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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

The only musicians who could avoid questions of complicity with the Nazi regime were the many who emigrated from Germany during the dozen years of its ascendancy. But even emigration had its degrees and nuances. Some emigration was forced, like that of Jews or Communists or others for whom remaining in Germany would have been fatal. The most celebrated forced emigrant was of course Schoenberg, formerly an ardent German cultural chauvinist, who defiantly reconverted to the Hebrew faith of his ancestors in Paris in 1933, and who went on from there to the United States, where he spent the last seventeen years of his life, eight of them (1936–44) on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles. Other famous forced emigrés included Weill, Eisler, and Brecht, the conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, the cellist Emanuel Feuermann (1902–42), and the music scholars Alfred Einstein (1880–1952) and Curt Sachs (1881–1959). All of them ended up in the United States, the musical life of which was enormously enriched by their presence, and which willy-nilly found itself at the end of the war with the greater part of the former European musical élite among its citizens.

For Bartók, Stravinsky, and Hindemith were also in America at war’s end. They were voluntary émigrés. Bartók alone was purely a principled exile; as we have already seen he was a committed anti-Fascist and an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime. He did not have to fear for his life or livelihood in Hungary, and he suffered many hardships in America, where he was not yet by any means a celebrity. He had to eke out a living as a piano teacher and occasional performer, and as the holder of a research sinecure in folklore that was tendered to him by Columbia University as an act of charity, at the instigation of Paul Henry Láng (1901–91), a Hungarian-born professor of musicology there. (Bartók’s stature as a composer rose tremendously, ironically enough, almost immediately after his death in New York from leukemia in September 1945.)

Stravinsky’s emigration was more opportunistic than voluntary. The beginning of the war found him already in the United States, at the invitation of Harvard University, which had offered him a guest professorship to deliver the lectures that were later published as Poetics of Music. Although his political sympathies at the time of the war’s outbreak were equivocal to say the least, Stravinsky decided to remain in America after his Harvard tenure expired, so as to avoid the turbulent conditions on the European continent that would have made concentration on his work difficult. (He had sought neutral territory during World War I as well, which he sat out in Switzerland.) He bought a house in Hollywood, California, in 1940, not far from where Schoenberg was living, and took American citizenship in 1945. Their physical proximity did not lead to any lessening of the personal and esthetic tensions that had divided Schoenberg and Stravinsky in Europe. During the eleven years that they lived as neighbors they met only twice, by chance.

The Hindemith case was complicated. By the time the Nazis came to power he was not only a famous performer but was also long established as the foremost composition teacher in Berlin next to Schoenberg, and it was inevitably “next to Schoenberg” that he was viewed. Thus despite his avant-garde reputation he was deemed, at least by comparison, acceptable to the new regime, and there is evidence of his early wish to accommodate it. The more radical Nazi contingents opposed him, however, and launched a press campaign in 1934 to discredit him on the basis of his earlier associations with leftist musicians and his continuing associations with Jewish playing partners, not to mention his scandalous early operas and a chamber concerto in which he was accused of parodying a favorite Nazi march.

Varieties of Emigration

fig. 13-5 Paul Hindemith with viola, photo ca. 1930.

Furtwängler came to his defense in a widely disseminated newspaper article, “Der Fall Hindemith” (“The Hindemith case”), in which the conductor put Hindemith forth as the model for German composers of the day. The result was an intensified backlash against him in the press and at public Nazi functions. Although he suffered no material reprisals or personal threats, Hindemith decided in 1937 that he had best leave the country, in part because his wife was Jewish and he expected eventually to lose his professorship on that account. After three years in Switzerland he came to America. In 1941 he was appointed Battel Professor of the Theory of Music at Yale University, a position he held (eventually part time) until 1953, when he returned to Europe, spending his last decade again in Switzerland.

Hindemith did not consider himself a voluntary émigré, but felt that he had been hounded out of Germany. He left resentfully, and worked out his feelings of alienation on his American colleagues and pupils, with whom he achieved a legendary reputation for haughty arrogance and disparagement. (He awarded only twelve students masters’ degrees in composition during his entire tenure at Yale.) Although his reputation gave him considerable authority, and he had an impact both on music education and on American composing styles, Hindemith held himself aloof from the musical life of his adopted country despite his accepting American citizenship in 1946 and holding it to the end of his life. His most public (and possibly his most influential) activity in America, curiously, was in organizing and leading a Collegium Musicum at Yale—that is, a performing group not for contemporary but for “ancient” music, with which he made his only American appearances as a performer during his period of residence there, and with which he made some records. In short, his life in America ironically paralleled the sort of life he would have led had he remained in Germany: one of withdrawal from public life, or what was known in Germany as “inner emigration.”

That Hindemith had inner emigration on his mind even while still in Germany is evident on the basis of his most celebrated work, the three-act opera Mathis der Maler (“Matthias the painter”), composed to his own libretto, which he began writing in 1934, the year of his disillusionment, and which received its premiere in Switzerland in 1938, after he had gone into exile. (A symphony on themes from the opera, also called Mathis der Maler, was actually composed in advance of the rest; Furtwängler gave it its very successful premiere in March 1934, and it became the focal point of his attempted defense of the composer.) Ostensibly based on the life and times of Matthias Grünewald, the fifteenth-century German religious painter, the opera depicts an artist who retreats, spiritually wounded, from the turbulent world of contemporary politics—a world replete with class warfare and book burnings—into the timeless world of art.

It was in fact an allegory of the composer’s own inner emigration, as Hindemith pointedly implied in his program essay for the premiere, in which the expatriated composer identified himself not only with Mathis, who “decides in his work to develop traditional art to its fullest extent,” but also, and predictably, with J. S. Bach, who “two centuries later proves to be a traditionalist in the stream of musical development.”23 At a time of anxiety and threat (in Hindemith’s day political, in Bach’s, presumably, merely stylistic), the true artist serves his art by withdrawal, enabling its preservation.

This was a new conception of Bach’s role as universal model, born of a new twist in the politics of the twentieth century. Hindemith, who by the rather embittered end of his life was considered a very conservative composer indeed, would remain faithful to his new image of Bach for the duration of his composing career. In a sentimental lecture called Johann Sebastian Bach: Heritage and Obligation, delivered in Hamburg to honor Bach’s bicentennial in 1950, the former prophet of neue Sachlichkeit located Bach’s crowning achievement in the complete transcendence of the worldly: his “activity has become pure thought, freed from all incidents and frailties of structural manifestation, and he who ascended relentlessly has defeated the realm of substance and penetrated the unlimited region of thought.”24 In the works that followed Mathis der Maler, and especially in those of his American years, Hindemith tried his best to follow “his” Bach into the realm of pure speculation. During his brief Swiss exile he tried his hand at speculative theory, coming up with a revised tonal system to save the “natural” or “acoustic” basis of harmony in an age of “artificial” systems like Schoenberg’s. His system, embodied in a textbook called Unterweisung in Tonsatz (1937–39; published in English in 1942 as The Craft of Musical Composition), replaced the circle of fifths with a new tonal hierarchy, purportedly derived from the overtone series, that arranged the degrees of the chromatic scale “concentrically,” in intervallic pairs of increasing functional distance from the keynote (Ex. 13-3):dominant/subdominant, submediant/mediant,flatmediant/flatsubmediant, supertonic/flat subtonic, “Neapolitan” supertonic/leading tone, tritone (equidistant from the keynote in both directions).

Varieties of Emigration

ex. 13-3 Paul Hindemith, “Series I” from Unterweisung in Tonsatz

One of the first works Hindemith completed in America, Ludus tonalis (“The game [or play] of tones,” 1942), subtitled “Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization, and Piano Playing,” was a systematic practical application of his theories in emulation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Instead of Bach’s twenty-four preludes and fugues, Hindemith presents twelve fugues (since his system did not distinguish major and minor modes), framed by a Preludium and a Postludium (the Preludium in mirror inversion) and connected by eleven interludes that bridge their keys and moods. The keys are presented in an order corresponding to Ex. 13-3, which Hindemith called “Series I.” (Series II is an array of harmonic intervals that assigns a root to each so that logical progressions can be plotted.) As one can see from the way in which Fugue No. 5 ends (Ex. 13-4)—somewhat willfully or wistfully, perhaps—on a plain and placid major triad, Hindemith has indeed withdrawn from the mad stylistic rat-race of the twentieth century in which he had played a very conspicuous role before the commotions and coercions of the times had overwhelmed him, in favor of an imagined tonal utopia—a far, far better (or at least more orderly) place than the one history had wrought.

Varieties of Emigration

ex. 13-4 Paul Hindemith, Ludus tonalis, Interlude and Fugue no. 5 (in E)

Even more tellingly, Hindemith revised some of his earlier, expressionistic or new-objective works so that they might enter his timeless tonal paradise. The most radical and striking revision of this kind involved the song cycle Das Marienleben (“The life of Mary”), op. 27 (1923), to ecstatic poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The religious subject matter of this particular work made its compliance with timeless values and verities especially urgent. Hindemith began revising it in 1936, just as he was formulating his new rules of harmony, and finished the new version in 1948. The cycle’s key sequence was reordered in conformity with Series I, its harmonies were clarified in conformity with Series II, and its melodic writing was tamed to make it more practicable for the singer.

The two versions of Das Marienleben have become a touchstone for criticism; one’s preference for the original (composed as an act of passionate engagement with the novelties and challenges of the day) or the revision (composed as an act of withdrawal from the same, amounting to an inner emigration) says a lot about one’s attitude toward modernism. The endings of both versions of the final song, “Vom Tode Mariä III” (“Third song on the death of Mary”) are given for comparison in Ex. 13-5.


(23) Program note to the première production of Mathis der Maler (28 May 1938); rpt. in the libretto booklet accompanying the Angel recording (SZCX-3869, 1979).

(24) Paul Hindemith, Johann Sebastian Bach: Heritage and Obligation (trans. of J. S. Bach: Ein verpflichtendes Erbe) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 40–41.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013006.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013006.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013006.xml