Popular Music in Exile


Jesse Owens with Saxophone

American Olympic champion Jesse Owens photographed with a saxophone – an image that mocks while recallingNazi propaganda

I wrote a catalogue chapter on the persecution of popular music during the Nazi years for the exhibition Stars of David, which ran at Vienna’s Jewish Museum in 2015. Obviously, in a catalogue, there isn’t an opportunity to offer music examples or even many photos, so I’ve taken the decision to present the article here, with full sound and visual accompaniment expanding a little where it otherwise was not possible.

German broadcasting bureaucracy has come up with the perplexing definitions of E-Musik, meaning ernste Musik (serious music) and U-Musik, meaning Unterhaltungsmusik, (entertainment music); thus providing Teutonic clarity to fluid musical genres while at the same time implying that serious (classical) music should never be thought of as ‘entertainment’.


Popular tenor of opera, liturgical and “Schlager”, Joseph Schmidt in a broadcast studio, Berlin 1932 – Schmidt died while interned in Switzerland, attempting to flee the Nazis

(Ein Lied geht um die Welt – the hit song from the film with the same Title A Song Goes Round The World released in the fateful year of 1933)

Few musical genres are as localised as popular music. Indeed, the very concept comes from Latin and might more accurately be referred to as “folk music” – music of the people “popularis musica”. With the growing nationalism of the 19th century, it was felt that the music from the people, the countryside and the villages, was the true voice of the people, or the “folk”. It was not just a differentiation between music of the court and the church, but a means of demonstrating national solidarity. That music and dance were seen as national attributes of the peasantry was romanticised from the earliest Baroque and can be later heard in the “Scottish” dances and songs set by Haydn and Beethoven for the diversion of the aristocracy. In truth, this stylised idea of the “folk” expressed through song and dance, had as much in common with Europe’s authentic rural communities as Marie Antoinette had with her pretence at playing milk maid.

Milk maid

With movements of national unification in Italy and Germany during the second half of the 19th century, the courtly diversion of folk music broke free from aristocratic mannerism and became the true voice of national identity. For newly emancipated Jews, such means of national avowal to secular identities were enormously appealing. Mahler’s settings of Knaben Wunderhorn poems, penned by the anti-Semites Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, along with his symphonic projections of Austria’s lakes and mountains were statements of national self-identification, and a demonstration that ‘belonging’ was a common right and not a mere privilege. Thus the voice of “the folk” became the voice of national identity. Its ballads and songs sprang from both rural and urban communities and projected ideas of nationhood that were honourable, pragmatic and proud. It should come as no surprise therefore, that the promotion of a national, non-aristocratic identity would be attractive to Jewish musicians, who within living memory had been denied any right to national inclusiveness.


Moritz von Schwind’s famous depiction of the Boy with the Miracle Horn des Knaben Wunderhorn

(Bernstein, Lucia Popp, Concertgebouw Amsterdam: Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? – one of Mahler’s  “des Knaben Wunderhorn” Settings 1892-1898)

Before the First World War, vast numbers of Central European Jews saw music as a viable means of assimilation. An entertaining spoof on Jews leaving the Ghetto and striking out for the concert halls of the Imperial capital cities is offered in Die Neue Freie Presse, on 12th of February, 1892 by Alexander Moszkowski, the Berlin based brother of the Jewish virtuoso pianist and composer Moritz Moszkowski. It’s entitled A Genius!, and exploited stock comic material dealing with the aspirational delusions of less talented, but highly ambitious Jewish musicians. But for all the would-be violin and piano virtuosos, which indeed filled many concert halls, far more Jewish musicians gravitated towards vaudeville, operetta and the dance-hall. Assimilation within the “folk” was most effectively carried out by fitting in by means of self-parody in the interest of keeping the masses entertained.


Jewish self-parody “Wo ist Löbl?”

The New Budapest Orpheneum

Indeed, the operettas of the day frolicked with self-mockery and Jewish humour. In fact, it is possible, indeed even probable that the Eisenstein family in die Fledermaus was understood by audiences of the day as a parody of Viennese Jewish suburbanites. Post-Hitler, such obvious buffoonery makes uncomfortable viewing, yet at the time, this degree of parody was itself penned by Jews. Strauss’s own provenance was far from pure Aryan, and two of his three wives were Jewish – indeed, his stepdaughter, Alice Meyszner (née Deutsch) would have the Strauss estate stolen from her by the Third Reich and not returned to her heirs until long after her death. The Fledermaus text was based on a play by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who also wrote many of the libretti for Offenbach’s operettas. And it was Jacques (Jakob) Offenbach who encouraged Strauss to write a Viennese variant of French operetta, a genre that he, a Prussian Jew from the Rhineland living in Paris, had more or less created single-handedly.


Die Fledermaus poster from 1874, the year of its premiere

By the start of the First World War, Vienna’s most prominent operetta composers were nearly all Jewish: Oscar Straus, Leo Fall, Edmund Eysler, Emmerich Kálmán and Leo Ascher. Together, they would usher in the “Silver Age of the Operetta”. On January 1st, 1928, the non-Jewish Ralph Benatzky, composer of The White Horse Inn, would note in his diary that nearly all operetta composers, (with himself and Lehár as sole exceptions), nearly all performers, and without exception, all librettists, were Jewish. In fact, the three most prominent non-Jewish operetta composers, Lehár, Benatzky and Robert Stolz had Jewish wives.


Anti-Semitic drawing of Ralph Benatzky with a Star of David in his eye

After the First World War, Jazz swept across Europe. It’s easy to speculate that the exclusion of African-Americans resulted in a music genre that appealed to those who themselves had been excluded. Music that would start to form the basis of Jazz, or “Jass” as it was initially known, arrived in Europe relatively early with the African-American Fisk Jubilee Singers performing for Queen Victoria in 1873. Over the decades, syncopation merged with traditional African-American music to become known as “Blues” and the more energetic “Rag Time”. By the outbreak of the First World War, New Orleans was the capital of “Dixie Land” also known as “Hot Jazz” and with its move to Chicago and New York started to develop into “Swing” and a multitude of dance steps. The first recording of Jazz is thought to be the Dixie Jass Band One Step/Livery Stable Blues released in 1917.

Dixie Jass Band One Step_Livery Stable Blues

Dixie Jass Band “One Step_Livery Stable Blues”

Ten years later, R.W.S. Mendl had written the first book in Britain on Jazz, called The Appeal of Jazz appearing at the same time as Paul Bernhard’s Jazz- eine musikalische Zeitfrage published in Germany. By the end of Germany’s great inflation following the First World War, financial stability facilitated a number of Dance Bands for the middle-classes, which specialised in a Weimar-variant of American influenced “Jazz”. Ernst Krenek, composer of the enormously popular opera Jonny spielt auf!, gives the impression in his memoirs that in the early and mid-1920s in Berlin, there was no clear idea of what “Jazz” really was. He along with composers such as Kurt Weill and others came up with a concoction that had more to do with an idea of jazz, than jazz itself. Listening to many of these works today, they seem to resemble syncopated music from a Bavarian beer tent more than authentic Jazz.


Cover of piano vocal score

(“Oh das ist mein Jonny” Lothar Zagrosek & Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Marita Posselt and cast)

In Europe, the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff wrote that Jazz was firmly perceived as dance music rather than the creative voice emerging from America’s racially discriminated underclass. Composers such as Paul Hindemith, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Erwin Schulhoff, Max Brand and many others started to incorporate Charlestons, Fox Trots and other “Jazz” elements into their concert works while in truth, they were part of a larger Jazz influenced movement that was already sweeping across Europe. French composers, such as Ravel and “Les Six” were attempting similar fusions. Erwin Schulhoff writes provocatively that “jazz is humanity’s most universally comprehended musical language, particularly by those within the working collective, continuously exposed to the rhythm of machine noise and thereby innately attuned towards dance.”

U-Musik Foto

Jazz on the Radio in German homes

Even America, the birthplace of Jazz was not immune, with Schulhoff’s comment made following a letter from the American composer Louis Grunberg, who believed that Jazz was the greatest creative catalyst within serious composition. Schulhoff agrees and sees it as the revolution ‘high-art’ music has been waiting for. The potency of this belief is most clearly heard in Gershwin’s blending of symphony orchestra and jazz in his Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Concerto in F (1925). Nevertheless, by the time Bernhard Sekles, director of Frankfurt’s ‘Dr. Hoch’ Conservatory had instructed Mátyás Seiber to build up a Jazz department in 1928, Theodor Adorno was already dismissing it as ‘Gebrauchsmusik for the haut-bourgeoisie’. Despite the Jazz inflections of Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera, or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, or Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf!, or even Friedrich Hollaender’s music for Der Blaue Engel, (orchestrated by Franz Wachsmann of the Weintraub Syncopators) Max Brand and Erwin Schulhoff had incorporated authentic Dixie land and Black bottoms into their respective operas Maschinist Hopkins (Mechanic Hopkins) and Flammen (Flames). The above mentioned ‘Weintraub Syncopators’ were just one of several enormously successful jazz bands in Berlin in the 1920s, nearly all of which were founded and led by Jewish bandmasters such as Stefan Weintraub, Marek Weber or Dajos Béla.


(A “Black Bottom” that Max Brand interpolates into his opera Mechanic Hopkins – a big hit in 1929 when premiered in Duisburg. Recording from Dutch Radio Broadcast – no cast information available)

Jews as ‘early adaptors’ were some of the first and most successful film composers in Berlin and Vienna with Werner Richard Heymann and Walter Jurmann being just two of the most prominent. By the early 1930s, there was hardly a “hit” song that was not extracted from a film, and hardly a major film composer who was not Jewish, with perhaps Robert Stolz being the notable exception.

Die Drei von der Tankstelle

Oskar Karlweis; Heinz Rührmann; Willy Fritsch in “Die Drei an der Tankstelle” – “The Three Guys at the Filling Station” a film that also featured Lilian Harvey

(“Ein Freund, ein guter Freund” one of the hit-Songs from Die Drei an der Tankstelle with music by Werner Richard Heymann sung here by Dagmar Manzel)

From 1933, various laws introduced by the Nazis, steadily removed performances by Jewish musicians and works by Jewish composers. Where these took place in publicly financed institutions, such as concert halls or opera houses, removal of Jewish participation was instantaneous, with exceptions made for anyone who had fought on the front in the First World War. It was only a question of time, however, before all such anomalies to Nazi race policies were removed, meaning a total ejection of Jews from German “E-Musik”. The elimination of Jews from serious music took place much quicker than in light or popular music. This was because popular music rarely relied on the same public subventions as opera ensembles and symphony orchestras.


Publicity for Fritz Löhner-Beda – one of the most successful of all operetta librettists – murdered in Auschwitz in 1942

(Marta Eggerth sings “Kann nicht Küssen ohne Liebe“ from Paul Alexander’s Die Blume von Hawaii)

Nevertheless, the fate of Jewish light music composers during the Hitler years was enormously varied with many murdered in Nazi death camps. That more “popular” than “classical” musicians would be murdered had to do with the advantage of classical musicians being better known abroad and thus having the necessary contacts to emigrate. Performers on concert tour simply wouldn’t bother to return to Germany or Austria. Even if Schulhoff pronounced Jazz the most widely appreciated and understood of all music genres, underlining its international appeal, he too would die in a Nazi camp. Why would America or even Britain be interested in saving German, Czech and Austrian Jazz musicians? His use of jazz in his Dada opera Flammen, a weird reworking of the Don Juan story, is a perfect example of European creativity with a musical genre that was still largely foreign. In the example below, it tapers in the background – similar to other interpolations of jazz in contemporary operas of the time such as Karol Rathaus’s Fremde Erde, or Ernst Toch’s Der Fächer. 


Erwin Schulhoff: 1894 – 1942

(Jazz Band sequence from Schulhoff’s opera “Flammen”: John Mauceri and the DSO Berlin)

But popular music was itself divided into various sub-genres, which in turn might determine the success or failure of its assorted practitioners. For example, cabaret artists such as Hermann Leopoldi, Fritz Spielmann or Robert Gilbert were wholly dependent on language, wit and punning, while aiming satire at local personalities, situations and politics. This would limit their appeal to the confined circles of refugee cabarets in Paris, London and New York. The songs and revues that were mounted were themselves snapshots of displacement. On offer were parodies of wherever they had landed and the trials of coping with a new languages and alien customs, all mixed together with Hitler and the Nazi spoofs. One example being Hans Gál’s revue What a Life, written during internment on the Isle of Man in 1940.

What a life poster

Flyer for the Revue held at Isle of Man Internment Camp in 1940 – notice the harp of barbed wire as graphic Symbol

Life was harsh, and most composers of cabaret, revue and agitprop found themselves at the mercy of whatever funding fellow refugees could provide. A subscription list found in the Lion Feuchtwanger Archive in Los Angeles, was compiled in order to support Robert Gilbert, also known as David Weber and born as David Winterfeld. It’s a veritable nomenclature of Californian exile, with the impoverished Bert Brecht following Hanns Eisler who heads the list – other names that follow: Vicki Baum, Fritz Kortner, Werner Heymann, Salka Viertel, Max Horkheimer, Lion Feuchtwanger, Kurt Adler, Peter Lorre, Theodor Adorno and many others. It seems incredible that someone who either wrote the music, the text, or occasionally both to such well-known songs as Das ist die Liebe der Matrose; Das Gibt’s nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder; Durch Berlin fließt noch immer die Spree; Was kann der Sigismund dafür, daß er so schön ist; Auf den Straßen zu singen; Stempellied and Tempo der Zeit should find himself at the mercy of charitable handouts. As Robert Gilbert’s situation confirms, popular music in its Berlin variant simply did not export.

Unterschriften für Gilbertband

List of supporter for Robert Gilbert – Poet and Librettist for countless hit Songs – many by Composers such as Werner Richard Heymann – Friends in Hollywood managed to collect $36 on his behalf

(Medley of songs with texts or music by Robert Gilbert born as David Robert Winterfeld but also composed and wrote texts under the names of David Weber)

The one exception who managed to make some impact in post-war America was undoubtedly the Viennese cabaret singer and composer Fritz Spielmann who went on to write hit songs for Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and even Elvis Presley (Music to the film Girls! Girls! Girls!). Composers of German ‘Schlager’ or hit-songs, such as Friedrich Hollaender, Werner Richard Heymann, Walter Jurmann and Franz Wachsmann/Waxman, were in a more fortunate position. Virtually all ‘Schlager’ were originally film-chansons with fairly anodyne texts and pleasant melodies, meaning that in new homelands, they could find work within local film studios. Composers of agitprop and political fight-songs such as Hanns Eisler or Kurt Weill also moved into cinema and musical theatre. The formerly popular operetta composers Paul Abraham and Jaromír Weinberger simply faded into obscurity working as occasional bar pianists when bills needed paying while others such as Oscar Straus and Emmerich Kálmán managed to eke out a living as lower ranking movie composers. Others, like Ralph Benatzky, worked as conductors.


Hollywood Film with music by Fiederich Holländer

The geographical restrictions that make popular music difficult to export would also mean that many of Europe’s most successful composers would attempt to return to their native countries after 1945, both sooner and more optimistically than their classical music colleagues. A few decided to live in Switzerland rather than war-torn Germany and Austria, still wary of lingering anti-Semitism, while several even managed to re-establish careers that compared respectably with their pre-war years.

Hermann Leopoldi's passport with it's J for Jude - Kopie

Hermann Leopoldi’s passport with its “J” for “Jude” – “Jew”

Leopoldi’s brilliant spoof Die Novaks aus Prag – The Novaks from Prague

One important development that the experience of exile would bring about was fluidity between musical genres. In truth, this had already begun in Europe, but manifested itself in countries of refuge as a means of survival. It meant that composers of serious music such as Erich Korngold, Ernst Toch, Erich Zeisl, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Alexandre Tansman found themselves composing film music and delivering ‘hit’ songs as required. Others, such as Mátyás Seiber and Wilhelm Grosz took on Americanised names when composing hit-songs and dance-numbers. It was more credible that hits such as The Isle of Capri, Red Sails in the Sunset and Harbour Lights had been composed by Hugh Williams than Wilhelm Grosz. The same was true of G.S. Mathis as composer of By the Fountains of Rome, than Mátyás Seiber.

Santa fe Trail poster(Robert Ziegler and the Matrix Ensemble Along the Santa Fe Trail by  Wilhelm Grosz and the film from 1940. Grosz died in 1939)

Józef Żmigrod had already changed his name to Allan Gray in deference to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, who disapproved of his departure into light music. The name change came about while composing for Trude Hesterberg’s Berlin cabaret Wilde Bühne. It’s certainly not clear if his new name had any positive effect on his ability to work following his arrival in London. Having already established himself at Berlin’s UFA studios as the composer of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Emil und die Detektive, it would be ten years, with the single exception of Max Orphül’s Sans lendemain filmed as France fell in 1940, before he would compose another film score. And despite the appeal of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943 it was not until 1951 that he managed to regain some of his previous fame with his music for John Huston’s African Queen staring Humphry Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

African Queen poster

If serious composers found themselves compelled to write popular music and film scores in order to survive, the opposite was also true with Franz Wachsmann, now known as Franz Waxman leaving a career as one of Hollywood’s most innovative composers behind to write a number of oratorios with pronounced Jewish subjects. Julius Bürger who in Berlin and Vienna had composed popular arrangements and songs for Joseph Schmidt, wrote a symphony, a cello concerto and orchestral variations in American exile and even Mischa Spoliansky, Hollaender’s rival in Berlin, wrote a symphony while residing in London as a highly successful film composer. Bürger cover

(Second Movement of Julius’ Bürger’s Cello Concerto with the inscription: “In memory of my 78 year old mother, murdered in Auschwitz, September 1942”)

American and British hit-songs were also just as likely to be taken from Broadway or London’s West End as they were to come from the movies. If Richard Tauber never enjoyed an enormous success with his hybrid London musical-operetta Old Chelsea, Kurt Weill’s experience on Broadway was completely different. Few émigré composers would make the impact of Kurt Weill and few were as successful at translating their Berlin talents into Broadway successes. Eisler and Brecht’s continued American collaborations with Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, or Life of Galileo only confirm how stuck in European mind-sets they remained, unable to adapt the edginess of Berlin to the sharpness of New York. Weill’s first and most important decision upon arrival in America was to re-invent himself entirely. Both he and his wife Lotte Lenya took the decision to stop speaking German, no matter how halting their English. Weill avoided further theatrical collaborations with Brecht and turned to left-wing American writers such as Ben Hecht or Maxwell Anderson. By remaining in New York, he opened himself to another sound-world and unlike many musical émigrés, felt that writing for Americans was writing for the most discerning and demanding of publics.

Alan Paton, kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson

Alan Paton, author of “Cry the Beloved Country”, the basis of the musical by Weill and Maxwell Anderson, “Lost in the Stars”

Judy Garland sings “Lost in the Stars” the musical based on Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country” with a text by Maxwell Anderson

Weill was exceptional in his inner regard for American sophistication and in truth, the cities of the East Coast left little room for any sense of European cultural superiority. The Weill phenomenon is all the more remarkable as one hears in his music a creative transition. At no point does he bother to cover his Berlin roots, while writing works that are wholly American. Just as Korngold transformed the music of Hollywood, so Weill transformed the music of Broadway. Weill’s unique transition was not from operetta to musical, such as clearly heard in the works of Lerner and Loewe or Rogers and Hammerstein but epic-theatre to epic-musical, a transition that would influence a generation of composers such as Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. His Broadway opera Street Scene has much in common with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with its social commentary expressed through music that was both contemporary and appealingly American. In this respect, he was the very opposite of Korngold who felt that he was bringing European sophistication to the great unwashed. Yet what fascinates is the obvious demographic in Hollywood that through its own insecurities welcomed the apparent sophistication of European immigration, while New York remained, with the exception of Weill, fairly impervious to their influence.


(“Moon-faced, Starry-eyed” Kurt Weill’s Bebop number from is Broadway opera Street Scene)

The post-Hitler legacy of popular composers is more abstract and difficult to pin down. On the one hand it’s easy to point to Weill and see how he changed the nature of the American musical by yanking it away from its Viennese operetta roots, or Korngold n how he changed Hollywood’s sound-world by bringing it together with Viennese fin de siècle voluptuousness. Can one possibly place Wilhelm Grosz’s On the Sante Fe Trail as the first country-western hit, despite it starting out as a German hit song sung by Joseph Schmidt called Liebling, nach dem Tango vergiss mich? How many other émigré composers such as Spielmann were churning out songs for the likes of America’s star-crooners? What influence did the Berlin composer Hans Joachim Köllreuter have on his pupil Antônio Carlos Jobim, the father of Brazil’s Bossa Nova or Walter Smetak on Tom Zé?


Antônio Carlos Jobim 1927 – 1994

Jobim’s Brazil

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, popular music is today’s ‘folk music’ and as such, intensely local and provincial. It thus offered the perfect integration vehicle for Jewish migrants. It was obviously the case as Jewish musicians poured into Berlin and Vienna at the end of the 19th century, and remained equally true as Jews dominated America’s image of itself with composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein and ultimately, Leonard Bernstein.

American Jewish popular composers

Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein with Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein

So why might it surprise us that every time a film or television director wishes to convey the ageless mystery and enchantment of Paris, they play Les feuilles mortes, composed by the Hungarian Jewish refugee and former Hanns Eisler pupil József /Josef Kosma? With its text by Jacques Prévert as sung by Yves Montand in the 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit, it could hardly be more Parisian; but replace the voice with a clarinet and at a stroke Gallic evocation is relocated to Eastern Europe. The Nazis denounced Jews as imitators and impersonators – what ‘may have sounded German’ by a Jewish composer was, according to Hitler’s insane racism, ‘inauthentic’. For a community driven by persecution from one place to another throughout the millennia, there was no surer way of fitting in than writing music that appealed to the locals. With Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and their endless reserves of musical creativity, the ultimate survival mechanism would simply kick in: find a safe place to live and fit in. As Krenek, who wasn’t Jewish observed, Jews already had a process in place that non-Jewish exiles still had to learn. “Fitting in” meant writing music that the locals identified with so strongly, that it seemed inconceivable anyone composing such works was not already “one of them”.

(Les feulles mortes sung by François Le Roux in an arrangement by Jeff Cohen that unites Kosma’s Central European and Parisian influences)