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Book Review

Forbidden Music

Forbidden Music by Haas

The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis

Michael Haas
Yale University Press. 2013
358 pp.
ISBN-10: 030020535X
ISBN-13: 978-0300205350
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Excellent history.

Michael Haas produced the acclaimed "Entartete Musik" (degenerate music) series on Decca, bringing to light such composers as Zemlinsky, Schrecker, Krenek, Grosz, Toch, and Schulhoff, composers killed, forced out, or suppressed by the Third Reich. The Nazis famously launched a "Degenerate Art" exhibit, which featured giants of Modernism and later produced a musical equivalent. The problem was that both exhibitions attracted large numbers and made fans of the works the Nazis decreed hateful and inferior. I remember a postwar German conductor, born in the late Twenties, who reported that as a kid he hoarded and hid recordings of those on the Nazi naughty list.

Of course, Jewish composers appeared on that list, but as Haas points out, since Jews had been intermarrying with Gentiles for decades, the Nazis had problems defining a Jew. The Reich finally established a rule that three or more Jewish grandparents made you a Jew, but even that failed to solve the problem. Some Christians had converted to Judaism on their marriage. The ruling came that conversion meant that the converter became Jewish, although Jews did not become Christian by becoming Lutherans – one difference between the Third Reich and the Spanish Inquisition. Furthermore, if you converted to Judaism, you couldn't reconvert to something else and lose your Jewish designation. In addition, the Nazis made exceptions for composers whose music they liked, like the Johann Strausses. Indeed, they rewrote music histories to hide Jewish origins. If you think about this stuff too long, your head explodes.

Despite the nine composers whose pictures appear on the cover, Haas concentrates on the following: Ernst Toch, Egon Wellesz, Franz Schrecker, Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky, Ernst Krenek, Hans Gál, and Hanns Eisler. Hindemith and Weill put in the occasional appearance, as do certain bit players. Nevertheless, Haas doesn't fall into the trap of making a catalogue. His book has a strong thesis, which the composers illustrate. The book really chronicles the rise of modern anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria from the dimming of the Enlightenment through the farce of de-nazification after World War II, with a bit on the aftermath of the Nazis' obliteration and cheapening of German art. After the War, Germany and Austria, once supreme in musical composition, in large part ceased to matter for many decades. The torch passed to France, to England, and to the United States as far as the teaching of young composers went, and just as in the sciences and the liberal arts, the States benefitted from the presence of Jewish German refugees. Interesting contemporary Austro-Germanic music took many years to appear. Even then, the action no longer centered in Vienna or Berlin.

After the passing of the Enlightenment, probably with the defeat of Napoleon, reactionary forces crushed liberal reformers and squelched liberal ideas. This led to Romantic nationalism, used both by reactionaries and progressives – one of the worst ideas ever to see the light of day. This was not in the rational sense of a nation-state, but in a metaphysical soul of a people. In music, it may have had some beneficial consequences in art (viz., Russian music of the kuchka and Tchaikovsky), but even here it also led to Wagner's infamous essay Judaism in Music. I happen to be one of those people who regard Wagner as an idiot outside of composing. I also feel strongly that much of Wagner's venom against Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer (whom he stole from, incidentally) rose from his own careerism – an attempt to claim turf and a personal habit of biting the hand that fed him. No doubt about it, personally Wagner was a jerk. The essay itself makes all sorts of assertions while loftily dismissing the need for argumentative support. He has picked up on the "science" of race. Certain races have certain characteristics. It's just the way they are. They can't do anything about it. It's science. Medically, in certain cases, this is true. However, once you assign moral and intellectual qualities to a particular race, you've left the realm of science far behind. Incidentally, Wagner, like the Nazis, couldn't define the qualities of a work that made it "Jewish," other than an "unconvincing" quality. He confines his attacks to composers of Jewish background. However, if, as he claimed, "Jewishness" was infecting German music, he should have been able to cite a gentile composer so infected. By the way, as a resident of south Louisiana for 26 years, I've concluded that race is largely a social construct. I've met very "white" people who consider themselves "black" and darker-skinned people who consider themselves "white." The so-called innate ethical and intellectual characteristics of a race often come down to cultural pressures, expectations and education, among them. Haas traces the influence of Wagner's essay on Hitler himself, who paraphrased sections in Mein Kampf. Wagner's essay wasn't just the raving of an opportunistic crank. It had horrible consequences. Haas traces its course.

However, Haas doesn't confine himself to these social questions. He also provides a narrative of musical trends from late Romanticism and Expressionism through the "New Objectivity" (essentially Austro-Germanic neoclassicism), the often political reasons for choosing one mode over the other, as well as the political costs of such choices. Haas also writes an often sad chapter on the survivors and their attempts to regain their pre-war status.

I greatly prefer this book to Michael Kater's Twisted Muse. For one thing, Haas's book proceeds over long spans, rather than the choppy index-card parade of composers Kater gives us, all due to Haas's focus on his thesis and his subordination of composers to that thesis. Kater's book was remarkable for its research, less so for its organization. Actually, both books together give a rather detailed picture of musical life in the time of the Nazis. However, ultimately Haas produced the more readable.

Copyright © 2014 by Steve Schwartz.

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