Gramophone reviews Forbidden music

FM hardcover book on table

Forbidden Music
The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis
Michael Haas
Yale UP London. published price £25,
ISBN: 9780300154306, 352 pp., hardback.

Gramophone, July 2013
by Rob Cowan

“My parents were deported from Nice in the autumn of 1943, first into the notorious camp at Drancy. From there, we lost track. I hope they didn’t have to suffer too much.” The words are George Szell’s, written to the composer Hans Gál on May 30th 1946. The tragic acceptance in Szell’s tone, his characteristic reserve and, in another letter from a few days later, his candid confession that “I haven’t the slightest sense of nostalgia for my former corner of the world,” typify two aspects of this revelatory study that will haunt you long after the closing images of Korngold’s heart-rendering return home have faded: namely, pathos and loss. 

Michael Haas’s greatest achievement as a recording producer was as the prime mover behind Decca’s revelatory ‘Entartete Musik’ (‘Degenerate Music’) series, a venture that died long before its time, and my only regret is that ‘Forbidden Music’ didn’t come first. If it had, then perhaps interest in (and support for) the recording venture would have survived a little longer.

This is in essence a beautifully written history book that places the torturous advance of Austro-German anti-Semitism in a musical context, starting with the nineteenth century and leading through two world wars to the Cold War and the shocking but predictable fact that even the horrors of the Holocaust did little to stem the flood of racist bile among (largely) ex-Nazi agitators. Making music has always been central to the Jewish psyche, and the fact that gifted Jewish composers were deemed dispensable by the Nazis on racial grounds not only threw hundreds of lives into disarray (or worse) but deprived the German people themselves of much that is artistically rich. Haas’s enterprise aims at redressing the balance in memory of a lost generation.

As to stated attitudes, one only has to read the works of the noted American cultural and literary historian Sander Gilman to learn how through the centuries Jewish self-esteem has had its highs and lows, and Haas’s book is full what at first glance might seem like contradictory attitudes from various Jewish musicians and intellectuals. Some of the most interesting observations relate to Mahler, especially from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s feared and revered critic-father Julius. “If [Richard] Strauss sounds cacophonic by cleverness and contrariness” wrote Korngold senior, “Mahler sounds cacophonic by conviction.” This and many other telling apercus ring partial truths. Another commentator who had interesting things to say about Mahler was the writer Adolf Weissmann who, like Korngold and Mahler himself, was Jewish, and yet who felt prompted to write “ … this Jewish blood is important. Always heated, it attempts a great deal while rarely scaling great heights. It pushes towards dispersion as easily as it pushes towards cohesion.” Again … the shadowy spectre of Jewish self-doubt.

References to well-known figures from all walks of life, many of them supportive of the Jewish cause (and some unexpectedly not), are legion. There are the ludicrous claims printed in the Nazi Lexikon der Juden in der Musik and substantial passages about such partially forgotten figures as Mischa Spoliansky (a film music composer who also happened to accompany Richard Tauber in his abridged Winterreise recording), Egon Wellesz, Ernest Toch (composer of fine symphonies and music for Bob Hope comedies), Viktor Ullmann, Berthold Goldschmidt, various composers miraculously active in the Nazi ghetto-transit camp at Theresienstadt (or Terezín), and the political hard-liner Hanns Eisler, not to mention the inception of the hugely popular German Jewish Cultural League.

The Second Viennese School and various issues arising from it is central to Haas’s enterprise but perhaps the most affecting words quoted are from the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who, like Mozart’s Jewish librettist Da Ponte, proved a perpetual thorn in the Nazis’ side. How to turn someone whose words are as central to Germany’s culture as Shakespeare’s are to ours into an enemy alien? That’s one trick the Nazis never quite managed to master and I can’t resist closing with a Heine passage quoted from Haas’s utterly captivating book. “If we could rescue God from indignities which inhabit mankind here on earth, “ wrote Heine, “we would thus become redeemers of God himself – if we could restore dignity to a people deprived of joy […] then […] the whole of Europe, indeed, the whole world, will fall to us! It is this message of universal domination by Germany of which I so often dream when I wander among the oaks. This is my patriotism.” If only.

-Rob Cowan