Reflections on “Entartung”


As so often with an attempt to right a wrong, language gets in the way. “Entartete Musik” is a Nazi term, commonly translated as “Degenerate Music”, when actually, it more accurately means “Deformed Music”. In fact, it hardly matters, since it was originally a blanket term that was used for the visual arts, where showing “deformed” paintings, by expressionists, surrealists, New Objectivists, was an easier message to convey, when held against inspirational paintings representing romantic landscapes and village life. Had the Nazis continued their idea of applying “deformed” as the definition to music, they would have been restricted to atonality, 12-tone and Gebrauchsmusik. And in truth, they did apply “deformed” to these various developments.


“The Races of the World” I: Europe and its border regions

But then something new entered their agenda that had been less of an issue with the visual arts: “race” – and “race” had only recently been defined by the Nuremberg Laws. Until the inclusion of “race”, Nazis and indeed, traditionalists and those on the right had often reverted to the term “Cultural Bolshevism”. As Eckhard John in his excellent analysis on Cultural Bolshevism (sadly only available in German) demonstrates: political Bolshevism had upended social and political norms; cultural Bolshevism was understood to do the same with the arts. It was a term that had gained ground before the Nazis and was liberally applied to anything that fell outside of the norm – indeed, “falling outside of the norm” is the literal translation of “Entartet”, the German word, “Art” meaning “Manner”, “Style”, “Type” or “Species” with the negating-prefix “ent” added. The “ent” prefix is not equivalent to English’s “anti” or “un”, but closer to “deviant” meaning “departure from”. The Jewish doctor, philosopher and scientist Max Nordau (1849-1923), first brought the word “Entartung” into wider circulation with his publication in 1892.


But returning to Eckhard John, he goes on to explain how cultural arbiters within National Socialism added their own prefix to “Cultural Bolshevism” with the word “Jewish”. The consequences of creating this hybrid, now known as “Jewish Cultural Bolshevism” meant Jewish musicians and composers, (or those perceived as Jewish), were synthesised into a concept that was meant to stir passions against all degrees of non-traditional expression. With this new tool to hand, it was possible to denounce perfectly commonplace composers simply because they were (or perceived to be), Jewish. The legacy of this cultural deceit was the term “Entartet” being applied to every style of music, every genre and every development, if any degree of Jewish provenance could be established.


Max Nordau, 1849-1923

This legacy has left present-day historians with a dilemma: use the Nazi term “Entartet” to cover everyone banned by the III Reich from Mendelssohn to Stefan Wolpe, including operetta, film- and light-music composers, and well, the implication remains that the Nazi term was somehow valid. But I need to return to the fact, that “Entartet” does not mean “degenerate” but “out of the norm”. It does not mean a depreciation of the species as much as a deformity of the species. The assumption is always made that every deformity is degenerative yet this does necessarily follow: it’s entirely possible to call “genius” a departure, or “deformity” of the normal, for example. To Nazi Wagner worshippers, listening to Mendelssohn was only morally questionable, because it exposed the listener to what Wagner dismissed as “superficial facility” rather than “spiritual depth”. The lack of spiritual depth perceived by the Nazis in the music of Mendelssohn, (and other Jewish composers from the 19th century) was “Un-German”, since according to Wagner and Nazi race-theory, Jews could not be German. German was a “race” and Jew was a “race”.


Photos of “a German boy” and “a Jewish boy”

Austro-German music historians have subsequently embraced “Exile” as a concept, since there was already great store set in the subject of “exile literature”. If there was “exile literature” it was rationalised, why couldn’t there be “exile music”? Arguments raged that soon began to feel like medieval theologians discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. If German authors wrote in German from countries of exile, they were still writing for German readers and exile had asserted no change in their literary style: only location and whatever literary devices in plot-building that may have grown out of exile. The language remained German. If translated, the international readership remained the same. These arguments and counter-arguments flew back and forth without resolution.


Marcel Reich-Ranitcki in 1966, who argued that there was no such thing as “exile literature”

Music composed in exile, however, is very different and perhaps has greater entitlement to “exile” being an adjectival prefix than literature. In an age before widespread dissemination via recording and broadcast, composer audiences were local. Change the location and if the music doesn’t change accordingly, audiences are lost. Sometimes the music itself changed because of the location, sometimes the composer needed to adapt in order to survive. An example of the first is Erich Wolfgang Korngold whose opulent late Romanticism fit Hollywood film makers’ needs perfectly. He changed nothing in the manner of his composition, but his composition was projected onto a new medium in a new location.


Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1897-1957

An example of the second is Kurt Weill: he came to Broadway with a Berlin jangle in his ear that soon evened out to the lush needs of the American musical. I’ve always assumed the stress of adaptation brought both of them to early graves.


Kurt Weill 1900-1950

But then again, “Exile Music” does not cover Mendelssohn or Goldmark, (both banned) or composers like Schreker who died in 1934 before exile could have become a reality, or any composer or musician who perished in a camp. Frankly, I find “Exile Music” so restrictive in context as to be misleading. Just as the Nazis cleverly intrigued to make “Cultural Bolshevism” equal “Jewish”, so the term “exile” has come to mean “Jewish”. In fact, the uncomfortable reality is: “Jewish” was ultimately at the core of Nazi censorship, despite armies of post-war European cultural arbiters insisting that it was actually “Modernism”.


In the 1980s, Berlin mounted an exhibition called “Verfolgte Musik”, “Persecuted Music”, which to my thinking is the best term, though I would add one important element to this concept to make it both clearer and coherent: “Politically Persecuted Music”. It covers everything and is wide enough to grow over time to reach beyond the policies of the III Reich. It allows space to those who insist on the restoration of the Modernist movements thwarted by fascism in the 20s and 30s as well as those who were perceived as “un-German”. It can even cover the Nazis banning Tchaikovsky while fighting Russia and Elgar while fighting the British. And, it can work both ways, with research focusing on the British ban on Richard Strauss, Bruckner and Wagner. It allows for the concentration on Jewish victims, (in the majority) as well as those who were politically persecuted, or left because they feared political persecution, like Bartók, for example.


Bartók leaves Europe

But most important, “Politically Persecuted Music” as a concept, provides a bridge from the past to the present. In the coming months, as our research centre and archive, develops, I’ll be focusing on the lingering legacies we’ve encountered, whether it’s the case of Hanuš (Hans) Winterberg and the entire question surrounding “Sudeten Germans” or the dislocation of a legacy resulting from the Yugoslavian Civil War in the 1990s. Perhaps what I dislike most about referencing politically persecuted music as “exile” music is the assumption that genocide results more commonly in exile than murder. Its very meaning offers a redemptive straw, when in fact, the true cultural loss was far greater than we can even guess today. The dozen or so musical estates has taken on since its founding a year ago, highlight the scale and nature of loss. We have estates about which we know very little: Gustav Lewi who died in 1941 in Berlin’s Jewish hospital, or Richard Freistadtl who died in English exile in 1948. Both composers represent the bedrock of contemporary musical convention, yet offer stylistic individuality that openly defy any suggestion of “Cultural Bolshevism”.


Vienna’s Raimund Theater, the venue for Richard Freystadtl’s 1934 run of the operetta Die Wirtin von Venedig, after its original Max Reinhardt opening in Berlin 1933 was thwarted

Perhaps, this is the ultimate demonstration of post-war frustrations in attempts to include music within the concept of “cultural restitution”. The Nazis added the prefix “Jewish” to “Cultural Bolshevism” banning a swathe of musicians who probably represented more of the conventions of the day than the avant-garde. Post-war arbiters have removed the word “Jewish”, leaving the impression that all we have to do to “make good” is listen to what a conservative establishment found “modern” nearly 85 years ago. Paradoxically, it’s left us with more information on the legacies of marginal figures who appeared in new music festivals in the 1920s and less on central figures who were performed in the great establishment venues of the day. The legacy of “Cultural Bolshevism” as thus become “Cultural Distortion” – perhaps even, “Cultural Disinformation”.