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The Practice and Politics of Children's Music Education in the German Democratic Republic, 1949-1976

  • Author(s): Timberlake, Anicia
  • Advisor(s): Taruskin, Richard
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the politics of children’s music education in the first decades of the German Democratic Republic. The East German state famously attempted to co-opt music education for propagandistic purposes by mandating songs with patriotic texts. However, as I show, most pedagogues believed that these songs were worthless as political education: children, they argued, learned not through the logic of texts, but through the immediacy of their bodies and their emotions. These educators believed music to be an especially effective site for children’s political education, as music played to children’s strongest suit: their unconscious mind and their emotions. Many pedagogues, composers, and musicologists thus adapted Weimar-era methods that used mostly non-texted music to instill what they held to be socialist values of collectivism, diligence, open-mindedness, and critical thought. I trace the fates of four of these pedagogical practices—solfège, the Orff Schulwerk, lessons in listening, and newly-composed “Brechtian” children’s operas—demonstrating how educators sought to graft the new demands of the socialist society onto inherited German musical and pedagogical traditions.

I argue that this marriage of old ideas and new aims was often fraught, as pedagogues and even state officials proved reluctant to interrogate fully the possible political uses of an art form which, in the Romantic tradition of Hoffmann and Hanslick, was held to be autonomous and stubbornly intractable to worldly purposes. Accordingly, music education in German socialism proceeded from a vision of aesthetic education that privileged the freedom of the individual—an ideal that proved loyal less to the beliefs of Soviet communism than to the fundamental ideologies of German liberalism. More generally, the dissertation shows how even the most fervently socialist didactic ideals and practices often broke down on the issue of music. Children’s music pedagogy represents, then, a moment in which developing human bodies and beliefs can be held up against the “real existing socialism” that the GDR claimed to have achieved: it exposes both the ideological underpinnings of German socialism and the halting practical steps that educators took to build it.

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