At the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices symposium, ‘Music, Censorship and Meaning in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union: Echoes and Consequences’, held at Los Angeles’s Colburn School, I gave the following paper. It offers no original research, but perhaps offers instead a few thoughts on how we are meant to continue to deal with Europe’s 20th Century cultural crimes. The title of the paper was Beyond Ideology.
Hanns Eisler in a dialogue with himself: ‘Question: What is responsible for the stupidity we find in music today?
Eisler answers his own question: ‘A rejection of, and lack of interest in politics.’
Question of an outsider: ’Has it ever occurred to you Mr. Eisler, that such a rejection of politics is itself political?’
Eisler answers: ‘Of course! And that’s what is corrupting!’
Life used to be much simpler for those of us from the west: The Nazis were the bad guys, quickly followed by the Communists. Artists and intellectuals who found themselves on the wrong side of victory during the various tribal and ideological wars, had to watch as their cultural inheritance – regardless of how a-political and unworldly it may have been – was dismissed as compromised. Was there ever a more irrational age than the 20th century? Banned and disparaged at various points were: Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg as Jews; Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Pfitzner and Franz Schmidt as Nazi accommodators; Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau and Marc Blitzstein in the West as Communists while at various times in the Soviet Union, Shostakovitch, accused of “making noise rather than music”, was disgraced along with Prokofiev and Katchatorian as “Formalists” and in the West as apologists and accommodators of Soviet Communism.
What’s so dangerous about music? Why is it denounced with so many pseudo-scientific terms as ‘anti-social’, ‘Entartet’, ‘Decadent’, ‘Degenerate’ or even ‘formalist’? Can music that was not composed specifically for propaganda purposes, even be accused of being political? As ideologies battled with one another, those who thought different thoughts, or lived different lives, were eliminated by each successive faction of cultural arbiters. Is it truly possible that even today, we can be absolutely certain that between 1933 and 1945, nobody living and working under the Nazis, other than Richard Strauss, produced a single note of music worth hearing? Did we need Solomon Volkov and his controversial Shostakovich confessions to make Shostakovich acceptable in the non-Communist West? There have now been countless essays, books, plays and films produced that allow us to listen to and enjoy the music of Richard Strauss and the performances of Wilhelm Furtwänger with a clear conscience. One squirms at the music of Nazi favourite modernist, Carl Orff, though there is not a single report of him ever making an anti-Semitic comment – certainly nothing as damningly hateful as the publications of Wagner and Liszt or the private correspondence of Chopin.
As an aggressive avant-garde took hold in the post-war West, the Jewish aesthetics philosopher, Theodor Adorno, could attack the composer Franz Schreker using exactly the same terminology as the Nazis. As the Cold War turned into the 40-Year War, ideology presented a history of 20th century music that no longer included such composers as Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Walter Braunfels, Berthold Goldschmidt and so on. In the Communist bloc, the decadent western avant-garde was kept safely away from the people for fear of undermining the positive upbeat message the arts were meant to communicate to the masses.
Amidst all of these various ideological battles, Jewish composers seem to have come out worse than most. If the Habsburgs saw Judaism as a religion, the Hohenzollern and post-Habsburg Nazis saw it as a race. The Soviet Union allotted them the dignity of being an ethnic sub-order, and for most non-Jewish Americans up to and after the war, they counted at best, as progressive liberals and at worst as Socialists or even Communists. There had always been codification for anti-Semitism that spared one from the appearance of obvious bigotry: Jews could be referred to as capitalists, oriental, bourgeois, cosmopolitan, intellectual and so on.
One hardly mentioned the Shoah in Communist Eastern Europe. For them, Concentration Camps were filled with anti-Fascists. Even in the 1955 film Night and Fog by French director Alain Resnais – the only explicit treatment of Nazi mass murder between the end of the war and the Eichmann trial – Jews are only mentioned after political prisoners or resistance fighters, and casually grouped together as ‘other non-Aryans’. Indeed, ‘Night and Fog’ itself refers to Nacht und Nebel, a classification of political dissident who was to disappear without trace. The first formerly banned 20th composers to be reintegrated following the war happened coincidentally to be non-Jews: Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Bela Bártok, Paul Hindemith, Ernst Krenek and Bohuslav Martinu. They established themselves into music programming far sooner than Franz Schreker, Egon Wellesz, Ernst Toch, Alexander Zemlinsky or Erich Korngold. Schoenberg was the exception who proved the rule, though he too, as even before the war, remained practically fetishized and studied rather than performed. The very name became the object of vilification for everything that had gone wrong for conservatives, whereas admirers saw in Schoenberg, a brilliant prophet whose music had been overtaken by their own avant-garde. Georg Eisler recalled the difficulties his father Hanns Eisler had in finding employment upon his return to Vienna in 1948: he was damned for being both a Schoenberg pupil, and in three of the four occupying sectors of Vienna, he was damned as a Communist. One hardly need add the fact that he was also Jewish, which effectively damned him everywhere. Hans Gál, Egon Wellesz, Ernst Toch, Erich Korngold and others would only have received inferior or shoddy appointments, had they bothered to return permanently to their former homeland. Most were not invited back.
The view of the most hard-lined post-war avant-garde in Western Europe and America, would never have been explicit anti-Semitism, while believing that composers who kept to conventional models were themselves aesthetically responsible for the catastrophe of German culture. Jewish composers may have been victims of Hitler’s madness, but they contributed to the environment that produced the Nazis by writing works that dulled the wits and flattered the vanities of the gullible middle-classes. Yet in 1933, Schreker wrote to his friend, former colleague and chancellor of Vienna’s Music Academy following his own dismissal as chancellor of Berlin’s Music Academy in 1932 and from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933, asking for help, so that he could leave Nazi Germany and find work in Vienna. He could never have anticipated Marx’s reply, that Jews were themselves responsible for the growing anti-Semitism since they had broken with the higher values of German music. According to Marx, it was ‘their outrageous behaviour that had caused their present problems’. No doubt, he was thinking of the Schoenberg School and the infiltration of American Jazz. Probably, like most of Austria’s musical conservatives, Marx believed Webern, Berg and Krenek to be Jewish as well, or at the very least, damaged by association. In short, for the post-war avant-Garde, Jewish composers were implicated in the rise of Hitler because they stuck to musical conventions, whereas pre-war anti-Semites saw Jews as musical revolutionaries turning all accepted norms on their head and corrupting the talents of others.’Wer ist schuld? Der Jud’ ist schuld’ or ‘Who’s to blame? The Jew’s to blame’ And so it continued in post-war musical life, without recourse to the vulgar racist language of the III Reich.
When some 30 years ago, I started to record early orchestral works recalling Dvorak and Brahms by Alexander Zemlinsky with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, the justification put forward was Zemlinsky’s relationship with Schoenberg as teacher and brother in law. Later, as producer of the ‘Entartete Musik’ series for London Records, I wished to record works by Schreker, Korngold and Braunfels but was advised by German colleagues that it was more important to focus attention on the modernists who were banned by the III Reich. They believed that modernists had offered, at the very least, a form of ‘active aesthetic resistance’ to Nazi conformity. The immediate post-war generation of German musical scholarship felt that such ‘active resistance’ represented a greater good than restoring once popular works by more conventional composers, banned for the less savoury reasons of ‘race’.
In 1990, we stood at a cross-road: Did we try to restore the thwarted Modernism, which took as its starting point the Second Viennese School, so despised by the Nazis, or did we try to confront the thorny issue of musical continuity represented by more conventional composers, banned as Jews? At the time, I came to the wishy-washy conclusion that there was room for both, while noting that Boulez, Stockhausen, Adorno, Ircam and Darmstadt had already bulldozed the prison walls erected around modernism by the reactionary dictatorships of the early 20th Century. The ones who remained side-lined were Central European composers who saw progress as individual musical expression. Many of them, such as Ernst Toch, Egon Wellesz and Berthold Goldschmidt even considered themselves Modernists. Others, such as Hans Gál and Erich Korngold were clearly not progressives; but their musical language was sufficiently distinctive to be at the very least ‘new’, while remaining firmly constructed on familiar foundations. The obvious injustice was that their work had been dismissed, thus remaining unheard and unexamined 60 years after its proscription. By 1990, we no longer needed to prove a rejection to Nazi ideology. More important was the recovery of once central works – or works by composers we confidently felt were destined towards centrality. In Germany, the options remained an ethical ‘either-or’ and even today, I meet academics of my own generation from Hamburg and Berlin who still believe that every act of musical restitution must carry an equally strong message countering what they perceive as a Nazi aesthetic. The intention is admirable, but in practice, it results in the continued proscription of important composers and works.
With the decision to look towards restitution rather than building an ideological platform, we crossed the Rubicon. Today, few would dream of questioning budgets assigned to recording or performing works by Goldschmidt, Braunfels, Schreker and Korngold. We also happened to record a number of avant-garde composers – some Jewish, others not, such as Stefan Wolpe who was, and Ernst Krenek who was not. The recordings that found the greatest resonance with the public, however, were the ones of once popular German and Austrian 20th Century composers, banned for no more coherent reason than their presumed religious confession, distorted by Nazi ideology into the concept of ‘race’.
But the Rubicon will need to be crossed frequently if we wish to make sense of the music politics of the 20th century. As music curator of the Jewish Museum in Vienna, I mounted an exhibition on the German born, Viennese composer Hanns Eisler who landed as a film music composer in America before his expulsion by the House of Un-American activities in 1948. He ended his days as the state composer of East Germany. He composed their national anthem and an even more stirring anthem for children. How could we ‘dare to mount an exhibition on an unapologetic Stalinist’ came the accusations in the press. Disquiet was also expressed by Vienna’s establishment Jewish families, uneasy with the stereotypical idea of ‘the Communist Jew’. They found the exhibition an unnecessary provocation. The reasons for the exhibition were nevertheless simple. In the greater context of European music, Hanns Eisler was a significant figure, and most Austrians, whether Jewish or not, did not know that he was Viennese. Nor did they realise that he maintained a residence in Vienna until 1955 – long after his status as East Germany’s state composer, at no point renouncing his Austrian citizenship for that of East Germany.
Mikail Gnessin and Mieczyslaw Weinberg represent two different sides of a similar coin. Hardly anyone reflects the many injustices and paradoxes just outlined as clearly as the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, except perhaps, for very complementary reasons, the Russian Mikail Gnessin. Weinberg would remain grateful to the Soviet Union for saving his life, the country where he found refuge when the Nazis invaded Warsaw and murdered his family. He remained loyal to the ideology of Soviet Communism – even when Stalin’s thugs denounced him and threw him in prison after murdering his father-in-law.
Gnessin too would be the victim of Stalinist paranoia while also remaining a loyal Marxist. According to official Soviet history, only ‘anti-fascists’ were the heroes who died in the battle to defeat Hitler. Yet Weinberg quietly documented the Jewish genocide as well as the murder of his own family in his music. Gnessin, on the other hand, began much earlier to promote an explicit nationalist Jewish musical identity that remained uniquely tied to Russia and the St. Petersburg School.
As the Nazis removed countless Austrian and German composers from the canon of German culture, many of them decided to try to reinvent themselves as Jewish composers. Yet without the resources the St. Petersburg School had made available30 years earlier, they did not have the foggiest idea as to how to go about it. The Jewish nationalist school was fundamentally a Russian phenomenon and had barely taken root in Germany and Austria. Indeed, it had hardly transferred to any of the other Slavic nations west of Russia or Hungary and Romania. Where it existed, such as the Viennese Society for the Promotion of Jewish Music, which took its inspiration from the St. Petersburg project, it represented Western assimilation with performances of Mendelssohn and Offenbach rather than Joseph Achron and Alexander Krein. German and Austrian composers such as Wilhelm Rettich, Erich Zeisl, Ernst Toch, Julius Chajes, Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Korngold found themselves re-confronted with their own Jewishness, while at the same time, finding it bewilderingly foreign. Some managed the occasional quite convincing quasi-liturgical work such as Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre or Zeisl’s Requiem Hebraico, or Korngold’s Pessach Psalm and Ernst Toch’s Cantata of the Bitter Herbs. Weinberg, however, managed to accord through his works an authentic language of the highest order that resonated as distinctively Jewish, while not resorting to signature liturgical or ethno-musicological modes. In this, he stood in contrast to Gnessin, who found in both Shtetl and Synagogue, what he and other nationalists believed to be the soul of Jewish music. Weinberg was only one of two composers who managed to write profoundly Jewish music while largely remaining in a diatonic, Western European idiom. The other composer was Mahler. The many Jewish composers denounced as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis were in fact German, Austrian, Czech composers, who only turned to Jewish expression when forced later to do so by the Nazis.
“It must be clearly stated that an avant-garde cannot isolate itself from the masses’ – thus wrote Hanns Eisler in 1955. Take away the jargon, and we end up with the following self-evident fact: ‘New music must not isolate itself from the public’. Even earlier in 1950 he observed, ‘If so-called modern music distances itself ever more from the people, it inevitably becomes more cynical, nihilistic and formalistically isolated – it leaves room for the monopolistic industries of capitalism, which always know how to cater to the masses. Good music thus becomes musical GOODS”. Again, remove the jargon apologising for ‘Socialist Realism’, and what he said comes down to the observation that pop culture will eclipse serious culture if the latter becomes too inward looking. Eisler showed an enormous integrity towards the duties and responsibilities of the progressive artist and with a quarter of a century since the fall of Communism, it’s worth tweaking out the ideology in order to surprise ourselves with some very prophetic observations.
With Weinberg, we cross in a similar fashion, the very same Rubicon. He was a patriot who also believed in a now imploded economic system – a Modernist who was damned by the avant-garde for being conservative and a non-religious Jew who made no secret that his Jewishness was central to his character and his music. He was to be persecuted by nearly every ideology of the 20th century. Wherever he landed, he was thought of as a foreigner. To the Russians, he was a Pole, to the Poles he was a traitor. To both, he was a Jew. Nevertheless, I suspect that time will place him as one of the significant composers of his age.
As ideologies rise and fall, one needs a certain distance to evaluate what they produced and what they suppressed. As Berthold Goldschmidt once told me, ‘If you weren’t a Jew or a Communist, and had a family to support, it was better to stay put in Germany and keep your head down. Every affidavit that went to someone who left because they didn’t agree with the government meant one less affidavit for someone who needed to get out.’ Only in retrospect do we realise how the question of life or death hung on such matters. As an example: the Munich University professor Rudolf von Ficker, offered Melanie Adler, daughter of Guido Adler, the father of comparative musicology, a small sum of money and safe passage out of Nazi Germany in exchange for the acquisition of her deceased father’s valuable library. Most right thinking people today would be repelled by the mercenary implications of this offer, yet events in the fullness of time, show us how complicated such ethical decisions were. From Vienna, another university professor blocked the sale to Munich, alerted the Gestapo and Melanie Adler was shot in the Maly Trostinez death camp.
Composers who were not the least bit sympathetic to the Nazi regime still needed to earn a living and were most often required to work in public institutions – effectively in the employment of the NSDAP government. Karl Amadeus Hartmann placed an embargo on performances of his own works and refused to work for any public institution during the Nazi years – but he could only afford to do so through the generosity of his in-laws. Many of these less advantageously placed composers have not been reintegrated into post-war musical life for political reasons. We hardly know if their works are worth hearing – but until we hear them, we cannot know. From 1933-1938, Austria was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship that was equally anti-Nazi and anti-Communist. To give a contemporary audience a handle, think of Captain von Trapp as a textbook representative of this authoritarian, anti-democratic government. Today in Austria, composers who also supported the Austro-fascist dictatorship, fall into two groups: those who left Austria following its annexation by Nazi Germany in March 1938, and those who stayed behind. In Vienna itself, we’re starting to hear the music of those who left, such as Egon Wellesz and Ernst Krenek, but those who stayed, such as Joseph Marx remain silenced. Even upon the 50th anniversary of Joseph Marx’s death in 2014, no Austrian institution is prepared to be associated with him or his music. Like Pfitzner, he was popular with conservative tastes and therefore appealed to the Nazis. At the same time, he refused to join the party or sign correspondence with the mandatory ‘Hitler Salutation’.
Presumably, the situation in the relatively new democracies of Spain, Portugal and much of Latin America would be similar. When I suggested to various institutions in Spain that we do an series of recordings of composers suppressed by Franco, I was told this would not be possible as there were too many composers still alive who flourished under Franco and had now declared themselves as anti-fascist victims. The same was immediately apparent with the fall of East Germany when the STASI files of the conductor Kurt Masur and the composer Udo Zimmermann were the first to vanish from sight.
The 20th century shows us that music is a continuum. Joseph Marx was the teacher of Herbert Zipper, composer of the Dachau Song as well as any number of other Jewish composers murdered in camps or forced into exile; Gnessin was the teacher of Tikhon Khrenikov, the notorious Stalinist head of the Soviet Composer’s Union and if Solomon Volkov is to be believed, the bête noir of Shostakovich. We now stand in the same relationship with the 20th century as the world stood to the 19th century upon the outbreak of the First World War. The dust has settled and before we start fighting and killing again, it’s time to look beyond ideology if we wish fully to understand the musical complexities of the last hundred years.