Musical Material Culture during the Third Reich

by Julia Zimring

On April 12, the Institute of European Studies welcomed Senior Fellow Carla Shapreau, a lecturer at the Berkeley School of Law. Her presentation, titled “From Enigma to Virtual Splendor - The Nazi-Era Theft and Restitution of Guillaume de Machaut’s Extraordinary Medieval Manuscript, the Ferrell-Vogüé,” traced the fascinating history of this cultural artifact from its creation in the 14th century to its modern-day whereabouts.

The Ferrell-Vogüé is a medieval codex, written by the great French poet Guillaume de Machaut. Through its unique compilation of music, literature, and art, the codex offers invaluable insight to the events of the time. For several centuries, it was passed between members of the French aristocracy, but by the mid-20th century, the Ferrell-Vogüé landed in the hands of French art dealer Nathan Wildenstein. With the ushering in of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France, Wildenstein was forced to flee the country, leaving the manuscript behind. Like so many other priceless works of art and cultural artifacts, the Ferrell-Vogüé was seized by Nazi forces and hidden in a network of repositories throughout Germany. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, the codex passed into American possession, then French, and finally back to Georges Wildenstein, who luckily had preserved photographs proving the Ferrell-Vogüé was rightfully his.

Shapreau’s lecture focused on the Ferrell-Vogüé manuscript as a case study through which to examine the role of musical material culture during the Nazi era, immediately after World War II, up to the present day. She concluded her presentation by asking the audience a question: Does knowledge of an artifact’s cultural context and historical narrative distract from or enhance one’s ability to appreciate it? A lively Q&A discussion followed with the audience of 35.