With the devastation of the First World War, Germany experienced a traumatic loss of identification with values that had been central to its prewar culture, and these emphatically included musical values. In postwar German art music, this resulted in heavy irony toward the lofty philosophical claims and musical expressiveness that the later nineteenth century had bequeathed to prewar modernism. But it also occasioned bitter attempts to reassert those values, as exemplified by the polemics of Hans Pfitzner. Prominent on both sides of this debate, which found a medium in musical composition as well as musical discourse, were issues of national identity, nationalism, and the legacy of Richard Wagner.
One musical statement that attracted much notice early on was Paul Hindemith's burlesque opera Das Nusch-Nuschi, which premiered in Stuttgart in 1921. Hindemith, then beginning his rapid ascent in the postwar music scene, had based his opera on a Burmese marionette play that scandalously satirized Tristan und Isolde. There is considerable evidence of Hindemith's ironic engagement with Wagner throughout the war, and his opera——the postwar culmination of this trend——abounds with ironic evocations of Tristan.
Training a critical lens on Wagner's legacy, Das Nusch-Nuschi also resonates strongly with a position then being voiced by Paul Bekker, who spoke out against Pfitzner's Wagnerian hypernationalism and called for a decisive internationalist turn in postwar German composition. Specifically, Hindemith's opera sharpens its ironic, anti-Wagnerian tone by reaching beyond German modernism to embrace the Russian ““neonationalism”” of Igor Stravinsky.
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