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Kater, Twisted Muse, cover

Grey People Against a Landscape of Grey: Musicians During the Third Reich

Book Essay on: Michael Kater, The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 327 pages.
UCSB: ML275.5 .K38 1997

by Andrew McIntyre
March 20, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Google books

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,
Uns bliebe doch die heil’ge deutsche Kunst.
(And should the Holy Roman Empire collapse in smoke,
There will remain for us holy German Art.)
—From Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger

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)

Book Reviews

Lidtke, Vernon L., American Historical Review, June1998, Vol. 103 Issue 4, p921, 2p (ebsco link)
Lidtke is very positive about this book. He calls it “the most authoritative account to date of music and musicians in the Third Reich.” This praise is very noteworthy, as Lidtke is a respected scholar in the field and the review comes from the authoritative American Historical Review. The journal in which this appears is intended for history scholars. Lidtke commends Kater for bringing a considerable amount of new empirical detail to the subject. This is also Lidtke’s main criticism of the book—he states, “a study of such importance in the field would be even more useful if a bibliography had been included.” I agree; Kater does list his references, but almost every review I have read suggests that he should have included an annotated bibliography.

Steinweis, Alan E., Central European History, 1997, Vol. 30 Issue 2, p398, 3p (ebsco)
This review is a very authoritative. Not only does it appear in a respected journal, but the author, Steinweis, wrote one of the few other books on this subject. Like Lidtke’s review, this is intended for history scholars. Steinweis credits Kater for creating the most complete biographical source about musicians in the Third Reich. Steinweis also praises Kater for committing to a complete reexamination of many prominent figures, rather than simply relying on the preexisting analysis of musicians, such as Furtwängler and Strauss.

Thompson, Jeanne M., Notes, Dec1998, Vol. 55 Issue 2, p398, 3p (ebsco link)
In contrast to the previous two, this review comes from a musicological journal. It offers more of an abstract of the book, as it is intended for people with much less knowledge of the subject. From her musicological standpoint, Thompson, like the historians, asserts the book greatly contributes to the field. She both commends Kater for his easy-to-read biographical anecdotes and chastises him for frequently “looses the direction of the argument in the mass of biographical information.” After reading the book, I agree with this analysis. Kater’s obsession with biography is both one of the book’s most interesting and most arduous characteristics.

Zychowicz, James L., Opera Quarterly, Winter99, Vol. 15 Issue 1, p101, 4p (ebsco link)
This review comes from an opera journal, and like Thompson’s review, it is intended for musicologists. Zychowicz praises the reexaminations of seminal Nazi-era composers, much like Steinweis’s review. Zychowicz also calls for more future assessment of the subject and believes that this book may be the catalyst to start such an examination. He, like Lidtke, states, “a book like this would benefit from a bibliography; the tone of Kater’s work almost begs for one.” I relate to this analysis; a book that has contributed so much bibliography to the field could greatly ease future research by including a bibliography.

Web Sites:

Florida Center for Instructional Technology “Nazi Approved Music” (2009), http://fcit.usf.edu/HOLOCAUST/arts/musReich.htm
This site is created for K-12 teachers who wish to find materials about the holocaust for their classes. It possesses much of the same biographical information as Kater’s book, but it seems more focused on finger pointing than attempting a historical analysis. It also exclusively discusses Nazi collaborators (Strauss) and idolized composers (Wagner, Beethoven, and Bruckner), as opposed to all musicians in the Third Reich. It provides a concise surface level introduction to music during this period and also has very useful links to outside sources for listening to the music or reading biographical information about composers.

Time Magazine “Nazi System” (May 30, 1938), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,759790-1,00.html
This is an archived article from Time Magazine’s May 30, 1938 edition. It offers an interesting historical perspective of music on Nazi Germany. The two-page article discusses the banning of atonal music composed by Jews, although it was written before all atonal music was blacklisted. The article also discusses Germany’s somewhat muddled policies towards Jazz. Though the article’s author is not mentioned (on the page), the accuracy of the article is clear, as the facts align with Kater’s book in an almost ominous way.


YouTube “Wilhelm Furtwängler, Wagner, and Goebbels” (April 8, 2008)
This is black and white footage of Furtwängler, one of Kater’s most prominent subjects, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at a factory for part of Hitler’s Kraft Durch Freud program. This clip gives the ability to put live faces to some of the characters discussed by Kater. The clip is under four minutes long and was originally published by Source: Deutsche Wochenschau No. 606 April 15, 1942. If you would like more complete footage of this event, I would recommend the documentary Das Reichsorchester.

YouTube “Knappertsbusch Conducts Beethoven’s 9th Sym. Finale” (October 26, 2006)
This is black and white footage of Hans Knappertsbusch conducting Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It was filmed during the war with the Weiner Philharmonic. In Kater’s book, Knappertsbusch is discussed as a staunchly Nazi conductor who could not please Hitler. For this reason it is interesting to compare and contrast his conducting style with Furtwängler.

YouTube “Hans Knappertsbusch Conducts ‘Vorspiel’ Die Walkure” (December 8, 2006)
This is a rather strange video from 1963 that demonstrates postwar insensitivity. In this, Knappertsbusch, a former super-Nazi musician, is conducting Wagner’s Die Walküre—an opera synonymous with Teutonic war. It provides a disappointing postlude to Kater’s chapter on Knappertsbusch.

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
This is a collection of essays on the subject of music and German nationalism. It offers readers a broad overview of the history of the subject, as it includes essays on Schumann, folk music, Wagner, and music in the Weimar Republic. It also includes several essays on music in the Third Reich, including one written by Kater. Also of interest is Doris Bergen’s essay on the “dejudaization” of religious music in the Third Reich. The scope of the collection also continues past Nazi Germany and includes several essays on music during the Cold War period. Even though this collection of essays is intended more for musicologists, it does a very good job of providing an outline of German nationalism in music from the Romantic era to present.

Brigitte Hamann, Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2005) UCSB: ML429.W136 H3613 2006
This is a biographical work about the granddaughter of Richard Wagner. She ran the Bayreuther Festspielhaus during Hitler’s time in power and was also close friends with Hitler. The yearly Bayreuth Festival represented the grand culmination of the Nazi music machine. This book traces the history of the festival, starting with the pre-Hitler era and continuing through to the de-nazification process. Kater briefly discusses Winifred Wagner in his book, but I would recommend this book for readers who would like to know more about this character or the festival the Nazis considered the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

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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:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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