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.