Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Composers of the Nazi Era

I recently finished reading the third book of the trilogy by Michael H. Kater about musical life in Nazi Germany.  His three books are:
  • Different Drummers, Jazz in the culture of Nazi Germany (1992)
  • The Twisted Muse, Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich  (1997)
  • Composers of the Nazi Era, Eight Portraits (2000)
You can buy all three in a bundle  from Amazon for $260.82.

Different Drummers was the most fascinating to me.  This is because the Nazis were largely unsuccessful in controlling the people's desire for popular music, swing jazz.   Jazz was anathema to Hitler and his cronies who viewed it as Jewish and Black (i.e. racially inferior).  Once in power they worked hard to repress the thriving Weimar jazz scene.  Read more here.

Still, it seemed that the people's attraction to this music was stronger than the government's ability to ban it and the Nazis were forced to meet the public demand for jazz as best they could.  Jazz also became a focal point for anti-Nazi resistance -- most amazingly by Hamburg's Swing Kids.  (More info here.)

The second book, The Twisted Muse, deals with classical music under the Nazis.  It is largely a story of governmental bureaucracy.  Along with their belief in the supremacy of German people over everyone else, the Nazis leaders believed in the supremacy of German music.  They were big time classical music fans, especially of opera.

Using dictatorial powers, they promoted (or demoted) composers, conductors, singers, orchestras and opera companies, according to personal tastes and dogmatic bigotry.  They worked this magic through an official government agency called Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Chamber of Music).  Meanwhile, Jewish musicians were forced into separate organizations through the J├╝discher Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League).  Jews were prevented from performing "true" German music.

Such official meddling in the arts should make us feel fortunate that the US government ignores the arts as much as it does.  One of my earliest Mixed Meters posts, In Which David Imagines George Bush and Charles Ives, was written after reading this book.

The eight subjects of Composers of the Nazi Era all appeared in The Twisted Muse as well.  Instead of getting bit parts in a complex story which ends in 1945, this book gives each composer a complete career biography.   Those who lived under the Nazi regime were all forced to justify themselves after the war in order not to completely lose their musical careers under the new political system.  The stories of how they revised their biographies and recast their personal histories, often with outright lies, to make themselves seem less involved with the Nazis is the most interesting part of Composers of the Nazi Era.

Here are the eight composers Kater chose for his book, along with my short biographical sketches.
  • Werner Egk became an official of the Nazi's Reich Chamber of Music and was called "a worthy successor to Richard Wagner" by Hitler himself, but managed a successful post-war career.
  • Paul Hindemith didn't really want to leave Germany but his early atonal music colored his reputation with the Nazis - who also didn't like that he was married to a half-Jew - and they banned his music.
  • Kurt Weill, forced out of Germany in 1933 because he was Jewish, became a hugely successful composer in the US and then spent a good deal of his time pursuing sexual affairs.
  • Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a composer with leftist political sentiments, gave up his career as composer during the Nazi years and as a result was a safe choice for appointment by the Allies to post-war positions of musical authority.
  • Carl Orff, composer of that one big popular hit, was still distrusted by the moralistic Nazis.  At their request he attempted to compose replacement music for Mendelsshon's "Jewish" A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Orff hid the fact that he was one-quarter Jewish and after the war falsely claimed to have been part of the anti-Nazi resistance.
  • Hans Pfitzner was a composer with medium talent paired with an oversized ego. He was an early and life-long supporter of the Nazis and an anti-semite.  Since Hitler had personally decided (erroneously) that Pfitzner must be half-Jewish (after Pfitzner defended a few talented Jewish musicians), Pfitzner never got the respect and recognition he was certain he deserved.
  • Arnold Schoenberg, forced to leave Germany because of his religion, was, like Pfitzner, hugely egotistical and concerned with his place in the history of music.  This biography deals mainly with Schoenberg's years of stagnation in Los Angeles.
  • Richard Strauss, the greatest German composer of the times who possessed a correspondingly large ego, tried at first to accommodate the Nazi regime.  But he was a lightweight politician and gradually lost favor with the Nazis.  They resented both that Strauss' son had married a Jewish woman (which meant Strauss' grandchildren were Jewish) and that his favorite librettist was Jewish.

Michael Kater writes in the conclusion of Composers of the Nazi Era that he decided to write this book of biographies as a sequel to his two earlier exhaustive narrative histories because of the "often seemingly contradictory patchwork-quilt [of] evidence" making it impossible to describe any character as fully guilty or fully innocent.
One and all -- musicians and singers, composers and conductors, all of whom had to make a living as artists in the Third Reich -- emerged in May 1945 severely tainted, with their professional ethos violated and their music often compromised: gray people against a landscape of gray.

He also tries to explain how the Germans came to take their music so seriously.
Certainly until 1945, the Germans as a people... defined themselves and their history decisively through Kultur -- they say they always had it, and nobody else did.  In their collective view, this is what set them apart from materialistic British moneybags, degenerate French hedonists, insensitive American pragmatists, work-shirking Italian fools, and the alcoholized denizens of a half-Asiatic Russian empire.  Moreover, nothing in the German mind has defined Kultur so quintessentially as its music -- German music.
The most terrifying exponent of genuine music as exclusively German was Hans Pfitzner, who throughout the 1920s sharply polemicized against all the enemies "of our national art, especially music."  Once in power, through their various propaganda speeches, the Nazi leaders made very sure that they understood well Richard Wagner's original dictum that "the German has the exclusive right to be called 'musician.'"  Germany was "the first music nation in the world," insisted Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels.
What moral, I hear you ask, do I draw from all this ancient musical history? What am I, as a pragmatic (and probably insensitive) American Jewish musician, to think of the moral dilemmas and social upheavals endured by German musicians between 1933 and 1945?   Their story is so singular that I have to question whether any comparison at all can be made with contemporary times.

My answer lies in the notion that music can somehow represent universally knowable "higher" religious, spiritual or nationalistic truth - that's what the Nazis believed.  This idea seems vestigal in my day and age.  It's different than simply liking or disliking music.  It's about the (mistaken) belief that music somehow contains certain essential, substantial revelations which are the same for everyone who hears it and which don't change through history. 

Such a faith still lives primarily in a subset of the classical music audience, they who reverently gather, church-like, in concert halls and opera houses to hear their musical "gospels" sung and played.  I suspect that these listeners would agree with the notion that certain music is good for you, ennobling.  And if some music is good, I suppose it follows that some other music is bad, degenerate.  This attitude is the beginning of a slippery slope.  At the bottom of that slope you will find the story of how the Nazis used and abused music. 

Portrait Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Peter (the other) said...

These do sound interesting (where I usually veer away from all writing involving the holocaust for fear of its still so emotionally colored subject matter). I know in my Dutch family, who were generally (as far as they would show their young, and perhaps of tainted-blood American relative decades after the war) all avowed haters of the Boche, there was a strong group of hard protestants who seemed to harbor the same beliefs: "Jazz was anathema to Hitler and his cronies who viewed it as Jewish and Black (i.e. racially inferior). " It would be in their general air of disdain about the music. It was not of "quality".

Not that they would say so in so many words. My Grandfather, a man of the world had a warm spot for the Jazz he would hear in Harlem (USA) which as a seaman he got to visit often. But the others were dismissive. My mother had been the troublesome daughter who emigrated to the states after the war and married a Jew. I can still feel that there are times when my blood puts a moment of doubt in their minds about me, even if just for a moment. Besides, I like Jazz wayyy tooo much, velly suspicious! ;-)

Kraig Grady said...

I really think you are posing the right question. Having presented music from all over the world on radio, it seems the notion of 'universal music' became more and more remote with time. The great masterpieces of all cultures will sometime rise to 'universal themes', it will create emotions that didn't exist before even. But the goal was more often intimate connections, serving a small community rarely all until more recent times. It seems people should satisfy that first and let history decide what is useful to it. let ones music be a blessing to those around us and a celebration of the living, not the dead or some abstract.

MarK said...

If i understand you correctly, in the last paragraph you reject the notion that certain music can be good (ennobling) or bad for listeners. So, are you saying that music can't be either? Doesn't it have any effect at all on anyone? That seems hard to believe.

David Ocker said...

Thanks, guys, for the intelligent comments. (Peter, welcome back!)

Mark, I think of music as essentially abstract (as long as the composer hasn't set lyrics or libretto to give us unavoidable interpretive clues). And clearly even abstract music does cause emotional reactions in people - sometimes good, sometimes otherwise. My life would be much poorer without the huge variety of music to listen to; that's just my personal reaction.

But good and bad are not the same as personal emotional reactions to music. I believe that music cannot be universally good or bad (that's what the penultimate paragraph is about and what the history of music under the Nazis led me to reflect upon.) And that's also why, when the culture of music takes on religious overtones, it really bothers me greatly. Religion really is about good and bad.

(Of course, some music can be good or bad in the sense of being well or badly crafted, but that's a different good and a different bad.)

MarK said...

Yes, that is pretty close to my understanding of this subject as well.
The way i see it, music that is of truly fine quality can indeed be inspirational, but the same piece can inspire one person to think good thoughts and feel positive feelings, while another may be inspired by that same piece into leaning in a diametrically opposite direction, all of that depending on through what kind of personal prism a particular person processes his or her aural information.

David Ocker said...

Well written, Mark. Thank you.

MarK said...

And so, it is therefore not surprising that the same music by Wagner that inspired Theodore Herzl in 1890s to formulate his Zionist ideas and consequently lead the international movement of building a real homeland for the Jews on their historically justified piece of land, a generation later also was used (or misused) to inspire some other people to a completely different set of ideas and actions.

David Ocker said...

Hitler regarded the eastern land as Germany's historically justified "living space". And he could take some credit for the success of Zionism since he forced many Jews who no one else wanted into exile.

Wagner's music has been called the soundtrack of the Third Reich. In Israel it's still unofficially banned in deference to Hitler's victims.

National Socialism and Zionism may both be nationalist movements. But I fear that trying to conflate the two - especially on the basis of early Wagnerian encounters - does not help us understand either one.

MarK said...

That last point is beyond any reasonable doubt - the two movements are definitely "non-conflatable" which is precisely why i think that my example of Wagner is a perfect illustration of the idea about which we agreed earlier - that the same music may be inspiring different people to diametrically opposite ("non-conflatable") ideas and actions, all depending on the context and on what kind of person is listening.