Why Some Composers and not Others?

This article was posted some time ago, but appears to have been swallowed somewhere along the line. No matter, it’s good to review such things and my thoughts on this subject have certainly developed

Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Karl Amadeus Hartmann

So what are we to make of the composers who decided not to leave Germany/Austria with the arrival of Hitler? A very small number, with the means to do so, simply withdrew from public life: Karl Amadeus Hartmann is the most notable example of this so-called ‘inner-immigration’. This was a situation whereby performances of works were withdrawn by the composer himself in Nazi occupied Europe. Such integrity came at the price of lost income and Hartmann was forced to live off of the benevolence of his father-in-law.

Hartmann’s ‘Concerto Funebre’ from 1939, revised in 1959. Originally entitled ‘Musik der Trauer’ (‘Music of Mourning’)

Others thought National Socialism an absolutely splendid idea and composed bombastically in approval. A few joined the party, while a considerable number had their membership application rejected, no matter how undying their devotion to the Aryan cause.

Leon Jessel

Leon Jessel

One of the most bizarre instances was Leon Jessel, a Jewish composer whose wife was a member of the NSDAP. Jessel applied for membership to the Nazi Kampfbund für Kultur, but was rejected despite having composed Schwarzwaldmädel or The Black Forest Girl – a light opera that was a favourite of Hitler.

His eventual arrest and assault by the Gestapo led to an early death. Another bizarre case involved the very fine composer Manfred Gurlitt who even joined the NSDAP, only to be chucked out when he was (falsely) thought to have Jewish blood.

Manfred Gurlitt

Manfred Gurlitt

Many composers, however, simply signed whatever was shoved in front of them in order to continue making a living. Eduard Erdmann and Max Tiessen’s works were banned, but they tried to keep things ticking over in whatever manner they could manage, either by teaching or performing. Erdmann joined the party in order to continue his career as pianist, a situation that was repeated with Felix Petyrek. Both had moved in ‘cultural Bolshevik’ circles prior to Hitler’s arrival and even afterwards, there is little indication of their conviction to National Socialism.

Berthold Goldschmidt reminded me that an affidavit obtained for someone who was in no physical danger from the Nazis, was an affidavit less for someone who was. People without connections or funds abroad and families to support found it easier to do whatever was necessary in order to carry on as normal – whatever ‘normal’ was. The oppressive conventionalism that became the III Reich’s preferred musical ideal was not an overnight phenomenon. H.H. Stuckenschmidt and Viktor Zuckerkandl both file reports of interesting musical events taking place after January 30th 1933, such as Paul von Klenau’s twelve-tone opera Michael Kohlhaas. In 1934, Alexander Zemlinsky’s Kreiderkreis ran for some 20 performances in Berlin, though not without incident. He was Arnold Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and a Jew. Jewish composers were officially banned from publicly subsidised venues. Atonality and twelve-tone music, even today, does not always make for ‘easy listening’ though it was partially and occasionally performed under Nazi auspices.

Paul von Klenau’s Symphony  from 1941, Der Sturm. Klenau was originally from a German speaking Danish family and was married to the daughter of Soma Morgenstern. Despite his persuasive arguments in favour of a “non-Jewish twelve-tone system”, winning favour among Nazi cultural arbiters, with a Jewish wife, he felt it safer to leave Germany, returning to Denmark in 1940.

Composers who were promoted by the Nazis were either Richard Strauss, whom we know, or Hans Pfitzner and Franz Schmidt, with whom we are at best familiar. Carl Orff is also often mentioned as a ‘Nazi favourite’, as are d’Albert and Lehár, both of whom, by the way, were partial to ‘non-Aryan’ librettists – as indeed was Richard Strauss. Lehár, like Klenau, had a Jewish wife, which further compromised him. A huge number of other composers, of whom we know little, have simply been relegated to the status of cowardly, unethical and immoral opportunists.

Emil von Reznicek, Joseph Marx and Wilhelm Kienzl, 1934 in Venice

Emil von Reznicek, Joseph Marx and Wilhelm Kienzl, 1934 in Venice

As a recent correspondent has pointed out to me, our reaction to these particular individuals either results in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, or over-emphasising and wilfully misreading the evidence of their innocence. And of course, there is the ‘case’ of Hindemith, a composer apparently all too willing to come to an accommodation with the Nazi regime, had Hitler’s strong disapproval and personal intervention not thwarted his intentions and resulted in his reluctant emigration.

'Und wenn du noch so doll den fuß dagegen stemmst, glaub nicht daß du die Zeit in ihrem Laufe hemmst' - a pun on the name of Dollfuß (Crazy Foot) when time states that trying to hold by the inevitable by stamping on developments with your 'foot' is 'crazy'.

‘Und wenn du noch so doll den fuß dagegen stemmst, glaub nicht daß du die Zeit in ihrem Laufe hemmst’ – a pun on the name of Dollfuß (Crazy Foot) when time states that trying to hold back the inevitable by stamping on developments with your ‘foot’ is ‘crazy’.

At the same time, there were composers such as Friedrich Hartmann, who as a supporter of the Austro-Fascist governments of Engelbert Dollfuß and Kurt Schuschnigg, were forced to flee Nazism following the Anschluss in March 1938. Austro-Fascism was not, despite appealing portrayals of the singing von Trapp family, a democratic, pluralistic government. Social Democrats and Nazis were both persecuted, though more often than not, it was Social Democrats who were beaten to a pulp in Austro-Fascist prisons or ended on the Dollfuß/Schuschnigg gallows. The infiltration of Austria’s police force by the Nazis between 1933 and 1938, led to Hitler’s saboteurs and terrorists being covered-up, or if captured, let off. The first convicted Nazi-party member to be hanged was the Dollfuß assassin Otto Planetta, later hailed as a Nazi martyr.

Otto Planetta - Nazi who murdered Dollfuß - was executed by the Austro-Fascist dictatorship on July 31st, 1934

Otto Planetta – Nazi who murdered Dollfuß – was executed by the Austro-Fascist dictatorship on July 31st, 1934

It should not go unmentioned that the innocent sounding folk-songs performed by the von Trapps were in fact instruments of Austro-Fascist propaganda, attempting to shore-up a uniquely Austrian identity, distinct from its German neighbour. Austrian Catholicism was another means by which Austro-Fascists boosted Austrian singularity. Indeed, British journalists at the time, such as G.E.R. Gedye, often referred to the governments of Dollfuß and Schuschnigg as a “clerical dictatorship”.

The Third Movement of Friedrich Hartmann’s ‘Song of the Four Winds’ a collection of orchestral songs modelled on Zemlinsky’s ‘Lyric Symphony’

Austrian folk music, customs and religion were seen as important propaganda tools against a rampant pan-German movement, a movement that in of itself was not necessarily Nazi or even anti-Semitic, but eventually saw Nazism as the most practical means of uniting all German speakers within a single state. Other composers who were close to the Ständestaat, as the dictatorship was called, were Ernst Krenek and Jewish born, but Catholic convert, Egon Wellesz. The very concept of ‘Stände’ refers to the individual’s corporative position within society: military; clergy; workers; lawyers; doctors etc. It saw the individual as a part of the larger ‘corporative’ body of the state, and it was an idea that appealed to those who wished to address the class-warfare of Marxism with a non-democratic alternative.

Yet contradictions abound and I fear that a very unpleasant reality will soon dawn: with Hitler’s twelve years of madness passing from memory into history, progressive composers in the morally ‘grey-zone’ of acquiescence, such as Max Butting, Eduard Erdmann, Felix Petyrek , Heinz Tiessen will be ignored, while those who kept to Late Romanticism such as Julius Bittner, Friedrich Hartmann, Wilhelm Kienzl , Egon Kornauth, Joseph Marx, Franz Schmidt, Florent Schmitt or Emil von Resnicek will enjoy an inevitable revival. Indeed, it does not surprise me that open supporters of the Nazi regime such as Paul Graener are already enjoying a surprisingly welcome reception.

The rehabilitation of Stalinist composers already demonstrates that an accommodation with dreadful political regimes has become less significant in our assessment of their output. Personally, I don’t hold to the view that having to be creative while living under a criminal regime should condemn an artist to being written out of history – regardless of their degree of compliance. The question which is more difficult to address is whether composing in a conservative language allowed talented composers to express themselves and political compliance was merely a by-product.

Joseph Marx reunited with his former pupil Herbert Zipper, composer of the Dachau Lied

Joseph Marx reunited in 1956 with his former pupil Herbert Zipper, composer of the Dachau Lied

Marx’s orchestral song ‘Selige Nacht’, Maria Blasi and the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, cond. Steven Sloane 

The ethical dilemma, however, remains: does a composer of audience-friendly late-Romanticism, who resisted a murderous regime, deserve more support than a progressive, more original voice who “came to an accommodation” with the bandits in power?  And of course, the question can be reversed and present us with the same ethical dilemma. The argument that an ‘anti-Nazi aesthetic’ is more important than the actual degree of support a composer demonstrated to a repugnant ideology is equally troublesome. Max Butting was a progressive who composed music that could never guarantee friends in high places within the Nazi Party, yet he eventually joined the party himself. So, should Max Butting be performed for the continuing re-education of German and Austrian audiences at the expense of say, Erich Korngold, Franz Schreker or Walter Braunfels?

This is especially awkward in times when new repertoire that appeals to paying audiences and important musicians is not being supplied by today’s composers, or indeed the platforms meant to profile today’s composers. What option is there in a market-driven environment but to revive those who were formerly compromised? The fact is, their devoted participation, or perceived acquiescence with evil political regimes has resulted in their effective exclusion from 20th Century history. Their post-war influence was stymied by being on the losing side of ideological wars. Yet pre-war composers who had fresh ideas and original approaches were equally stymied once initially silenced by malevolent regimes, then forced to compromise solely in order to survive. Post-war, these same composers found themselves condemned for being acquiescent to policies that they could not influence in a country, from which they could not flee. Unless our generation tries to unravel our very confused thinking on the subject of guilt and artistic output, future generations will simply judge composers on their ability to connect with the listener. Arguably, this is the only approach that truly matters, otherwise why listen to Wagner?

Michael Kidd and John Kriza with Others in American Ballet Theater Production of 'Billy the Kid' photo from Life Magazine, 1944

Michael Kidd and John Kriza with Others in American Ballet Theater Production of ‘Billy the Kid’ photo from Life Magazine, 1944

One needs to be honest enough to acknowledge that authoritarian governments encouraged music that drew people together in a mutually binding listening experience. Frankly, it wasn’t just dictatorships: America was also encouraging music that made the singularity of being American a mutually binding experience: Copland was an expert at composing the sort of Americana that translated populist ideals at the same time as composers in the USSR were churning out ‘Soviet Realism’. The use to which such music was put was ultimately the same: it spoke directly to the listener, providing them with a cultural identity and a sense of common destiny.

Berthold Goldschmidt in 1930. His opera 'Der Gewaltige Hahnrei' was to have been performed in Berlin in 1933

Berthold Goldschmidt in 1930. His opera ‘Der Gewaltige Hahnrei’ was to have been performed in Berlin in 1933

So why are some composers accepted and not others? Do we spend too much time checking up which ideologies they supported and too little time assessing their actual music? Again, Berthold Goldschmidt’s opinion needs to be taken into consideration: “Those of you [us!] who did not live through the terror cannot know the fear that was felt by every individual. What people said and did in order to keep their daily lives quiet cannot be taken as representing their true character. Fear distorts character. And it was not just the fear for oneself, but the fear for family and friends.”

Joseph Marx and the notorious Nazi sympathiser and academic Erich Schenck

Joseph Marx and the notorious Nazi sympathiser and academic Erich Schenk

A composer such as Joseph Marx represents these contradictions. His music is immediately appealing, exceptionally well composed and gaining ground quickly amongst connoisseurs of rarities. A trawl through his correspondence reveals much that indicates a distaste of the Nazi regime and much that shows him to have profited from it. As music curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, I exhibited two letters written by Marx: one to Franz Schreker from 1933 informing him that in his opinion, “the Jews themselves were responsible for today’s anti-Semitism, due to their outrageous behaviour”. He didn’t offer Schreker a temporary life-line, which as Chancellor of Vienna’s Music Academy, was within his power. He would no doubt have argued that he had practical reasons for not doing so. His reference to “Jews” being responsible for anti-Semitism suggests he felt appointing Schreker may have fanned the flames of Viennese anti-Semitism. It didn’t matter that Schreker had in all likelihood never set foot into a synagogue and had played the organ at his local Catholic church. It didn’t matter that Schreker’s mother was from Austria’s high aristocracy, nor did it matter that Schreker was not a Jew. His father Ignaz, who died while Schreker was still a boy, was a convert from Judaism, and that was all it took. The stress of rejection stemming from something outside of his control, led to the stroke that killed him in 1934.

A Nazi attack on Schreker in the 1938 'Entartete Musik' exhibition in Düsseldorf

A Nazi attack on Schreker (and Ernst Toch) in the 1938 ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition in Düsseldorf

To me, Marx’s letter is very damning indeed. Yet his correspondence with Korngold is friendly and gregarious. I exhibited a letter from Korngold to Marx in which Korngold puns on the words ‘Atonal’ and ‘Atomic’. There is nothing in their many letters to suggest that Marx was anti-Semitic. Others cite indictments made by Korngold’s librettist Ernst Décsey who denounced Marx as an anti-Semite of the first order. Like Marx, he too was from Graz and was referencing local knowledge rather than official documentation. If personal political views make music unsuitable for consumption, why on earth do we continue to listen to Wagner, Chopin, Berlioz or Liszt, all of whom wrote repellent things about Jews? Should we ban everyone we don’t agree with? Wouldn’t that be just a bit. . . . Nazi??