The sound of salvation: music against the Nazis

  • Themes: Culture, opera

A fascinating and essential book explores the lost legacies of the composers forced to flee the Nazis.

Georg Wilhelm Pabst in Die 3 Groschen-Oper, Germany, 1931.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst in Die 3 Groschen-Oper, Germany, 1931. Credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Music of Exile: The Untold Story of the Composers who fled Hitler, Michael Haas, Yale University Press, £25

The rediscovery of a few composers who fled or were killed by the Nazis has allowed the musical world to imagine, perhaps naively, that a lost generation has been revived and recognised. Examples include Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Kurt Weill and Mieczyslaw Weinberg; others were incarcerated in Terezin or Auschwitz, such as Victor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Kraša. Their rediscovery, however, is only the beginning.

In the 1990s, Decca’s series Entartete Musik (‘Degenerate music’, the Nazis’ term for anything by Jewish composers and also anything jazzy, atonal or serialist) made a seismic start to the restoration process, releasing ground-breaking recordings that included Korngold’s biggest opera Das Wunder der Heliane, Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf and Ute Lemper singing Weill. It was the brainchild of the producer Michael Haas, who is, co-founder and chair of the ExilArte Center in Vienna, which researches and archives composers suppressed by the Third Reich. His previous book, Forbidden Music, is the definitive account of the composers who fell victim to Nazi persecution.

Haas’s new book, Music of Exile, takes the matter to the next level. It is a deeply thoughtful, intensely detailed and clearly argued exploration of the question of Jewish, German and Austrian (and sometimes other) identities among the myriad composers affected by the Nazis’ racial persecution. Moreover, it amplifies the impression that the real story of twentieth-century music is worlds away from the narrative that persisted until recent decades. So many composers were killed, displaced or misperceived that history books and concert halls had presented only the tip of a bloodied iceberg. ‘The inability to escape left a vast vacuum in European musical creativity,’ Haas writes. ‘It distorted what we believe we know.’

Haas constructs a vivid collage of non-linear narrative, driven by issues rather than chronology. Many, perhaps most, of the names will be new to the majority of readers. He swoops in with close-up studies of particular figures or works: Kurt Weill is rewardingly examined at length, but so is the less familiar composer Richard Fuchs and his 1936 oratorio Vom jüdischen Schicksal (‘Of Jewish Destiny’), which is not coming to a concert hall near you any time soon.

This history is, inevitably, a vast, tangled web, which has often left observers inadvertently deceived. Haas is extremely good at unravelling its paradoxes – for instance, the Nazi aim ‘to make Germany so impossible for Jews that they would be compelled to leave, and then placing so many obstacles in their way that many of the best emigration plans were thwarted’. Besides physical displacement, he interrogates the ‘inner exile’ of composers who could not leave, let alone speak out.

In exile, of either type, composers’ sense of identity profoundly influenced the music they wrote. Some found their Jewish self-identification slipping away, along with their homelands. Music could become a means of preserving both; the concept of ‘inner exile’ transformed into ‘inner return’. ‘When I write compose, I’m back in Vienna,’ Robert Fürstenthal told Haas, in San Diego.

‘[Hans] Winterberg’s return to Czech identity was brazen. Indeed, arguably, he never left it’ Haas writes. ‘He and Martinu represented the only surviving voices of a generation of Czech composers, most of whom were murdered. Winterberg survived, and in the teeth of prejudice, while living in the metaphorical lion’s den of post-Hitler Germany, he composed music that told everyone who he was and where he was from.’ Winterberg’s story is full of hair-raising conflicts and his works are still emerging from a legal labyrinth, but he may prove the greatest composer we have scarcely heard – yet.

Not all the composers in the book are heroic, far from it. Haas’s clear-eyed account does not flinch from the complexity of people’s behaviour when faced with fearsome or impossible situations. But there’s no apportioning of blame upon individuals; if Haas has to choose a stance, he plumps for fair-mindedness and compassion.

Destination countries, however, are not spared difficult truths, having often been hostile to desperate people fleeing for their lives. Britain does not come out well. When the Arts Council held a competition to find a new opera for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the two highest-placed works were by Karl Rankl, Deirdre of the Sorrows, and Berthold Goldschmidt, Beatrice Cenci. Both were Jewish refugees in London, attempting to integrate into a musical language dominated at that time by Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. But so embarrassing was it for the powers-that-were that home-grown composers had not won, two British works were substituted for those of the actual prize-winners, German-speaking immigrants. This blow silenced Goldschmidt for a quarter of a century.

Postwar, too, the extent of the Holocaust’s horrors was revealed and provoked new responses. Many composers, raised in secular households, had felt that Hitler had made them Jewish; only now did some respond in their music to Jewish issues. In Los Angeles, Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, originally from Silesia, receives ample credit for encouraging such works, having commissioned Jewish-themed pieces from Korngold, Zeisl (Requiem Ebraico) and Arnold Schönberg.

The latter, who had converted to Catholicism and back again, ended his career with A Survivor from Warsaw and his final De Profundis, a recasting of Psalm 130. Franz Waxman, a veritable musical chameleon, had produced a cornucopia of Hollywood film scores. But in the wake of the Holocaust revelations, he turned to works of ‘Jewish avowal’, including a 1959 oratorio Joshua and an orchestral song cycle, Song of Terezin, in 1965.

Finally, Haas looks at the Jewish composers who fled further – China, the Soviet Union, Latin America, Japan, South Africa – and the next generation, born in the 1920s. It is good to find mention here of some female composers, Vally Weigl and Julia Kerr, for a start. Few women are included otherwise; personally I’d have liked to hear about more of them.

The composers in these pages rarely had a chance to transcend their backgrounds or attempt existential self-determination. Instead, they were forced to delve deep into how these identities and the loss of them, or inward return, shaped their work. For Walter Arlen, who died just a few weeks ago, aged 103, composing was therapy.

Ultimately, it is a description of music’s transcendent power that stays with me: an account in the Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt of a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection’, in one of the last Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League) concerts in Berlin, 1941. (The Kulturbund presented Jewish artists who had been dismissed from their jobs in 1933, and was ‘one of the most grotesque exercises in Nazi cynicism and their means of dealing with the perceived paradoxes of Jews and German culture’.)

‘As the sounds of this miracle of the Temple, its resonance of bracing harmonies reaching the highest spheres, began to fade, the people in the hall sat for a few seconds in tearful silence before spontaneously lifting themselves out of their seats, deeply moved beyond description, demonstrating their gratitude. Everyone felt that of all the arts, only music was capable of leading to enlightened salvation the doubting soul and its questions of existence.’

This is not only a fascinating book, but an essential one, which will hopefully inspire further studies. All that’s missing now is the music itself, much of which remains absent from publishing and recording catalogues. Perhaps, at last, more will soon emerge.


Jessica Duchen