Entartete Musik: An Evil Idea, Rooted in Race

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Having settled in Germany for centuries, Jews, after the Enlightenment, took their place as full citizens, free to practice any profession. Jews played important roles in all aspects of society, perhaps most significantly in arts and culture. They were well represented in classical orchestras, in writing and publishing, and in other artistic fields. Kultur was immensely valued and served to define Germany to the rest of the world.

In February of 1933 everything changed. The Nazis took over the German government and assumed control of all cultural activity and institutions. Each area – music, design, theatre, literature, film, etc. – was newly established under a Kammer or union, to which one had to belong in order to work in that field. Jews could not become members of the Reich’s Musikkammer. This meant that they could not be employed as musicians, composers, conductors, or intendants. All Jewish members of prominent orchestras were abruptly dismissed. Wilhelm Furtwängler, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, initially protested and temporarily became a symbol of resistance. But, in time, he and the orchestra were used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. That year, the eminent Jewish conductor Bruno Walter (née Schlesinger) was prevented from leading concerts in Leipzig and Berlin. Nazi gangs known as “Brownshirts” often disrupted performances in which Jews were involved. This was the case even during a performance of the opera Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) by Richard Strauss – head of the Musikkammer at its inceptionas the libretto was by a Jew, the popular Viennese writer Stefan Zweig.

The new anti-Semitic policies benefitted non-Jews, many of whom were happy to have greater access to jobs and improved salaries during a time of high unemployment and difficult living circumstances.

Ultimately, Nazi policy sought to rid Germany of the “Jewish influence” in all artistic endeavors. A series of decrees were announced in order to place Nazi ideals about the arts in the forefront. In 1938, an exhibition entitled “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music) opened in Düsseldorf, touring to Weimar, Munich, and Vienna. Everything that was deemed not to have a place in the Nazi musical culture was presented through audio excerpts, photos, and accompanying texts. The music of Jewish composers was denigrated, as well as atonal music and American Jazz. Music by such Jewish composers Meyerbeer, Korngold, Mahler and Schoenberg was forbidden, as was music by Mendelssohn, though he had been converted to Lutheranism at the age of seven. Avant-garde music by non-Jewish composers like Stravinsky, Hindemith and Alban Berg was also banned. The exhibition included posters and photos designed to show the inferiority of the work as well as the “subhuman” character of the composers and musicians.

Most Jews in Germany were in fact acculturated and wanted to play and hear the great composers. However, during these years, Jews were not even allowed to play music by Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart in their own homes. In Berlin in 1933, the Kulturbund Juden (Jewish Cultural Federation) was created by unemployed Jewish performers – with the consent of the Nazis – to perform exclusively for the Jewish population. The Kulturbund put on theatrical performances, concerts, exhibitions, operas, and lectures all over Germany at authorized segregated venues with “Jewish only” attendance. It was shut down by the Gestapo in 1941.

As the Nazi government absorbed Austria and Czechoslovakia, it immediately implemented its anti-Semitic and racial laws, interrupting the lives and careers of Jewish artists in these countries as well.

As the 1930s wore on, Jews’ efforts to emigrate become more and more restricted. Prominent Jewish composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky managed to find employment in the United States. Hollywood was a favoured destination where these classically-trained musicians brought their skills to the burgeoning movie industry. Kurt Weill, whose compositions, together with the writings of Berthold Brecht, addressed social issues of the time, fled with his wife, Lotte Lenya, first to France and then to the U.S., composing for both Hollywood and Broadway. Canada became home to Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), a longtime a professor of composition at the University of Toronto.

The lives of many great composers and musicians ended tragically in Hitler’s death camps. In one chilling example, the composers Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann, and Hans Krása were shipped from Theresinstadt, a transit camp, to Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1944 and perished shortly afterwards.

In recent years, conductor James Conlon’s ambitious “Recovered Voices Project” has helped bring a great deal of music by these suppressed composers back to our awareness. Today, we may listen to some of their wonderful compositions, such as the children’s opera Brundibár by Krása, Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, and many concertos, symphonies and songs – but we cannot know what we have lost.

Recommended reading:
Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis by Michael Haas (Yale University Press, 2014).

A lifelong classical music enthusiast, Dr. Joseph Gilbert is a retired neuropathologist and the former Vice President of Research at London Health Sciences Centre. Dr. Gilbert lectures on topics related to the interface of Judaism and music in cities across Canada and in Florida. He also serves as Chair of the Health Research Ethics Board at Western in London, Ontario.

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