Choir Training in the Wehrmacht…

Throughout the history of German military music, the twin performances of full regimental band & soldiers’ song, by a single voice or full field-choir have run parallel with both vital to troop entertainment in the barracks or in the field. Compared to other field-entertainment such as cinema & theatre or concert performances, a choir raised from combat troops was seen as being on-hand & ready to sing in all locations and in all conditions when a band was not available.

The importance of singing in the Armed Forces of the Third Reich was underlined by Generalfeldmarschall von Keitel who said in the foreword to the Handbuch für die Singleiterder Wehrmacht (Army Handbook for Those in Charge of Soldiers’ Singing): “Throughout the ages, songs have been the comrades of German soldiers in good times and bad; for soldiers on the march, at rest or at play, singing is always the living expression of soldierly comradeship. Whoever is in charge of soldiers singing has himself to be in possession of a great wealth of knowledge and has to have a happy way of passing this knowledge on…He also has to understand the deeper purpose of soldiers’ song and music. In times of struggle, music is a source of joy, of up-lifting, and inner strength for the people. Those in charge of singing have to unlock this source of strength for their men…..”

Writing in the same manual, Hauptmann Wilhelm Matthes summed up the value of song to the German Army in 1940: “Whatever moves a soldier’s innermost feelings most strongly, be it battle, victory, death, comradeship, loyalty, love of weaponry, love of homeland, love of wife and family, all these emotions find their immediate expression in the wealth of beautiful soldiers’ songs which have been handed down through many generations, and also in the great number of new songs which give expression to the experiences of the current war….”

Set against this widely held belief, the Wehrmacht High Command decreed it desirable that, given the appropriate good will and organisation, every division or regiment in the German armed forces should be in a position to set up its own small choir, despite the demands of military duties or the restrictions put upon it by being a front-line unit.

Understanding that such choirs could only function with the full support of its commanding officer and the skill of the conductor, it was also stated in the Wehrmacht Handbook that: choir singing should be seen and rewarded as a part of service to the troop, and not just as a simple leisure activity. This should be achieved by recruiting eight good singers who have a rudimentary knowledge of how to read music. All too often such ventures fail because an advert is placed simply saying “Volunteer Singers Wanted” and then the applicants are accepted with no further selection.

These eight singers will then motivate others by performing comparatively simple songs to a high standard, so attracting others to come forward, and once the choir has reached 24 to 28 members, it can then cope with more tasks and the change of personnel that will undoubtedly occur within a combat unit….”

Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s advice on selecting a choirmaster was: “to search for a conductor with previous experience of amateur choirs, someone who knows how to handle a variety of voices and who can combine educational flair with energy and staying power. Most of all, that soldier should know how to capture and hold his singers’ attention and how to inspire them, be he a good amateur or a professional…”

On programme selection, the training manual also suggested that it was: “far better to undertake a simple song rather than dishearten a choir by attempting something far too complicated. Conductors of field choirs have a unique opportunity to influence the tastes of a wide selection of the population by choosing music of an artistic value as found in folk songs and truly popular music…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Radio in The Third Reich…

It was in the mid-1920s that a national broadcasting network, Grossdeutscher Rundfunk (Greater German Radio), was established in Germany and Funkstunde Berlin, was the first regional station to begin broadcasting on the 29th October 1923…and Berlin’s ‘Radio Hour’ became the first well-known programme of this new medium, with some 500 Berliners registered to receive it.The following year saw a number of regional radio stations (Reichssender) set up on medium wave under the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk umbrella in the cities of Leipzig, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Königsberg & Münster.

Two years later Berlin found itself with a second radio station, Deutsche Welle, established in 1926 and this expansion in radio broadcasting captured the imagination of the German public and the number of registered & licensed radio listeners soon rose to an incredible 500,000. By the end of 1926 this figure had risen to well over one million Germans who were eagerly paying their 2 Reichsmarks (2 shillings or ten pence) a month to receive regular radio broadcasts in their own home!

Though the art of radio broadcasting & programme production was still fairly primitive, music was very much at the heart of this new fledgling form of entertainment, and there was a good variety & mix: from opera & operetta  to symphony orchestras & solo recitals which filled the regular evening broadcasting slots.

Then on January 30th 1933, Berlin radio carried a news-flash stating that Leipzig, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Königsberg & Münster. leader, Adolf Hitler, had been promoted to the position of Reich Chancellor. With this brief message, radio broadcasting in Germany moved into a whole new era, to become a vital tool in the hands of the new propagandists! The following day, January 31st, Reichskanzler Hitler made his inaugural national radio address to the Third Reich, the first of some 50 broadcasts that he would make in his first year of office!

On March 15th 1933, the German Government assigned all broadcasting rights to the newly-formed Ministry for Education & Propaganda under Minister-in-Charge, Joseph Goebbels, who viewed radio as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. He triumphantly declared: ‘We will create the first modern broadcasting system in the world has ever seen…and so take our National Socialist demands to the people…’ 

However the Nazi take-over did not, as one would have imagined, immediately change the tone of broadcasting from entertainment to blatant political propaganda; the reason for this can be attributed directly to Goebbels, who was not a stupid man and, along with Adolf Hitler, had quickly realised the power of radio & its influence over a population.

He was determined to ensure that radio retained its impact on the German people and not lose the appeal of National Socialism. He therefore issued an order at a conference of radio officials in March 1933 that radio output should….‘never become boring! Avoid dreariness and don’t put your convictions on the turntable, Do not think that you can serve the our government best by the sound of blaring marches evening after evening! Broadcasting should never suffer from the misused word!’

Nevertheless, Goebbels managed very successfully to balance entertainment with the political message, and in April 1933 he introduced a new programme called ‘Stunde der Nation’ (Hour of the Nation), which was relayed to all German regional radio stations each evening between 7 & 8 pm. Containing a professional mix of lectures, radio plays and politically inspired music and opera, it fulfilled Goebbel’s desire that radio should also:“saturate the people with the spiritual content of National Socialism!”

Two very astute observations from the Minister for Propaganda, but his approach seemed to work, for later that same year, at the tenth Broadcasting Exhibition in Berlin the People’s Receiver, the Volksempfänger 301 (derived from the date of the Nazis’ ascension to power on January 30th 1933), was launched, selling a staggering 100,000 sets on the first day at a cost of 76 marks (£5.8s.10d or £5.44p), almost half the cost of its nearest rival!

Radio broadcasting in Germany had certainly come of age, and by the following year an incredible 5 million German radio listeners were registered and though home ownership of the new radio receivers was growing rapidly, Goebbels was anxious that all Germans had access to radio broadcasts. He therefore ordered that radio loudspeakers be immediately installed in all factories and on street corners across the Reich to ensure that the political speeches of the nation’s leaders would reach the widest audience possible…

Under the slogan ‘a radio in every home’, he also decided that a low- cost radio set should now be made available to the German masses.

Technical & programme production development continued apace,and in 1936 a new and improved version of the VE301 was introduced at a lower cost of 65 marks (£5.5s.4d or £5.27p), followed in 1938 by the smaller Deutscher Kleinempfänger (German Compact People’s Receiver), which was introduced to great acclaim and (and no little excitement!), at an even lower and much more affordable price of just 35 marks (£2.17s.7d or £2.88p).

By 1938, light entertainment music, so-called ‘Unterhaltungsmusik’, was accounting for nearly two thirds of all music output, and in this pre-television era, German radio was winning the plaudits of its listeners for its variety of music from opera to musicals and for its willingness to experiment and play the latest in the new dance music, such as that of Barnabas von Geczy.

Broadcasting hours had risen from 14 hours a day in 1932 to 20 hours in the year before the outbreak of war, and with the expansion of the whole German broadcasting network, Berlin’s own ‘Radio Hour’ developed into a programme called ‘Germany’s Hour’ which was broadcast on the national network. In addition, each regional station in the German broadcasting network hired its own professional musicians, with the Berlin Funkstunde, for example, employing a 75-strong radio orchestra, a chamber orchestra of twenty-eight musicians and a twenty-five man choir.

By the outbreak of war in 1939, the number of domestic German listeners had risen to some 10 million, and with the extension of broadcasting hours, the demand for Unterhaltungs musik grew to such an extent that Goebbels actively ordered more of it be played on the radio. In September 1941, with a total audience of just over 50 million listeners now tuning in to some 15 million sets, he went a step further in establishing a Deutsches Tanz und Unterhaltungs Orchester.

Throughout the war years, Joseph Goebbels, as Reichspropagandaminister, continued to personally vet all musical content and weed out any records or performances that he thought inappropriate, but rather surprisingly, however, was how little Adolf Hitler actually interfered or meddled within the field of German civilian & military musical entertainment.

During his leadership of the Reich, he appeared to have issued only two direct music-related dictums, both on February 6th 1939: firstly that the infamous Horst Wessel Lied, (the alternative Nazi anthem), be played at a faster tempo… and that his beloved German National Anthem (Deutschlandlied) be played at crochet = 80..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014