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University of Basel

Kitsch speaks straight to the soul.

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

Superficial, saccharine and sentimental — people are usually being disparaging when they describe a piece of music as “kitsch.” This hackneyed term has been in use for some 150 years and is the subject of research by a Basel musicologist, who has made some surprising discoveries.

Postcard with lines from the song Ave Maria
Section of postcard with lyrics from Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, Bunte Reihe No. 234; circa 1930. (Image: Zentrum für Populäre Kultur und Musik, Albert-Ludwigs- Universität Freiburg, LP 2887 and LP 2015)

We all think we know what the word “kitsch” refers to — poor-quality works of art that use simple devices to appeal directly to our emotions for maximum impact. When people describe something as kitsch, they mean it is bad art.

Andreas Baumgartner, 39, a researcher at the Department of Musicology, has been dealing with the concept of kitsch for years — and believes it is now more enigmatic than ever: “It seems to constantly evade definition. And paradoxically, it barely gets any clearer when you examine it in more detail.” Nevertheless, the researcher hazards a definition in our interview: “Kitsch generally represents poor taste, clichés, insincere pathos and falsehood. It masquerades, feigns and simulates — and is accused of being sham art.”

A German word goes global

There even seems to be some uncertainty surrounding the origins of the catchword, which emerged at the end of the 19th century in artistic circles in southern Germany. It probably derives from the verb kitschen (“to smear”) — the word Kitsche was used to refer to mud produced during road construction. Other possible origins include the English word “sketch” and the Yiddish verkitschen (“to sell something cheaply”). Whatever the origin, the German term was adopted into several world languages — including Russian — and spread around the world in short order.

What do we perceive as kitsch when it comes to music, however? Baumgartner has a theory: “It undoubtedly involves the frequent use of certain musical phrases and chord progressions, the repeated resolution of simple dramatic arcs, and a lack of breaks or friction.” Popular opinion holds that musical kitsch puts listeners in a mood that is at once reverent and religious, sensitive and effusive. The music appeals to the listener’s emotions and conjures up a certain image, be it a full moon or a sunset. One common criticism, however, is that this beauty is superficial and seeks only to create a mood and trigger an emotional response in the audience.

According to Baumgartner, the mass dissemination of music from the 19th century onward saw the emergence of simple, catchy pieces, such as hits from operettas, parlor jingles and movie scores: “It was precisely at that time, when representatives of high art were seeking to differentiate themselves from art made for the masses, that the word ’kitsch’ emerged.” In those days, visual art, photography and literature were being produced in large quantities for an ascendant middle class, as more and more people sought to acquire a stake in the world of art and culture.

A Schubert song performed by the Queen of “Schlager”

Among other things, Baumgartner’s dissertation examines the way in which a Schubert lied became a famous pop song. The composition originally entitled “Ellens Gesang III” emerged in 1825 as part of a song cycle and quickly achieved popularity under the titles “Hymn to the Virgin” and “Ave Maria.” Soon after it was composed, the song appeared in the form of innumerable arrangements. Later becoming a worldwide hit, it was even used to stimulate deep emotions in churches — and oddly enough was played at both weddings and funerals. The song has also featured in numerous movies, including Disney’s “Fantasia” in 1940, and graced the repertoires of stars such as Romy Schneider, Roy Black and Céline Dion.

Baumgartner has studied one arrangement of “Ave Maria” — performed by the German Schlager singer Helene Fischer — note for note. Whereas the lyrics were changed, the music appears to be almost identical. According to the musicologist, however, there are a number of deliberate simplifications, as well as embellishments, that turn the song “into a wistful piece of music that is gentle and melancholic while also being sensual and charming” — and capable of touching an audience of millions. He is reticent as to whether this Schubert song, which is perfectly executed with enormous pomp, has now “secured its place among the icons of popular music” or has instead “come to symbolize the decline of German culture.”

“Sweet” and “sour” kitsch

After all, instead of assigning ratings and making value judgments, Baumgartner is keen to find out which music was termed “kitsch” when, by whom and for what reasons. He also wants to know what it sounds like when a composer produces kitschy music deliberately — such as in the “Kitsch-Duett” in an opera by Paul Hindemith. As an example, he has also studied the well-known “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor — another piece that has enjoyed a long career, including an appearance in Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of “Death in Venice.” Many people today feel that Puccini’s operas, Johann Strauss’ waltzes and Tchaikovsky’s symphonies border very closely on kitsch.

He also encountered the term “sour kitsch,” which briefly entered the parlance of cultural debates in around 1920. This time, the accusation of being kitsch was not leveled in order to disparage music simply for being pleasing to the ear, but rather to discredit the emerging avant-garde — that is, artistic movements such as neo-impressionism, futurism and abstract painting, including the work of Picasso. For example, the German art historian and critic Curt Glaser wrote that this “sour” or “futuristic” kitsch was becoming estranged from good art and even overturning its basic principles. In this regard, Baumgartner is able to show that discussions around “kitsch” are influenced not only by its aesthetic impact but also by social and political dimensions.

Antlers and garden gnomes

Baumgartner, who plays the clarinet, piano and organ and has also researched the Italian film score composer Ennio Morricone, has a personal fascination with kitsch — and takes the subject very seriously. Not only are the criteria used to define kitsch extremely diverse and variable, he says, but people are now also taking a less disparaging view of the genre: “Nowadays, the phenomenon of kitsch is widespread in society. It forms part of people’s lifestyles or has become a sort of ironic statement.” Baumgartner takes the view that, in a time when antlers, garden gnomes and Schlager stars are socially acceptable, certain preconceptions of culture should indeed be reconsidered: “Kitsch can be seen as a valid part of art in its own right.”

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