Book Review: Voices in Exile

Exploring Jewish composers persecuted by the Third Reich

TVR Books | Matthias Wurz | September 2013

Austrian composer and teacher Franz Schreker (r.); exiled composer Ernst Toch (l.) and his colleague Egon Wellesz (cen.) (Illustration: Maria Legat)

"By banning Jewish composers, Hitler’s Reich amputated an essential limb from the body of German cultural continuity," writes Michael Haas in his groundbreaking book on Jewish musicians persecuted by the Third Reich, entitled Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, published by Yale University Press in April. The former producer of Decca’s ‘Entartete Musik’ CD series is the first to explore the full extent of the losses in a wider cultural and historical context.

This heart-breaking book – condensed in just 336 pages – is eloquently written with an almost poetic sensitivity to the subject, though with admirable directness with facts and figures, that are a near equivalent quality of his series recordings.

Haas, American-born who grew up in Vienna where he also received most of the musical training, was Music Curator of the city’s Jewish Museum. Between 2002 and 2010, he curated a popular exhibition series of composers exiled during the Third Reich, entitled Musik des Aufbruchs-Music in Transition, which included Erich Wolfgang Korngold (2007) or Hanns Eisler (2009) or Ernst Toch (2010). The research accumulated during his years with Decca and the Jewish Museum Vienna provided more than enough material for a more extensive study on Forbidden Music.

Such a wide scope – a story framed historically between the Congress of Vienna (1815) and restitution questions of post-war – means an unavoidable limitation in the material, as Haas explains in the introduction: "Such an expanse of history squeezed into a single volume means that significant people and events are sometimes merely signposts, in the hope that interested readers will investigate further for themselves."

Still, although a substantial number of composers could not be covered in the book, its publication is a revelation, packed as it is with an overwhelming amount of documents and facts, enriched with fascinating details about modern music from a distinctly Jewish perspective – justifiably so, as the entire musical period was significantly shaped by Jewish composers. Haas takes as his assignment to explore "[…] what happened and what […] shaped the decision that an important lost generation of composers was forced to make," and thus fills a gap among the biographies of any of the individual composers suppressed and exiled by the Nazis.

Less well known, perhaps, is the pre-history, a musical migration from Vienna to Berlin of the 1920s (chapter 6, "A Musical Migration"), which Haas attributes largely to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. After World War I, most Vienna-based creative people "saw Vienna as an impoverished city with no future."

Berlin, Haas concludes with reference to Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, had become a global centre, "[...] unencumbered by the traditions that weighed down Vienna."


Franz Schreker in Berlin

Eminent Jewish composers and teachers, like Franz Schreker (1878 – 1934), whose operas were widely performed before the Nazis took power, or Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) found their way to the German Capital after 1918, thus reinforcing Berlin’s reputation as a centre for modern music between the two wars.

Schreker’s classes at the Berlin Akademische Hochschule für Musik (between 1920 and 1931) were among the most significant musical influences on his contempories, along with Schönberg’s composition class at the Prussian Academy of Arts (1925 – 1933) – and produced startling musical diversity among the students.

Viennese-born Ernst Krenek (1900 – 1991), for example, possibly one of Schreker’s best-known (non-Jewish) students – was particularly branded by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’ for using jazz in his opera Jonny spielt auf (1927), forcing him to go into exile to the U.S. in 1938.

But there are plenty of names to add, who also reflect the cultural richness of Central Europe’s musical culture,. Thes included Ukrainian-born composer Max Brand (1896 – 1980) who experimented with electronic music; Czech composer Alois Hába (1893 – 1973), and Polish composer Karol Rathaus (1895 – 1954), who became an early film music pioneer in pre-1933 Germany. Or the recently rediscovered German composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903 – 1996), who also collaborated with British musicologist Deryck Cooke in the 1964 completion of Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Haas concludes that "it is tantalising to speculate how such a group would have influenced future developments in German music had many of Schreker’s most capable pupils not been forced into exile or, as in some cases, had they not openly collaborated with them, thus hindering their reception after 1945."

An exodus of musicians

Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 in Germany and the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 triggered a mass exodus of composers and musicians into exile, who dispersed the immense creativity of both countries all over the world.

Viennese-born Ernst Toch (1887 - 1964), for example, was the main musical rival to Paul Hindemith, both leading representatives of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in music that offers, as Haas puts it, "an unflinching presentation of reality." Toch’s compositions of the 1920s were essentially shaped by the experiences of the First World War, as "witnessing the horrors of battle [...] the belief that, with the fall of the old order, everything needed to change."

In 1933, while on a a musicological conference in Italy, Toch did not return to Germany but sought refuge in France instead. From Paris, he telegraphed his wife the code-worded message: "I have my pencil" – meaning, that he was safe and that she should follow him. From Paris, the Tochs emigrated to the U.S. via London. During World War II, he stopped composing altogether. However Toch would remain a significant force in the United States, especially with his book The Shaping Forces of Music (1946).

Another prominent case was the Schönberg-student Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), whose collaboration with the playwright Bertolt Brecht led to a musical style that was popular with a wider audience, while at the same time engaging with social and political questions, like the ‘Lehrstück’ Die Maßnahme (1930). He ended up in Hollywood, composing some 300 scores.

Eisler was expelled from the U.S. for his Communist beliefs after the war and returned to Europe, settling eventually in the G.D.R. in 1949 as probably the country’s most colourful and among its most eminent composers. In chapter 11, "Exile and Worse", Haas quotes Eisler towards the end of his life in a bitter assessment about exile and creativity:

"So what should I do as an émigré from 8:00 every morning, other than compose? [...] The greatest source of inspiration for an émigré is [...] the torturous power of boredom that forces him to gaze at himself for twelve hours. That’s productive power."

Forbidden Music serves as a powerful reminder of what Austria in particular has lost in rich 20th century musical culture.


Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers 

Banned by the Nazis

by Michael Haas

Yale University Press (2013)

pp. 336


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