Study Guide

Deathfugue Art and Culture

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Art and Culture


The original title of this poem was changed from "Death Tango," in Romanian, to "Deathfugue" in German. One reason for this change is that "Deathfugue" directly makes reference to the great tradition of classical music in Germany, and its composers like J.S. Bach, who wrote "The Art of the Fugue." Also, the poem itself tries to mimic the fugue form, so it too is a highly polished work of art.

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling (lines 6-7)

The Nazis were extremely proud of Germany's cultural heritage, and they especially loved the Romantic period of the nineteenth century. Romanticism was all about the value of emotions and intuitions and the glory of nature. In these lines, you can see that the camp guard thinks of himself as a Romantic personality. He even invokes Marguerite from Goethe's Faust, one of the masterpieces of Romantic German literature.

he orders us strike up and play for the dance (line 10)

The playing of the "Deathfugue" by the prisoners shows a dark side of Germany's musical tradition. The camp guard tries to introduce art (or a parody of art) in an environment where it has no place.

your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped (lines 16)

Shulamith is the only reference to the unique culture of Judaism. She is a princess in the Hebrew text "The Song of Songs," which itself has high literary value. In this poem, you could say that she represents the independence of the Jewish identity from German culture, from which these Jews have been excluded.

He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland (line 25)

Again the guard takes his love of music way too far. He acts like a sadistic composer, trying to make the idea of death "sweet" to the Jews. Also, the word "master" is loaded with connotations about German art and culture. The famous German Romantic (and anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner wrote an opera titled "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." See our "Detailed Summary" for more info.

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