Commentary Magazine

How Hitler Destroyed German Music

The Vienna Philharmonic recently issued a report by a group of independent historians in which the orchestra officially acknowledged for the first time the closeness of its relationship to the Third Reich. Not only had half its players become members of the Nazi Party by 1942, but all 13 of its Jewish players had been fired four years earlier and five of them later died in the camps. A few weeks later, Der Spiegel published a 6,000-word essay called “Wagner’s Dark Shadow: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?” in which Dirk Kurbjuweit dealt no less honestly with the continuing inability of many German music lovers to grapple with the fact that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite whose writings directly influenced Adolf Hitler.

The extent to which Hitler and his cultural commissars sought to control and shape European musical life has been chronicled in detail. But most of these books have dealt primarily or exclusively with German-speaking performers and those performing artists from other countries, France in particular, who collaborated with the Nazis. Yet the unswerving determination of the Nazis to rid Europe of what they called entartete musik (degenerate music) may well have had an even more far-reaching effect on postwar European musical culture. After all, many well-known Jewish classical performers—Fritz Kreisler, Artur Schnabel and Bruno Walter among them—managed to emigrate to America and other countries where they continued their careers without significant interruption. Not so the Jewish composers whose music was banned by the Nazis. Some of them were killed in the Holocaust, and none of those who survived succeeded in fully reconstituting their professional lives after the war.

A turning point in our understanding of the effects of Nazism on European classical composition came in the 1990s when Decca/London began to release a series of albums called “Entartete Musik” containing some 30-odd works by such celebrated Jewish composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schreker, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill, all of whom had their music banned. After the series came to an end, Michael Haas, its producer, decided to devote himself to further study of the subject. Now he has written a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale, 352 pp.). It is, amazingly, the first full-length history of what happened to the composers who ran afoul of the Nazi regime.

Though Haas is not a historian by training, Forbidden Music is still an outstandingly fine piece of work, one that not only tells the story of what happened to these composers but also places it in the historical context without which we cannot fully understand their sufferings. For the history of entartete musik is in large part a tale of Jewish assimilation and its discontents—and of Wagner, whose own mad obsession with Judaism had much to do with the fate of the composers who later felt Hitler’s wrath.

Prior to the social emancipation of Jewry that followed the establishment of Austria-Hungary’s dual monarchy in 1867 and the German Reich in 1871, it was all but impossible for German-speaking Jewish classical composers to achieve success in their native lands. The most important ones either emigrated (like Jacques Offenbach) or spent large parts of their career in other countries (like Felix Mendelssohn).

Given the extent to which Austro-German musical culture dominated classical music throughout the 19th century, it stands to reason that emancipation should have inspired many Jewish composers not merely to assimilate socially but to embrace a new cultural identity for which they had longed so intensely. It was, Haas writes, “the long-awaited entry [of the Jews] into the most élite, educated and cultivated ‘club’ on earth.” Arnold Schoenberg, the least “clubbable” of men, went so far as to proclaim that his invention of the 12-tone method of atonal composition would (in his oft-quoted words) “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”

Not surprisingly, many of these composers sought to expunge all recognizably Jewish elements from their music, hoping thereby to compose in the “true” Germanic tradition. Those who, like Karl Goldmark, failed to purge their styles with sufficient thoroughness were attacked for that very reason by such assimilated Jewish critics as Vienna’s Eduard Hanslick, who complained in a review of one of Goldmark’s operas of his “musical transliteration of Jewish Orientalism….It’s even used when general human feelings are called for rather than anything specifically Jewish.”

Despite their fondest hopes, these musicians were never able to escape the blight of anti-Semitism. Part of the problem was that their success led to growing envy on the part of less accomplished Gentile musicians. Just as important, though, was the emergence of a specifically racial brand of anti-Semitism of which Richard Wagner was the first major proponent. In Judaism in Music and Other Essays (1850) and other writings, Wagner proclaimed his “instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence” and decried “the be-Jewing of modern art,” going so far as to claim that Judaism threatened German culture itself, since Jews were “the purest of all races and it matters not with whom they mix: the Jewish race always dominates.”

Wagner’s race-based anti-Semitism became an accepted part of the cultural conversation in fin-de-siècle Europe, and it may have had an inhibiting effect on at least some of the Jewish composers of the period. The vast majority of German-speaking Jewish composers of the post-emancipation era were so determined to emphasize their “Germanness” that their music became derivative. Some favored Wagner’s hyper-romanticism, others the conservative traditionalism of Johannes Brahms, but whatever their choice, the result was a body of work that is—with good reason—almost totally forgotten today.

Not until Gustav Mahler, whose First Symphony was performed in 1889, did a Jewish composer of profound, even radical, originality appear on the scene. Yet Mahler’s relationship to his Jewish heritage was complex in the extreme. On the one hand, he unhesitatingly incorporated Jewish elements into his music—the slow movement of the First Symphony, for instance, contains a section that evokes the pungent sound of what would come to be called klezmer. At the same time, though, Mahler was, as Haas explains, equivocal about his background. Not only did he convert to Roman Catholicism to facilitate his appointment as director of the Vienna Hofoper (later the Vienna State Opera), but he “shuddered at the sight of kaftan-wearing, bearded Jews from Eastern Europe and refused to identify with them.”

Whatever his personal feelings about Judaism, Mahler was the key figure in the development of the next generation of post-emancipation Jewish composers. For those who were convinced that Wagner’s all-encompassing romanticism was a dead end—a “debilitating condition” (as the musicologist Alfred Einstein put it) that threatened to smother Austro-German musical culture—Mahler’s symphonically oriented style, at once more acerbic and more linear, offered budding modernists such as Schoenberg a much-needed alternative to the stodgy conservatism of the Jewish composers of the late 19th century.

Schoenberg soon found himself in the vanguard of musical modernism, though he and his followers, Jewish and otherwise, were outnumbered by other composers who still looked to Wagner or Brahms for guidance. But whatever their musical allegiance, these men all followed the path of assimilation, for they were true believers in Austro-German musical culture who wanted to preserve or (in Schoenberg’s case) improve it. It never occurred to them that their passport to that culture could be revoked.

How would Austro-German musical culture have evolved had Jewish composers continued to play a part in its development? The question, while provocative, is unanswerable, for starting in 1933 Adolf Hitler removed them from the scene.

It is in no way surprising that Hitler should have paid close attention to Germany’s musical establishment, since he was an aesthete manqué with a passion for classical music. His ideas, moreover, about music and musicians had been shaped by Richard Wagner. “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner,” he declared. Hitler read Wagner’s writings closely and took them seriously, declaring Wagner to be his favorite “political” writer and describing him as one of “the great reformers” in Mein Kampf. “Beside Frederick the Great we have such men as Martin Luther and Richard Wagner.”

Wagner’s pathological anti-Semitism was the insane root of the Third Reich’s suppression of Jewish composers. But one of the most striking aspects of this policy was the fact that even though Hitler promulgated a staunchly anti-modernist doctrine, it was not absolute in practice. Except for Hitler himself, Nazi leaders were comparatively indifferent to whether a given composer was a traditionalist or a modernist, so long as he played ball with them. What mattered to them—and to Hitler—was blood. If you were Jewish, it was irrelevant whether you were assimilated or observant, much less whether you were an atonal modernist or a Brahmsian conservative: Either way, you threatened the racial purity of German culture.

This attitude completely defeated such fully assimilated composers as Franz Schreker, who was not raised as a Jew and never thought of himself as one. An influential late-romantic composer and teacher with modernist tendencies whose operas, in particular Der ferne Klang (1912) and Der Schatzgräber (1920), had had great success, Schreker found himself without employment once the Nazis came to power, and was so shocked that he died of a stroke in 1934.

“Aryan” musicians, by contrast, saw the coming of Hitlerism as an opportunity to get back at the Jews who in many cases had deprived them of the prestige that they saw as their birthright. The great violinist Adolf Busch and his brother Fritz, one of Germany’s leading conductors, were the only non-Jewish musicians of international stature who emigrated after 1933 as a matter of principle.

Jewish composers who were in a position to emigrate did so, whenever possible to America. Upon arriving, though, they discovered that they spoke the wrong musical language. America’s modern-music culture in the 30s and 40s was not Austro-German but Franco-Russian in orientation and so had little use for them.

A fortunate few, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, managed to reinvent themselves as film-music composers, and Kurt Weill found a different kind of success by writing such popular Broadway musicals as Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lady in the Dark (1941). The rest were left to struggle. Whether they remained abroad or returned to their native lands after World War II, none of the Austro-German émigré composers had a major postwar career, and the lives of many of the younger ones were cut short by the Holocaust. As for Gustav Mahler, his music did not return to the concert halls of Berlin and Vienna until the 60s.

And what of the vast quantities of music that were flung into the memory hole of the Third Reich?

Most of the conservative Jewish composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were too derivative to survive, even such genuinely gifted ones as Hans Gál, a Brahms-influenced neoclassicist of considerable talent and some real originality. At the same time, the music of modernistically inclined romantics like Korngold and Schreker had already come to be widely seen as passé before the Nazis came to power. (In a much-repeated quip, the Jewish conductor Otto Klemperer, referring to the economy of the Weimar Republic, dismissed Schreker’s operas as “typical inflation music.”) Undeniably popular though they were before the war, their music is no longer widely performed. As for the composers who died in the Holocaust, none of their surviving works has found a secure place in the standard repertoire, not even Viktor Ullmann’s original and masterly 1944 chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis, which was fortunately recorded as part of Decca/London’s “Entartete Musik” series.

Might it have been otherwise had history taken a different turn? We cannot know. What we do know is that the provincialization of Austro-German music that was already apparent prior to the rise of Hitler continued after his demise, and it seems safe to say that the near extermination of European Jewry was at least partly responsible for this fact. It is surely no coincidence that Paul Hindemith was the only indisputably major German-speaking composer to follow Mahler and Richard Strauss, and he has had no real successor. (Hindemith also emigrated in 1938, but he had been willing to cooperate with the Nazi regime prior to the banning of his music, wrongly assuming that his accommodation would temper the regime’s anti-Semitic excesses.)

In Michael Haas’s bluntly ironic words:

Germany and Austria, rendered virtually Judenfrei after 1945, have struggled in the decades following to regain their prominence as leaders of musical development…. these two German nations found themselves overtaken by the very countries that had given refuge to their émigrés.

 Indeed, what happened to Austro-German music in the 20th century can be understood as a spectacular illustration of the law of unintended consequences. By persecuting Jewish classical performers and suppressing the music of Jewish composers, Hitler sought to ensure for all time the supremacy of Austro-German musical culture. Instead, he destroyed it.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, out in October from Gotham Books.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.