre! Our music! Culture, Steindorff! That is, in the end, all that distinguishes us--This idea of city-state competition also reminds me of that wonderful speech from The Third Man:
STEINDORFF. (Wearily) From the animals, yes.
KAUFMANN. No! From the English!
KAUFMANN. From the Italians! From the rest of Europe!
STEINDORFF. (Beat) German culture is all that distinguishes us from non-Germans.
KAUFMANN. Yes! And I propose a renewed commitment to our common Germanity!
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.Neither Germany nor Italy united till the mid-1800s. And Italy, in my book, is #2 for classical music next to Germany (I'm an Italian opera fan). Could their tumultuous, fragmented histories explain it?
Obviously, the elephant in the room is World War II and what happened afterwards...the Nazi/Communist legacy. It destroyed the world's faith in Germany and perhaps the Germans' faith in themselves. We don't want to believe that a people that provoked such atrocities is also capable of the deep humanity of Beethoven's Ninth. After sixty years in which Germany has behaved like a "good citizen," and nearly twenty years since the two halves of Germany reunited, we have accorded them a limited sort of forgiveness. But we still shy away from describing these great composers, writers, etc. as specifically German, perhaps for fear of provoking the Nazi/Aryan/"Germans are superior" thing again.
My cellist friend told me about a scene in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg where Marlene Dietrich's character, seeking to prove that not all Germans are evil, takes one of the judges to a concert of German classical music. For my friend, this was a revelation too: he had always thought of these composers as just part of "Western heritage," but now he realized that they are German, and the pride that Germans take in them.
He also told me about a composer he's recently discovered: Robert Kahn, a talented student of Brahms' who was very successful in the early 1900s. When Hitler rose to power, Kahn fled to England, and the Nazis destroyed most of his "degenerate Jewish" music.
Indeed, sadly, Germany and Austria were once the countries where Jews were most fully integrated into society. Kahn was composing at the same time Freud was psychoanalyzing and Einstein was theorizing and Walter Benjamin was philosophizing and Hugo Preuss was writing the Weimar Republic constitution... and then this community was scattered or killed. Perhaps the most fascinating and tragic German Jew was chemist Fritz Haber, who during WWI invented various poison gases for Germany and was hailed as a patriotic hero. His wife, opposed to his inventing chemical warfare, killed herself. Haber thought that Germany would always honor him, but with the rise of Nazism in 1933, he was forced to flee. He died a year later, probably from stress. Some of his Jewish relatives were gassed with the same chemicals he had helped invent...
A tumultuous history indeed--and maybe that tumult provoked greatness, as a reaction of the human spirit in extremity. But nowadays we don't like to mention that greatness--we are too afraid of causing tumult once again.