I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book published in 1944: The Baton and the Jackboot, by Berta Geissmar, the personal assistant of conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler during his great days in Germany. After Geissmar had been forced to leave Germany during the Hitler regime, she emigrated to London where she became the assistant of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. She was close to the centre of musical life in Europe for many years, in the company of two formidable personalities.
For me the most striking feature of the book is her description of musical life in Germany and Austria at the time. As a British musician working at a time when the arts are fighting for support, I read Geissmar’s words with envy and painful nostalgia for a artistic climate I never experienced: ‘It is astonishing to me even now to look back and remember how rich was the musical life in cities like Berlin and Vienna in the post-war years after 1918, and how culture flourished in Germany and Austria. While in France and England the capitals alone are the centres of all cultural and social life, in Germany towns like Dresden, Leipzig, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Breslau all have their own individual life. In the musical field there were everywhere men of outstanding merit, and there was ample opportunity for all of them.
‘…Everybody who remembers this period will agree that Vienna had a unique magic of its own. The interest of the population in everything connected with their musical and theatrical life seems incredible to an outsider. The smallest detail of every performance was of the greatest importance to everybody, and the passion of the Viennese for everything concerned with their Opera House, their Stars, and their Orchestra cannot be described.’