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Tunes for Tyrants : Episode 3

In the third and final episode of this intriguing series, Suzy Klein explores the fascinating use, abuse and manipulation of music in WW2. The war, she argues, wasn’t just a military fight; it was an ideological battle, in which both sides used music as a weapon to secure their vision for civilization. 

Suzy reveals how the forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn was taken off air by the BBC’s ‘Dance Music Policy Committee’ for fear her sentimental songs undermined the British war effort. But in Nazi Germany screen siren Zarah Leander had a hit with a song remarkably like Vera’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Meanwhile Nazi band ‘Charlie and his Orchestra’ reworked Cole Porter classics by adding anti-British lyrics to weaken her morale. Though the Nazis banned jazz at home as ‘degenerate’, Suzy also explores Occupied Paris’s incredible jazz scene. And the film revisits concerts given under extraordinary conditions – not least the performance of Wagner’s ‘Götterdämmerung’ (Twilight of the Gods), which in April 1945 brought the curtain down on the Third Reich.

Despite Hitler’s taunt that Britain was ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ (‘The Land without Music’), Suzy reveals the war work of two great British composers. William Walton’s ‘Spitfire Prelude’ became the archetype for a particularly British form of patriotic music. By contrast Michael Tippett was sent to prison for being a conscientious objector but his anti-war oratorio ‘A Child of Our Time’ was showcased at the Royal Albert Hall. The right of people to freely express themselves was, after all, what we were fighting for.

For some, music was a way of transcending desperate circumstances. Suzy examines Olivier Messiaen’s haunting ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, written amid the desolation of a POW camp. But at Auschwitz Suzy reveals how music was co-opted to serve the Nazis’ evil purposes. Cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch explains how musical ability saved her from the gas chambers. Drafted into the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, she had to play marches to drive prisoners to and from work and to give a private performance of Schumann’s exquisitely innocent ‘Träumerei’ to the infamous Dr Mengele.

The events of the 20th Century show, Suzy concludes, that though we should continue to love and celebrate music, we should also be wary of its seductive power.