Vari­a­tions on the Beast

Hen­ry Grinberg
  • Review
By – December 12, 2011
The main char­ac­ter and pro­tag­o­nist of this unusu­al nov­el is a high­ly gift­ed musi­cian who becomes a lead­ing con­duc­tor in Ger­many and Aus­tria, before, dur­ing, and after the Nazi era. Writ­ten almost com­plete­ly in the first per­son, it is a rich and intense por­tray­al of a man who becomes a moral mon­ster while pur­su­ing the high­est lev­els of musi­cal inter­pre­ta­tion. Although the con­duc­tor, Her­man Kapp-Dort­munder, nev­er becomes a mem­ber of the Nazi par­ty, he con­stant­ly seeks to ratio­nal­ize — indeed jus­ti­fy— the hor­rors com­mit­ted upon the Jews and oth­er minori­ties, rather than face the real­i­ty of his total capit­u­la­tion to the forces of evil that have assumed pow­er: As far back as I could remem­ber, peo­ple had noth­ing good to say about Jews. They had a foul rep­u­ta­tion, from the mur­der of Jesus, using the blood of chil­dren to bake their Passover bread, their usury, their world­wide con­trol of busi­ness, their invent­ing Bol­she­vism — all the way to the cor­rupt­ing our souls by dom­i­nat­ing Ger­man music and art.” The author bal­ances these out­pour­ings by hav­ing us meet the real-life com­pos­er and con­duc­tor Richard Strauss, who ques­tions the dis­tort­ed ratio­nale that now rules over Ger­man art, music, and lit­er­a­ture: Real­ly, I find it impos­si­ble to keep up with such a con­tra­dic­to­ry way of life. We are proud Ger­mans. Why must we dis­play how beast­ly we can be? We take pride in dis­play­ing infi­nite vari­eties of it.” He chuck­led. What about a new tone poem, Vari­a­tions On The Beast?” There are also descrip­tions of oth­er musi­cians of that era, such as Her­bert Von Kara­jan, Wal­ter Giesek­ing and oth­ers. But what makes the nov­el tran­scend the awful­ness of the peri­od in which it takes place is the fas­ci­nat­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the character’s pur­suit of the trans­for­ma­tion­al role of music and his doing so in the midst of his own grad­ual degra­da­tion. Not an easy read, but cer­tain­ly a worth­while one.
Shi­mon Gewirtz is a can­tor, com­pos­er, and play­wright who has lec­tured on Jew­ish music at var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties and elder­hos­tels around the coun­try. His orig­i­nal songs and trans­la­tions (from both Hebrew and Yid­dish) appear in many antholo­gies. He has a Mas­ters Degree in The­ater Ed. from NYU.

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