Content Notice: This entry contains references to torture, anti-semitism, and Nazism.
Music has many functions within human cultures: entertainment, artistic expression, worship. Most of these functions, and the associations connected with both the music and the function, are positive. But in some cases, music has much less pleasant associations and uses, especially when it is employed either directly or indirectly as a tool in a program of torture. Two early scenes in the Season 3 episode “The Man With Two Shadows” incorporate the interconnection of music and torture, first for double agent Pieter Borowski, and then later for Steed.
Pieter Borowski and Mendelssohn
In Steed’s first scene in this episode, Steed’s supervisor, Charles, asks him to help interrogate Pieter Borowski, a double agent who is now in British custody but who was subjected to heavy torture and brainwashing by the enemy agents who had captured him some time ago. The result of this brainwashing is that Borowski now assumes a set of shifting personalities that were forced upon him by his captors. These personalities include a Gestapo Kommandant, a Russian nobleman who died in 1860, and an American thriller writer. Borowski shifts in and out of these personalities, often in response to some trigger in the conversation.
When Charles asks Steed whether he knew Borowski, Steed replies that he knew him quite well. One of the things Steed remembers about his friend is that he was a pianist who liked playing Brahms and Mendelssohn, and he tries to use that as a means to bring Borowski’s real personality to the front in the hopes that he will provide them with information about what the enemy is up to and why they did this to him. They eventually learn that the enemy has a plan to make doubles of various important people. After the bad guys kill the originals, the doubles will seamlessly take over their lives and work, and with access to state secrets can act as moles passing information to their handlers.
Borowski initially presents himself to Steed as a Gestapo Kommandant, speaking fluent German and doing the Nazi salute while exclaiming “Heil, Hitler!” But then he shifts to the persona of an American thriller writer named Kaplan. Steed tries to bring Borowski back to himself, by saying his name and telling him that they were friends once. Then Borowski asks whether he had been a pianist, and Steed tells him that he used to play Brahms and Mendelssohn.
Steed: Your name is Borowski. Pieter Borowski.
Borowski: That’s a Jewish name.
Steed: It’s your name, Pieter Borowski. I’m John Steed. We used to know each other.
Borowski (as Kaplan): Okay, okay, have it your way. Say, was I ever a piano-player? A good one?
Steed: Yes, you played Brahms very well. And Mendelssohn.
At the mention of Mendelssohn, Borowski comes unglued. He is horrified by what Steed just told him. Then he shifts back into his Gestapo personality briefly, before collapsing on the floor begging Steed not to tell “the general”—the persona of a Nazi SS officer that Charles had assumed earlier in his own attempt to get Borowski to talk—that he played Mendelssohn.
Borowski: Brahms and Mendelssohn….
Borowski (as Kommandant): Er drückt seinen Beileid aus. Er muss erschossen werden! [next line unintelligible]*
Borowski (as himself?): No! Don’t tell him, don’t tell him. Do not tell the general that I played Mendelssohn!
* He expresses his condolences. He must be shot! (The next line is unintelligible and is not written in the dialogue pages.)
We learn several important things in this part of the scene. Borowski’s comment about his name (“that’s a Jewish name”) suggests that Borowski himself is Jewish. The Borowski Steed knew was a pianist, and a good one, who could play the music of Brahms and Mendelssohn: Steed apparently had heard Borowski play on at least one occasion and had enjoyed listening to the music. The torture to which Borowski has been subjected has caused him to internalize a degree of anti-semitism towards himself, and has given him a loathing of even the mention of Mendelssohn and a fear of being known to have played his music. These three things are all connected: the anti-semitism; the persona of the Gestapo Kommandant; and the loathing and fear precipitated by the mention of Mendelssohn.
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A Music-Historical Side Trip
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) was a German composer and conductor who enjoyed much success both in his home country and abroad, especially in England. His family originally was Jewish, although they converted to Protestantism when Felix was quite young; the degree to which Felix personally continued to identify as Jewish has remained a matter of debate among scholars. It is possible that anti-semitism was one of the reasons why he was denied the conductorship of the Berlin Sing-Akademie in 1833. Mendelssohn composed and published a substantial amount of piano music during his career, so it’s anyone’s guess what Borowski played. I like to think that it would have been one or more of the Lieder ohne Worte (“Songs Without Words”). Mendelssohn wrote many of these short piano works between 1829 and 1845.
During the Third Reich, music was an important part of the Nazi agenda, often employed as a propagandistic aid to their “purification” of German culture and arts. To this end, some kinds of music were held up as representatives of “pure” Aryan musical expression. The music of Richard Wagner (1813–1883) is one example. Wagner was especially beloved by the Nazis not least because his personal philosophies were well aligned with those of the Nazi party: Wagner himself was a raving anti-semite and author of a venomous attack on Mendelssohn, which in accepted troll fashion he published both pseudonymously and after Mendelssohn’s death. Music was also used as an instrument of torture by the Nazis: Jews imprisoned in the death camps were often forced to play or sing during hard labor, in the course of executions, or for the entertainment of their captors. And just as a person’s family tree could be seen as “tainted” by any Jewish ancestry, no matter how distant, music could also be coded as “degenerate,” and therefore banned, if it had any associations with Judaism, either in its function or by reason of the Jewishness of its creators. The music of Mendelssohn therefore was considered suspect by the Nazi regime, and eventually was banned. That Mendelssohn’s family had converted to Protestantism didn’t matter: once a Jew, always a Jew, according to the Nazis.
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And Back to Borowski
I do wonder whether Mendelssohn’s music had any additional significance to Borowski as a result of the Nazi ban. Steed mentions that he and Borowski had been colleagues in 1947, not long after the end of World War II and the collapse of the Nazi regime: it’s possible that Borowski, as both a musician and a Jew, placed additional value on this music that had been subject to a Nazi ban not long before his association with Steed.
The horror of what was done to Pieter Borowski has many layers. He himself is Jewish, but seems leery of people with Jewish surnames when he is in his American persona (who also, ironically enough, has a Jewish surname, “Kaplan”). Worse, he has been forced by torture to take on the personality of a member of the Gestapo. Borowski has been allowed to retain fragments of his own personality, but he cannot remember them directly: when he asks Steed about his piano playing, he does it in the persona of an American writer. And any pleasure that he may have derived from that music-making, or even simply from the memory of having played the piano for himself or for his friends, has been irrevocably tainted by its torture-induced association with Nazi ideology. First, Borowski is disgusted to think that he ever would have played Mendelssohn at all; then he is terrified about what might happen to him if “the general” finds out about that activity.
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Steed, Borowski, and Brahms
At the very end of Steed’s interview with Borowski, Borowski climbs up onto the table in his cell. He curls into a fetal position and begins to hum the melody to Brahms’ Lullaby. Steed watches this with a mixture of pity and horror.
That his friend has been tortured to the point where he has lost contact with both his own identity and with present reality and is now clinging to this one melody—which also has associations with infancy and maternal love and childhood security, the complete opposite of what Borowski has endured and is suffering now—is terrible for Steed to witness, and nearly brings him to tears.
It’s possible Steed heard Borowski play this piece. Maybe it was even one of Borowski’s favorites. Steed himself obviously associates good times with his friend with the music of Brahms. We later learn that Steed had been captured and tortured by the same people that had held Borowski, but that Steed managed to escape after four days, so I also wonder whether that melody wasn’t part of the torture program, too, and that that is another reason why Steed is stripped to his core when he hears it again while discussing the case with Cathy Gale.
Steed visits Cathy at her apartment. The stereo plays music in the background while he tells her about the interview with Borowski and the plan to make the doppelgängers. Cathy is fascinated by the idea of the doubles program, and starts wondering aloud how they could make it work. This is triggering for Steed, who starts to retreat into himself. He is having a PTSD episode about his experience with that torture, he is worried and frightened that he might be one of the people the doubles program intends to replace, and he has been badly shaken by his encounter with Borowski. Then Brahms’ Lullaby begins to play. It’s the last straw. Steed comes close to a complete emotional and psychological collapse, and it takes a mighty act of will for him to draw himself back from the brink.
Steed: Would you mind turning that off?
Cathy: Of course.
Although Steed is not drawn as particularly musically inclined, he apparently can play the piano (“From Venus With Love”) and can carry a tune (well, mostly) although he does not have a fine singing voice (in “Too Many Christmas Trees,” he sings folk songs as a defense against the telepaths who are trying to invade his mind). In “Concerto,” he defers to Cathy’s expertise with music, saying only that he prefers Van Cliburn for Chopin, which indicates that he likes and has awareness both of contemporary performers and of art music. He enjoys jazz, putting some on the stereo when he visits Cathy in “Death of a Great Dane,” and is a fine dancer (“Death on the Rocks”; “Quick-Quick-Slow Death”). So while Steed himself might not be a musician to any great extent, music still is an important part of his life and is interwoven with his friendships. No wonder Steed is driven nearly to tears by Borowski’s plight: Borowski has been stripped of his identity, and things that once gave him joy have been turned into things he now hates and fears. No wonder hearing Brahms’ Lullaby in Cathy’s flat pushes Steed near to emotional collapse.
For both Steed and Borowski, The music of Brahms and Mendelssohn has become associated with pain and disconnection from humanity. This music, which once brought Borowski comfort and brought him and Steed together as friends and colleagues, now exists only as a pale shadow of itself within that past relationship, and also under the terrible shadow that is the experience and memory of torture.
- Portions of the section titled “Steed, Borowski, and Brahms” exist in earlier incarnations here, here, and here.
- I have some additional maunderings about “Man With Two Shadows”: one about how Cathy figures out that Steed is really himself, and a look at the episode from Steed’s POV.
- You can read more about the history of music under the Third Reich at Music and the Holocaust.
- My thanks to Linda Shaver-Gleason for reading a draft of this post. Linda writes about music history and popular culture on her blog, Not Another Music History Cliche.