When Richard Wagner composed romantic operas such as The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, or the epic The Ring of Nibelungen, he probably never imagined his works would be heard by thousands of men, women, and children condemned to horrible deaths, that his music would be heard in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.
The German army was aware of the properties of music. Psychology and medicine had continuously proven its benefits, such as reducing heart rate and anxiety, lessen headaches, improve concentration, as well as helping with depression and stress.
The Nazis then decided to use such properties during one of the darkest moments of humanity. This might have also been one of the forms of scientific experimentation done on the prisoners. Few are aware of the fact that the objects of violence were not just firearms, tanks, and airplanes, but also musical instruments.
Every camp had their own orchestra or a capella group conformed by 120 musicians working for the Nazis. These orchestras had the task of welcoming the prisoners to the sound of Strauss, Franzs, Lehar, or ballads of the thirties.
After leaving the work camp, or attending to whatever the German officers would have prisoners do, the music needed to be a military march or the Nazi anthem.
According to writer and researcher Pascal Quignard, music was not used as a solace for the prisoners. “German soldiers did not put music in the death camps as a way to ease the pain or console the victims.” The author of The Hatred of Music claims it was made to create obedience.
Simon Laks was detained in Paris in 1941. He was a musician who had studied at the Warsaw Conservatory prior to arriving to Auschwitz. His talent led him to be a violinist in the camp orchestra and eventually the scribe and director. Laks would frequently play Schubert, Wagner, and Brahms. Eventually the prisoners retaliated with the song Die Gedanken Sind Frei (thoughts are free), symbolic of the 1848 revolution.
Kage claims, "The prisoners wished to die in peace, which is to say, they wanted the barest hint of autonomy over the space in which they die. But the melodies of Bach, Beethoven and Horst Wessel, along with jazz songs, wrested every last bit of space away from them."
In a final effort to make the detainees see this music as a form of relief, the German army invited mezzo-soprano Hedda Grab-Kernmayer to Theresienstadt Camp to sing repertoire of classic and popular composers. This happened on December 17, 1941. Her career came to an end shortly after this concert.
It seems that there are endless horror tales of the Nazi genocide. As time goes by, we only find out more of what truly went on inside the death camps. Thankfully there are people like Kage and Quignard who have made research into these topics most of us would be unwilling to touch.