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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin
Shades of Gray

ex. 13-5a Paul Hindemith, Das Marienleben, “Vom Tode Mariä III,” 1923 version, end

Shades of Gray

ex. 13-5b Paul Hindemith, Das Marienleben, “Vom Tode Mariä III,” 1948 version, end

The most noteworthy and literal case of inner emigration among composers who remained in Germany was that of the Munich composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905–63). By the time of the Nazi takeover, Hartmann had already made a name for himself with a few piano and chamber pieces of a “new-objective” character, including a Jazz-Toccata und Fuge (1928) and two works for wind ensemble—Tanzsuite (1931) and Burleske Musik (1930)—that drew upon the composer’s experience, both in wind playing and in contemporary dance music, as a professional trombonist. From 1933 to 1945 not a note of Hartmann’s was played in Germany. Between 1933 and 1939 he submitted his music to competitions and festivals in neighboring countries (France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Belgium), but with the coming of the war Hartmann’s withdrawal from public life became absolute.

During the war years Hartmann composed three symphonies in a newly “subjective” or neoromantic style, all of them bitterly lamenting or remonstrative works at a time when official Nazi art, like all totalitarian art, was invincibly optimistic. One of them—Sinfonia dramatica: China kämpft (“Dramatic Symphony: China struggles,” 1942)—would have counted as politically seditious had it been performed. They were written, however, “for the drawer.” In the fall of 1942, Hartmann traveled to Vienna and took lessons from Webern, but never adopted the twelve-tone technique.

Shades of Gray

fig. 13-6 Karl Amadeus Hartmann and his wife with (at right) Stravinsky, in Munich; photo 1956.

Immediately after the war Hartmann founded Musica Viva, a performing organization for new music, which made a specialty of acquainting audiences with music that the Nazi regime had banned. His wartime works were performed there, and also at other new music centers that were cropping up in Germany, and won him enormous acclaim and prestige. By the time of his fairly early death he had composed another eight symphonies, and was widely credited with reviving the Austro-German symphonic tradition, dormant since the death of Mahler. Between 1948 and 1961, Hartmann was awarded major prizes practically on a yearly basis. He was honored not only as a musician but also as a heroic political resister at a time when Germany was in dire need of new role models.

Of course the situation was more complicated than that. Hartmann was able to sustain his much-admired stance of principled if passive opposition during the war, composing prolifically but refusing to participate in the musical life of his corrupted homeland, because he was economically privileged. He lived off the generosity of his father-in-law, a wealthy factory manager, who provided Hartmann and his family with a spacious apartment, the use of a suburban summer home where they lived full-time at the height of the war when Munich was subjected to aerial attacks, and freedom from the need to seek salaried employment.

To take these factors into consideration is by no means to impugn the sincerity of Hartmann’s dissidence; but it paints his story, like those of Orff and Hindemith, in shades of gray. As Michael Kater, a sympathetic but unsentimental historian of the arts in Nazi Germany, has put it, Hartmann’s situation mixes elements of sacrifice with elements of “self-centeredness, sometimes to the point of narcissism,”25 especially as regards the claims of wartime suffering on which the composer’s postwar reputation as a moral paragon were largely based. One’s tendency in retrospect is to imagine life under totalitarianism in terms of stark choices and moral extremes. Real-life conditions and alternatives are seldom so clear-cut.

Most poignant of all, perhaps, was the case of Webern. From the time of the German annexation of Austria in 1938 until his dreadful death, on 15 September 1945, in the aftermath of the German defeat (shot by an American soldier in the course of a raid on his home on account of his son-in-law’s black-market activities), Webern, shorn of performance prospects for his “degenerate” music, was altogether shut out of public musical life. He subsisted on private lessons and a small pension. He continued to compose for the drawer at his slow devoted pace, completing his last three compositions (Variations for Orchestra, op. 30, and two Cantatas to texts by his poet friend Hildegard Jone, opp. 29 and 31) in conditions of virtual seclusion.

Considering not only the conditions in which he worked but also the esoteric, utopian qualities of his music, Webern would seem the archetypal “inner emigrant,” retreating from his adverse surroundings into a purer world of art and scholarship. So, indeed, he was regarded in the immediate postwar decades, when his music became for many a shining model of transcendent artistry surviving in a time of depravity, thence a symbol of pertinacious resistance to evil. The uncompromising character of his music, its commitment to reviled but unsullied artistic ideals, became an emblem of uncompromising ethics.

It was therefore an agonizing discovery for many when evidence began mounting in the late 1970s that Webern had been a supporter of the Nazi regime. Hartmann had already found this out in 1942. He cut his studies with Webern short because, as he wrote back to his wife,

The conversation kept returning to politics. I would not have steered it there, for I learned things that I would rather not have heard. He seriously defended the viewpoint that, for dear order’s sake, any kind of authority should be respected and that the State under which one lives would have to be recognized at any price.26

That much sounds like resignation, but Webern’s letters show him reading Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf (“My struggle”) with exhilaration, and exulting in Germany’s prosecution of the war. “Are things not going forward with giant steps?” he wrote a friend in 1940, still using the hyperbolic tone and style we may recall from his lectures and writings on music, quoted in chapters 6 and 12:

This is Germany today! But the National Socialist one, to be sure! This is the new state, for which the seed was already laid twenty years ago. Yes, a new state it is, one that has never existed before!! It is something new! Created by this unique man!!!27

There are elements here of hysteria and denial that require a sort of analysis far beyond the scope of a book like this. But that we are hopelessly in a realm of comfortless moral grays is evident. Webern’s tragicomic powers of dissociation were not at all unusual at the time, however difficult it may be at half a century’s remove to empathize with them. There was, to begin with, the dissociation of the Nazi regime from the anti-Semitic policies that had made an exile out of Schoenberg, Webern’s beloved mentor. Webern, who was not personally anti-Semitic, continued as long as possible his association with Jewish musicians, and even deplored official persecutions, though he usually ascribed reports of them to anti-German propaganda.

Stranger yet, perhaps, was his inability to grasp the fact that the music to which he was committed was considered socially unacceptable beyond all petition or appeal by the new rulers of his country. Webern persisted in the quixotic belief that the historical inevitability of dodecaphonic music paralleled the historical inevitability of Nazism, that both were the fruits of German greatness, and that eventually he (or someone) would be able “to convince the Hitler regime of the rightness of the twelve-tone system.”28 It would be far too simple, as well as invidious, to draw direct parallels between the order that Webern sought in his art and the order that, to Hartmann’s dismay, he upheld in political discussions. But here, too, Webern was not alone. Although Schoenberg would have been persecuted for his ethnic background no matter what kind of music he wrote, twelve-tone music was indeed tainted by association in Nazi eyes as “Jewish” as well as “Bolshevik.” Or so many official documents proclaimed. And yet, amazingly enough, there was an officially tolerated cadre of twelve-tone composers in the Third Reich. Its members included Winfried Zillig (1905–63), a former pupil of Schoenberg, who had a successful career as an opera conductor in German-occupied Poland during the war; and Paul von Klenau (1883–1946), a Danish composer who made his career in Germany, and whose historical operas—Michael Kohlhaas (1933), Rembrandt van Rijn (1937), and Elisabeth von England (1939)—were successfully produced there despite his use of twelve-tone procedures.

Nor did von Klenau keep them hidden. On the contrary, exactly as Webern might have wished, he proclaimed the virtues—the specifically Nazi virtues—of twelve-tone music in the public press, openly touting the method as “totalitarian,” and claiming that its strict discipline made it “entirely appropriate to the future direction of the ‘National Socialist World.’” He justified it further as “consistent with Nazi insistence on technical competence,” and, in its strictness, as an antidote to the “individualistic arbitrariness” that had formerly plagued modern music.29

So was it inherently “degenerate” or inherently “totalitarian”? Inherently Jewish or inherently Nazi? The questions, one must surely recognize by now, are silly. Musical techniques do not have political sympathies or ethnic backgrounds; the people who use them are the ones that do. And as people are inconstant and inconsistent, their means of expression are shaped and colored by their expressive aims. Twelve-tone music has been interpreted in many cultural contexts and in the light of many subtexts. The most contentious period of such readings, of course, took place after the war.

One foreshadow of it is relevant here. In his Doktor Faustus (1949), an allegory of the Nazi period in the form of the biography of a fictitious composer who is the complete inner emigrant, the war-exiled German novelist Thomas Mann (1875–1955) made an elaborate, though implicit, comparison between the twelve-tone system and the Nazi political regime. Its point was a dual paradox: as Hitler enslaved the German people so as to liberate “Germany,” so the twelve-tone system regimented the notes in a musical composition to an unprecedented degree in order to achieve the ultimate artistic “autonomy.” (In a note added to the English translation at the insistence of its infuriated inventor, Mann called the twelve-tone system “the intellectual property of a contemporary composer and theoretician, Arnold Schoenberg”; Schoenberg’s rejoinder: “We will see who is whose contemporary!”)30


(25) Michael H. Kater, Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 97.

(26) Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Kleine Schriften (Mainz Schott, 1965), “Lektionen bei Anton Webern”; quoted in Hans Moldenhauer and Rosaleen Moldenhauer, Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work (New York: Knopf, 1978), pp. 540–41.

(27) Anton Webern to Joseph Hueber, May 1940; Moldenhauer, Anton von Webern, p. 527.

(28) Moldenhauer, Anton von Webern, p. 474 (reporting a conversation with Hans Erich Apostel).

(29) Quoted in Erik Levi, “Atonality, 12-Tone Music and the Third Reich,” Tempo, no. 178 (1991), p. 21.

(30) Arnold Schoenberg, letter to the editor, Saturday Review of Literature, 1 January 1949; quoted in H. H. Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, trans. Humphrey Searle (New York: Schirmer, 1977), p. 494.

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. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013007.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013007.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013007.xml