UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page > Student essay
Grey People Against a Landscape of Grey: Musicians During the Third Reich
on: Michael Kater, The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music
in the Third Reich
by Andrew McIntyre
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Andrew McIntyre
I am a senior music theory major who studies music and politics. My two key areas of interest are the use of music theory in creating nationalist music and political censorship of atonal music. For those reasons I chose to take this class and read Kater's book.
Abstract (back to top)
Michael Kater's book The Twisted Muse sets out to reexamine classical music and musicians during the Third Reich. Kater concludes that the Nazi era forcefully tainted an entire generation of German music and musicians. In my essay, I asses Kater's writing, thesis, and evidence, and come to the conclusion that Kater has done an exemplary job in creating what most scholars agree is the most complete and authoritative text on this subject. Kater's strength is his exhaustive research and detailed attention to the biographies of the era's most prominent and often most notorious musicians. Based on new archival evidence, Kater reevaluates many musicians whom previous musicologists have passed rash judgment on. These cases include such seminal twentieth-century musicians as Strauss and Furtwangler. The book falls short on two fronts. First, as is mentioned in many of the book reviews (e.g. Lidtke, 921), the book lacks an annotated bibliography. A work with such academic significance would greatly benefit from this addition. Second, is that Kater is not a musician. As such, his analysis of some modern composers occasionally lacks the necessary depth. But this is overwhelmingly a book about history and biography, and as such, Kater does a commendable job.
Essay (back to top)
Zerging’ das heil’ge röm’she Reich in Dunst,
Michael H. Kater’s book The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich sets out to reexamine classical music making in Nazi Germany. Kater uses already existing research, primary source documents (such as letters and newspapers), and personal interviews with survivors or their families to support his argument that Nazism tainted German music and musicians during this period. He continues that it is a fallacy to view the musicians and their actions as “black or white” and asserts that, rather, at the end of the war they were “gray people against a landscape of grey” (Kater, 6). I believe that Kater does an exemplary job in arguing his point, demonstrating how profoundly the people and “serious” music as a whole were affected by the Nazi regime.
Kater starts his book with a chapter on the political and financial aspects of music in Nazi Germany. When the Nazis came to power, they quickly took advantage of the current economic problems in order to begin controlling the production and consumption of music. Alfred Rosenberg used the political chaos following Hitler’s ascension to power to found the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (KfdK), an organization determined to defend Germany from the “sonic pollution” of the Bolsheviks and Jews. The organization was short-lived however, due to its lack of party-granted authority. Goebbels took the organization over within a year of its creation and placed it under the Reichskulturkammer.
This new organization served to reemploy Nazi musicians who were out of work. Out of Germany’s 50,000 classical musicians, 10,000 were members of the NSDAP between 1933 and 1938, and those employed were far more likely to be Nazis (Kater, 11). This encouraged unemployed nonparty members to join, as they were likely to receive work. The KfdK created orchestras for the unemployed, which would play for Nazi rallies or entertain the Wehrmacht. During this time, party membership became a prerequisite for advancement in the world of classical music. Music was already being molded and manipulated to fit the Nazi view of the perfect world.
The Nazis had a kind of sliding scale to determine which musicians could play for them. This scale was based on two criteria: party membership and talent. Although this selection process tainted music by allowing mediocre party members to become famous, it also provided a way for extremely talented non-Nazis to remain in Germany. This was the case of soprano Marta Fuchs, who, after a performance in 1938, jokingly warned Hitler not to start a war, and the next time they met, the following year, she told him, “Herr Hitler, I just don’t trust you!” (Kater, 223). Fuchs was not punished for her rebelliousness—she was a gifted Wagnerian Soprano.
There were also mediocre musicians whose party affiliations made it possible for them to become nationally celebrated. This was the case for conductor Hans Knappertsbusch and Walter Lutze. Knappertsbusch was the epitome of a Nordic Aryan and a NSDAP member since the 1920s. He was an antisemite and an outspoken adversary of democracy and the Weimar Republic. Though his conducting was only mediocre, he still managed to tour nationally and to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Hitler, however, did not like his opera conducting, and Knappertsbusch was eventually forced into retirement on a handsome pension (Kater, 45). Lutze was fired from his position at the Berlin Deutsche Oper in 1936 due to his overly apparent mediocrity. But, due to his party credentials, Goebbels personally intervened and Lutze was reinstated (Kater, 12). Through several in-depth biographies such as these, Kater clearly shows that musical performance noticeably suffered.
Performance was not the only facet of music that suffered, however. Composers found themselves horribly repressed by the regime after Richard Strauss’ dismissal in 1935. Goebbels had appointed Strauss as chief composer of the RMK for his anti-Weimar credentials. Kater states that Strauss was not a Nazi, but rather an opportunist; he wanted to use his power to further “serious” music (Kater, 11). Strauss would not allow a full-fledged ban of any music because he believed that the public would deem certain works worthless. But, because of this and his using libretti by Jews, he was dismissed in 1935.
Goebbels replaced Strauss with Peter Raabe, a clearly inferior musician, who allowed Goebbels to prohibit certain works. The first works to be censored were works by Jewish composers. This included Schoenberg, Mendelssohn, and Mahler. Also included were works that incorporated “Jewish” topics, such as Handel’s oratorios. Kater does not mention Handel’s alleged homosexuality as a possible reason for his works being blacklisted, but the Nazis may not have known this at the time. Even Mozart’s Il Nozze di Figaro had its libretto changed due to the fact that Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, was Jewish. Here, Kater shows that he is not a musicologist by failing to discuss the other famous operas based on Da Ponte libretti: Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni. Goebbels also banned atonal works because it was “based on abstract intellectuality, a dismantling of the Germanic tonal structure into something international and thus antinational” (Kater, 78). This ultra-modern music was also linked to the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg—the founder of the “Second Viennese School.” However, the ban also encompassed German gentiles such as Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. The proud German canon of repertoire was quickly and vastly diminished.
When Kater discusses the ban on atonal music, he falls short of a sufficient biography for Anton von Webern. Kater reexamines the consensus on the levels of Webern’s collaboration and finds that previous musicologists have been too lenient in their analysis (Kater 72). Kater seems to believe that due to Webern’s family ties and lack of full scaled denunciation of the Nazis, that Webern was a collaborator. Though Webern did admire Hitler’s power and firmly believed in the superiority of German culture, I believe Kater is too hard on him. There is sufficient counterevidence that Webern was not a Nazi or even a noteworthy collaborator. Webern was never a member of the Nazi party, he studied composition and was lifelong friends with Schoenberg, he was a well know liberal, and his music and finances suffered greatly under Nazi control. The second instance where Kater falls rather short while discussing Webern is that he should have used Webern’s death to support the book’s thesis. Webern’s death offers finite proof that World War II tainted music—an American soldier shot him to death during the occupation of Austria in 1945.
As in any aspect of life in Nazi Germany, the Jews suffered the most under the fascist regime. The most fortunate Jewish musicians were those who could afford to leave Germany when they sensed the political climate becoming hostile. This included prominent composers, musicians, and conductors. However, many Jews were not so fortunate.
Jewish musicians lost their civil service jobs along with the rest of the Jewish population in Germany on April 7th of 1933. After this, the German government saw fit to create a musical outlet for Jews in the Jüdischer Kulturbund for three reasons (Kater, 98). The first reason for establishing these orchestras and choirs was that the cultural ghettoisation of the Jews could pave the way for the physical ghettoisation. The second was to quell the civil unrest within Germany’s Jewish population by offering them this token as a concession. The third was for worldwide propaganda—telling the outside world that the Jews were left some rights. The institution lasted only as long as it could serve the Third Reich and was dissolved by the Gestapo in 1941 in order to pave way for the final solution (Kater, 99).
Some were able to escape such as Erich Katz, a Jewish German composer who did not see fit to leave his homeland during a seminal part of his career. He stayed in Germany and was sent to a concentration camp after the November 1938 pogrom. Luckily, he was released and after a few months was able to emigrate to Santa Barbara (Kater, 103). Many musicians were not as lucky and were gassed in the camps, including the founder of the Berlin Jüdischer Kulturbund, Kurt Singer. Some, such as Belgian composer Gustav Brecher, committed suicide. Through these stories, Kater shows how “serious” music was being artistically smothered, one composer at a time.
Perhaps the most tenacious of the composers murdered in the holocaust was Viktor Ullmann. He was sent to Theresienstadt but was able to get people to smuggle his 1944 opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, along with several piano and string pieces, out of the ghetto. Ullmann was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 where he was murdered. His music lived on, and his opera premiered in New York in 1977 (Kater, 104).
Kater also discusses the many musicians who were able to flee Europe. Though the Nazis, WWII, and the flight of refugees created a dire fate for European music, the United States greatly benefited from the influx of talent. Arnold Schoenberg came to the U.S. in 1933. At this time he was already destined to be the most influential composer of the century. He received a job as a theory professor at UCLA and worked there from 1936 to 1944. Though he never found an audience for this ambitiously modern music in the States, he did find a steady job and the freedom to write and have performed anything he wished.
Kurt Weill found an even more hospitable climate for his music. The premier of his opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny was stormed by the SA and he consequently fled Germany in March of 1933. He moved to the States and by 1943 his compositions were making him over 100,000 dollars per year. He wrote film scores and also devoted a significant amount of his time to music reflecting his Jewish faith. On top of these two integral “American” composers, countless German and Austrian conductors, instrumentalists, and vocalists enriched the musical culture of the United States.
Kater’s chapter titled “Music in the Institutions” goes into great detail to illuminate the revival of German Hausmusik and the twisted musical education provided by the Hitler Youth (HJ). Hitler decided to promote Hausmusik for several reasons. The first was that the majority of the Hausmusik repertoire was written by nationalist composers, such as Schubert and Strauss. This music was also cheap for the layperson to make—voices are free. Hausmusik also made it possible to create live music in the home, and thus Germans could avoid having to use American technology in their homes to listen to music (Kater, 132).
The Nazis capitalized on the poor state of music in the public schools by creating better music programs in the HJ. This included both a primary music education and a conservatory education for the most talented students. Like most Nazi music projects, this education system did not serve to create art; rather it was intensely pragmatic. This system served three main functions. The first was to replace Christian church music with Nazi party holiday music. The second and more ominous goal was to send the HJ to entertain the troops at the front and thus familiarize the future soldiers with life in the Wehrmacht. The third function applied to girls in the HJ. For them, this music education was intended to turn them into more desirable weekend-mates for the soldiers on leave. Kater shows this entire generation of Germans was robbed of a musical education; instead they were taught music that would help them fight and procreate.
Kater’s chapter “Dissonance and Deviance” traces the Nazi search for a new composer who could lead the Reich in musical creativity. Here, Kater does the most thorough job of demonstrating how the Reich was not a place where musical creativity could be cultivated. The three stories that most lucidly illustrate the problems with composition in a totalitarian regime are those of Karl Höller, Rudolf Wagner-Regeny, and Hanz Pfitzner. Höller was on track to become the Reich’s prize conductor, when Hitler arbitrarily decided that his music was atonal and he quickly fell out of favor (Kater, 187). Wagner-Regeny made the mistake of choosing a liberal libretto in 1941. For this, he lost his job and was sent to the Eastern Front (Kater, 194). Pfitzner, like Höller, suffered from a unilateral decision by Hitler. Though Pfitzner was a gentile and the leading conservative composer of the Weimar Republic, when he met Hitler in 1923, Hitler made the decision that Pfitzner was a Jew due to the fact he had a beard. Though Pfitzner still managed to have a career, this incident forever tainted his reputation in the Reich. These three examples show the enormous risk even very conservative composers faced in the Third Reich.
Kater closes his book with a chapter on dissent amongst German musicians—both Jewish and gentile. It tells the stories of several anti-Nazi musicians who protested in various ways. Karlrobert Kreiten was Germany’s most promising young pianist. He toured nationally and was hailed by the reviewers. But Kreiten made a fatal mistake when he began illegally listening to the BBC. He later confided in his landlady, “the Führer hasn’t got a clue about how to wage a war, nor about music, he just sticks his nose into everything” (Kater, 222). While this does beautifully sum up the overarching impact Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had on music, it got Kreiten hanged for high treason. Here we see a promising young musician not merely tainted—but destroyed.
Kater’s book does a phenomenal job illustrating the historical context in which music was made. I, however, agree with James Zychowicz’s review in Opera Quarterly—the book falls short on several occasions when describing the music (Zychowicz, 101). It would be nice to have a codified terminology used to describe the theoretical framework for the compositions of the composers discussed. Kater unfortunately lumps musicians into “atonal” and “tonal” categories. In my opinion this is somewhat of a flawed approach. I do think that this is still completely forgivable, as Kater does not come from the music field and the goal of the book is to focus on historical context, not actual music.
The Twisted Muse does an exemplary job of presenting how the Third Reich tainted “serious” music. By outlining the sociopolitical aspects of music, the financial aspects, the composition of music, as well as its performance, Kater instills the reader with a broad view of musical culture in Nazi Germany. Due to his exhaustive research and excellent writing, Kater received praise from American Historical Review (Lidtke, 921), Central European History (Steinweis, 611), and Notes (Thompson, 389). I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the subject.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)
Lidtke, Vernon L., American Historical Review, June1998, Vol.
103 Issue 4, p921, 2p (ebsco
Steinweis, Alan E., Central European History, 1997, Vol. 30 Issue
2, p398, 3p (ebsco)
Thompson, Jeanne M., Notes, Dec1998, Vol. 55 Issue 2, p398, 3p
Zychowicz, James L., Opera Quarterly, Winter99, Vol. 15 Issue
1, p101, 4p (ebsco
Florida Center for Instructional Technology “Nazi Approved Music” (2009),
Time Magazine “Nazi System” (May 30, 1938), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,759790-1,00.html
Furtwängler, Wagner, and Goebbels” (April 8, 2008)
Conducts Beethoven’s 9th Sym. Finale” (October 26, 2006)
YouTube “Hans Knappertsbusch
Conducts ‘Vorspiel’ Die Walkure” (December 8, 2006)
Lansch, Enrique Sanchez, Das Reichsorchester: Die Berliner Philharmoniker und der Nationalsozialismus (December 2007) This is a full length documentary about the Berlin Philharmonic during the time of National Socialism. They interview former members of the orchestra who served during the Nazi era. They also interview family members of musicians who are no longer alive as well as some exiled Jewish musicians. Unfortunately, the film is only available in Austria and Germany, although you can order it from Amazon.com. The other inconvenience is that no subtitled version of the film exists, so you cannot understand the interview unless you speak German. There is however, very interesting footage that anyone can enjoy.
Celia Applegate and Pamela Potter, Music & German National Identity
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) UCSB: ML275.M933 2002
Brigitte Hamann, Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s
Bayreuth (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2005) UCSB: ML429.W136 H3613 2006
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: