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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

In any case, a stance of high moral dudgeon is harder to maintain with respect to Mussolini’s Italy than it is with respect to the other twentieth-century totalitarian states, whose histories were incomparably bloodier. Fascist Italy entered the phase that now inspires universal condemnation—primarily for its imperialist adventures in Africa and Albania, and its persecution of minorities—in its last decade, beginning in the mid-1930s, chiefly in consequence of its military alliance with Nazi Germany, with whose policies it had to maintain a united front.

The Nazis’ arts policies were motivated by the same horridly explicit racial and ethnic biases as their political policies. Indeed there was no separate or separable arts policy: arts censorship in Nazi Germany was merely an application of Nazi race theory to art, for which reason the idea of “Nazi esthetics” is entirely incoherent both as theory and as practice. What follows, therefore, is no more than a selection of tragicomic vignettes from the history of that application.

Insofar as Nazi esthetics had a theory, it followed the theory of “degeneracy” put forth by the nineteenth-century Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso (1836–1909), who ended his career as a professor of criminal anthropology at the University of Turin. Lombroso sought through empirical science to account for criminal tendencies—and thus (the chilling part) to predict and preemptively control them—by identifying the “born criminal” (l’uomo deliquente) as a distinct anthropological “type” with measurable physical and mental “stigmata.” (Lombroso checked particularly for imperfections in the shape of the outer ear.) Such “stigmata,” Lombroso alleged, were the product of a morbid genetic regression brought about by inbreeding (the Nazis added miscegenation, interracial mating), or by what we now call substance abuse.


fig. 13-3 Lothar Heinemann, “Germany, the Land of Music” (1935), a poster that strongly conveys the subordination of art to totalitarian political power.

The application of these theories to art and literature was first made by Lombroso’s disciple Max Nordau (1849–1923), a Hungarian physician, in a massive two-volume treatise called Entartung (“Degeneration”), which appeared in 1893 and went through many printings. Nordau drew many sensational connections—or rather, asserted many facile analogies—between genetic mental or physiological decay as described by Lombroso and fin-de-siècle “decadence” in the arts, which amounted, from Nordau’s middle-class perspective, to “contempt for traditional views of custom and morality.” Nordau maintained that the eroticized mysticism and egomania of contemporary art (in music, say, Scriabin’s), its overrefined estheticism (as in, say, Debussy), or its gruesome naturalism (as in, say, Strauss or Stravinsky) all had the same pathological basis.

That this was pseudoscience in the service of philistinism is apparent from the nature of the “evidence” that Nordau adduced, entirely speculative and tautological:

There might be a sure means of proving that the application of the term “degenerates” to the originators of all the fin de siècle movements in art and literature is not arbitrary, that it is no baseless conceit, but a fact; and that would be a careful physical examination of the persons concerned, and an inquiry into their pedigree. In almost all cases, relatives would surely be met who were undoubtedly degenerate, and one or more stigmata discovered which would indisputably establish the diagnosis of “degeneration.” Science has found, together with these physical stigmata, others of a mental order, which betoken degeneracy quite as clearly as the former; so that it is not necessary to measure the cranium of an author, or to see the lobe of a painter’s ear, in order to recognize the fact that he belongs to the class of degenerates.14

For the Nazis, the process of verification became even easier: all that was needed was evidence of “Jewish blood.” Ironically enough, Max Nordau himself was not only Jewish but also an early Zionist leader; his prime example of artistic degeneracy was Wagner, and his prime diagnostic symptoms were anti-Semitism and “Teutomaniacal Chauvinism.” But any number can play the same pseudoscientific game, and the theory of degeneracy was easily adapted to a new set of politically predicated stigmata. The adaptation became notorious in 1937, when the German government sponsored a huge show of otherwise unshowable modern art in Munich under the title Entartete Kunst, “Degenerate Art.” It was followed the next year by a somewhat smaller exhibition in Düsseldorf, called Entartete Musik.

A deliberately ape-like caricature of the blackface title character from Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, the wildly popular “Zeitoper” of a decade before (see Chapter 9) graced the cover of the 1938 exhibition catalogue (Fig. 13-1), which contained a list or index of banned Jewish musicians, including a few who were either mistakenly or deliberately made honorary Jews for the occasion: Alexander Glazunov, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Camille Saint-Saëns. (Krenek himself was listed as jüdisch versippt, Jewish by marriage.)

There were a couple of somewhat more serious errors of classification. Because he was of Slavic blood and a naturalized Parisian, Igor Stravinsky was assumed to be a foe of the Nazis, and his portrait was displayed at the exhibit with the insulting caption, “Who ever invented the story that Stravinsky is descended from Russian noble stock?” The mortified composer, through his German publisher, protested to the German Bureau of Foreign Affairs at his inclusion, explicitly disavowing any taint of “Jewish cultural Bolshevism.”15 As he had previously taken the precaution of submitting an affidavit to his publisher, in lieu of the official Nazi questionnaire establishing Aryan heredity, and as the publisher had placed an item in the papers quoting Richard Strauss on Stravinsky’s enthusiasm for Hitler’s ideas, Stravinsky received a declaration from the German government affirming its “benevolent neutrality” toward him. (The 74-year-old Richard Strauss was not only Germany’s musical elder statesman, but also for a time the figurehead president of the official Nazi musical supervisory organization, the Reichsmusikkammer.)

And because he was a citizen of Hungary, an ally of Germany, Béla Bartók was assumed, like the composers of Mussolini’s Italy, to be a friend of the “Reich,” and was therefore left out of the Entartete Musik exhibit. The mortified composer, who had refused his publisher’s request to file what he called “the questionnaire about grandfathers,”16 protested his exemption, attached the E-word to himself, and tried to prevent the performance of his music in Germany and Italy. He wrote to an official of the German Radio in 1939, about his own First Piano Concerto, that he was “astonished that such ‘degenerate’ music should be selected for—of all things—a radio broadcast”17 in the Nazi state. But of course the broadcast went on as scheduled: as these examples show, for the Nazis the first question about a work of art was never, What does it say? It was, rather, Who is speaking, friend or foe?

There was no principle to override this double standard. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Das Wunder der Heliane, mentioned in Chapter 9, aroused Nazi antipathies almost as strongly as Jonny spielt auf. Almost the minute it came to power, Hitler’s government banned it. The stated reason both for the original antipathy and for the ban was the opera’s “decadent” nude scene. But Reichsmusikkammerpräsident Strauss’s Salome also had a nude scene, even more brazen (and certainly more garish) than Korngold’s, not to mention a libretto by Oscar Wilde, the archdegenerate of all degenerates, and yet it played steadily to good Aryan audiences throughout the Hitler years.

True, Salome perishes at the end of “her” opera, while Heliane triumphs at the end of “hers,” but the real reason for the ban on the latter was the Jewishness of its composer, who had to flee as soon as the Nazis annexed Austria to the German Reich; and the reason for Salome’s survival was the venerable name of its composer—“international celebrity, German, late romanticist, advocate for copyright protection and senior citizen,”18 in the words of Pamela Potter, the best-informed historian of the Nazi musical establishment. It was his interest in lengthening the term of copyright for composers that induced Strauss to accept from Hitler a bureaucratic post. Strauss’s collaboration—like that of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954), Toscanini’s only rival in fame and authority from within the Germanic-romantic “mainstream”—offered the Nazis the most potent insurance they could buy against the charge of barbarism.


(14) Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1895), p. 17.

(15) See Igor Stravinsky, Selected Correspondence, Vol. III, ed. Robert Craft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), pp. 265–70.

(16) Béla Bartók to Frau Professor Dr. Oscar Müller-Widmann, Basle, 13 April 1938; Béla Bartók, Letters, ed. János Demény (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971), p. 268.

(17) Béla Bartók to Hans Priegnitz, 12 January 1939: Béla Bartók’s Letters, ed. János Demény (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971), p. 274.

(18) Pamela M. Potter, “Strauss and the National Socialists,” in Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, ed. Bryan Gilliam (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 109.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013004.xml