While many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations, others worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake. This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past. Vienna continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance.
By Heidi Hart
Recently a dangerous package arrived in the post: a tango sent by a musician friend in Vienna who had found the sheet music at a flea market. “I’ve had absolutely no luck in finding anyone willing to take it here,” she wrote, noting the taboo around late 1930s music associated with the Nazi party. This orchestrated dance piece from 1938, titled “Mädi, nach dir hab’ ich Heimweh” (“Girl, I’m homesick for you”), also suggests the fraught word “Heimat” in the nationalistic sense of “homeland.” Because I work on antifascist music from that period, I found the music interesting as background, but also painful to hold in my hands. The composer, Horst Raszat, also contributed a song to a National Socialist anthology in 1939.
Like the problematic figure of Wagner, blatantly antisemitic in the nineteenth century and beloved by Hitler in the twentieth, many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations. Others, like Hanns Eisler and others who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht, worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake (Hart, 2018).
This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past, however. Vienna, once one of the most modern and diverse cities in Europe, until the Nazi Anschluss and subsequent gutting of its Jewish population stripped much of its cultural richness away (Weyr, 2005), continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance. Protest music plays a large role in how these tensions are embodied and whose voices are heard.
One response to xenophobic populism has been musical parody. In 2005, the FPÖ or Freedom Party in Austria campaigned with the slogan “Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden” (idiomatically translated as “Don’t let Vienna turn into Istanbul”), based on a 1990s slogan expressing the same wish not to “turn into Chicago” (Demokratiezentrum Wien, 2008) after the rise of far-right ideology under Jörg Haider. In response to the “Istanbul” slogan, Turkish-Austrian jazz singer Fatima Spar and her band The Freedom Fries turned the words around as a song title: “Istanbul darf nicht Wien werden” (“Don’t let Istanbul turn into Vienna”).
The anti-xenophobic song begins with these stanzas, sung in Turkish and translated with intentionally lower-case, democratizing typescript on the band’s website:
they are afraid
that in the city’s heart
we’ll soon raise a mosque
and pull down their church
that in masses we will settle
and run down their flats
with our mercedes
parked neatly at our doorsteps
The music works in a push-pull dynamic of parodic Viennese waltz and taverna music, a blend of styles that reflects crisscrossing cultures southeast of Vienna. Spar sings in quick, faux-panicky patter against this contrast of 3/4 and 4/4 time. Her voice slows and becomes almost mournful at the end, when she sings: “you let us row the boat/ yet our faces meet stone-cold/ “i say”, they say/ ‘that turkish girl sure is one of us.’”
In another vein, Isabel Frey, a young Yiddish singer who has found herself as uncomfortable with Zionist politics as with European populism, adapted an old protest song in 2019 that led to her own unexpected political career. After the “Ibiza Affair” became public in May of that year, linking Freedom Party officials with corruption and election support from the Russian elite, the Austrian coalition imploded. Frey responded with a song, outside the Chancellor’s residence “atop a white van with her guitar surrounded by speakers and protesters” (Baur, 2021).
The song “Daloy Politsey,” or “Down with the Police” was sung by Jewish protesters against the Tsarist regime in early twentieth-century Russia. Frey, who had already been learning Yiddish songs as part of contemporary Diaspora culture, added a German verse and chorus, and her adaptation became an anthem for the anti-populist Thursday demonstrations in Vienna (listen to it here). When she sang the song the day after the Ibiza Affair had been made public, she added the line, “heute ist Straches letzter tag” (“today is [Heinz-Christian] Strache’s last day”), referring to the Vice Chancellor and head of the Freedom Party (Hillis, 2020).
The Austrian LINKS party grew out of the Thursday demonstrations, and party member Frey won a city council seat in the recent election, representing the historically Jewish Leopoldstadt community. As part of her agenda, Frey presses for a more thorough reckoning with history and exclusionary politics in Austria. She has explained, “It doesn’t work if you just talk about the Holocaust and then use that as an expression of Austrian national identity, and use it to indirectly exclude other people from the national community, like refugees and Muslims” (Baur, 2021). With this year’s protests in Vienna over Covid restrictions, often involving Freedom Party supporters (Reuters, 2021), she will have plenty of work ahead in that area as well.
Adapting older protest music to meet current political crises is a practice with a long history. In 1949, American bass Paul Robeson, best known as a Black singer of spirituals, performed the Yiddish marching song “Zog Nit Keynmol” in Moscow. This expression of “solidarity with the Jewish people” in a “Holocaust-era Partisan song” (Kutzik, 2018) also intersected with the oppression of Blacks in the US (Rogaly, 2021). The performance led to both applause and boos in the USSR (listen to the recording here), where Jewish intellectuals were still facing persecution; Robeson’s support both for Jewish friends and for the USSR shows the complexity of anti-fascist music-making after the Second World War (Kutzik, 2018).
In today’s fraught political climate, older protest songs continue to be repurposed, from the Italian farmworkers’ “Bella Ciao” originally sung against Mussolini’s regime, and now sung in anti-authoritarian protests worldwide, to the “Marseillaise” appropriated on the right and reclaimed by the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) and Paris Opera workers in 2019 (Dorcadie, 2020). In the US, the familiar Woodie Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” is under new scrutiny, as its lyrics sound blatantly colonialist to Native peoples (Kesler, 2021). Twenty years ago, an adaptation by Mexican-American singer Lila Downs already included critique of the song’s assumptions, by speaking in the collective voice of immigrant farmworkers and then asking “When did you come to America?” in an accusing “white” voice (Downs, 2001).
Meanwhile, back in Vienna, the recent May Day demonstration occurred in the nexus of Covid fatigue and community concern over fair housing, especially for refugees (Vienna Online, 2021). Young organizers gave impassioned speeches in front of the famous opera house, with its own history of musical conservatism and recent resistance, in the form of an opera by Olga Neuwirth based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Ross, 2019). For all the ongoing anti-immigrant sentiment and resurging antisemitism in the city (Reuters, 2021), Vienna will continue to be an important site of protest. Though Austrian writer-of-conscience Thomas Bernhard, forced to sing Nazi marching songs as a child, lamented the “lethal soil” embedded in the beauty of cities like Salzburg, which “has always rejected those spirits it could not understand” (Bernhard, 2003: 100-101), spirited singers like Fatima Spar and Isabel Frey insist, today, on being present and being heard.
Bernhard, Thomas. (2003). Gathering Evidence: A Memoir. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Vintage.
Hart, Heidi. (2018). Hanns Eisler’s Art Songs: Arguing with Beauty. Rochester, NY: Camden House.
Rogaly, Ben. (2021). “Resisting racial nationalism and the depredations of capitalism.” Seminar presentation at the Department of Musicology, Lund University, April 27, 2021.
Weyr, Thomas. (2005). The Setting of the Pearl: Vienna Under Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.