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16 October 2023

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Brecht at the Sheldonian by Dr Tom Kuhn

Tom Kuhn, Brecht on Love and War

In the early 1940s, the German poet and playwright, Bertolt Brecht, embarked on a new scrapbook project. Struck by the way the war was represented in the media, he cut photographs from newspapers, stuck them on black card and added four-line poems in commentary. He called them ‘photoepigrams’. He assembled dozens of these under the title Kriegsfibel (War Primer), but the work was not published until after his death in 1956. It was too pacifist for the GDR authorities.

Urged on by the death of his friend, Brecht’s long-term musical collaborator, Hanns Eisler, in turn, set a selection of the photo epigrams to music – and created a spikey, modernist work, with tense relationships between music, image and text. It’s an ambitious work too, calling for extensive resources: a large modern band, singer soloists and a chorus, and of course a screen for the photographs. And, having brought all that together, it only lasts eleven minutes.

Early in 2022, I teamed up with the saxophonist and composer (and Guildhall professor) John Harle to plot a performance of these Scenes from the War Primer, but: in what context could we do this, how could we assemble such forces, what else could we couple them with? Out of these deliberations, slowly, a rather spectacular project emerged, generously supported by the University’s Humanities Cultural Programme.

John mobilised Guildhall students, who became the wonderful ‘Bauhaus Band & Singers’, and he persuaded Marc Almond (of Soft Cell fame) to revive some, and learn some more Brecht and Marlene Dietrich songs. Then – in what proved a stroke of genius – we decided to commission new work by Oxford and Guildhall students and junior faculty: musical arrangements and new compositions and films (by students at the Ruskin School), all themed on Brecht poems in my translations. We discovered a new generation of talents. I wrestled the material into a programme, which I hoped would be, by turns, entertaining, inspiring and unsettling.

So, it came to three immensely satisfying events in May: at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, at the Guildhall School in London, and at Gulbenkian Arts in Canterbury. Brecht and Eisler’s work came alive again. For me, it was a revelation to see the works realised in performance, and the reception by our audiences made it clear that works created 80 and more years ago still had the power to move and inspire. It was wonderful to work with extraordinarily talented students, musicians and creative artists.

As for me, I have retired from my Tutorial Fellowship at St Hugh’s, but I’ll keep working, both in scholarship and on such cultural projects. Next summer I’m co-curating an exhibition (with performance) at a gallery in Spitalfields. And both Marc Almond and John Harle are keen to develop the partnership. Watch this space.

Below is a film with highlights from Brecht on Love and War at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford in May 2023; featuring Tom Kuhn, John Harle, Marc Almond, Roza Herwig, Tom McGowan, and the Bauhaus Band and Singers.

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