Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Music Banned by the Nazis

Last week, the American Library Association had "Banned Books Week" in order to raise awareness of censorship and intellectual freedom. In honor of the occasion, I'm writing about music that was banned by the Nazis. In Nazi Germany, there were two types of banned music: music by Jewish or Black composers, or music that sounded modern or atonal.

The Nazis banned music by brilliant composers such as Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, because they were Jewish. They went so far as to ban Debussy, because he had married a Jewish woman. Jazz music was banned because so much of it was composed by Black or Jewish American composers, such as George Gershwin. Composers trapped within the third reich, such as Viktor Ullmann, composed music even after the Nazis imprisoned them in concentration camps. In the end, these talented composers, like so many others, died at the hands of the Nazis. Composer Leon Jessel thought he would be safe because his music, including the operetta Schwarzwaldmadel, was wildly popular in Germany. Even Hitler and Himmler acknowledged liking it. But Jessel was Jewish, and despite his popularity his music was banned. After the Gestapo intercepted one of his letters about the plight of Jewish musicians, they arrested him and tortured him to death.
Other composers, like Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, and Alban Berg were banned because their music was considered savage or "degenerate." The Nazis hated atonal music as well as music that sounded sexually suggestive or politically undesirable. They ruthless tried to suppress music that sounded modern, leaving many composers struggling to survive. Hindemith and many other composers left Europe out of fear or desperation.

Even composers who collaborated with the Nazis suffered at their hands. Richard Strauss accepted a position in the Reichsmusikkammer (a Nazi music organization designed to promote "good German music") to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Yet Strauss spent much of the war pleading with the authorities for his family. His son and daughter-in-law were arrested by the Gestapo, and kept under house arrest for most of the war. Nazis banned his opera Die schweigsame Frau because its librettist, Stefan Zweig, was Jewish.

The Nazi ban on music had terrible consequences for European music long after the fall of the third reich. Many composers and musicians lost their lives in the Shoah or in WWII. Much of their music was lost or forgotten. Erwin Schulhoff was a talented, prolific composer whose music was widely performed and critically praised until the Nazis banned it, then killed him. Today, he has little recognition and his music is rarely performed. Viktor Ullmann, a Czech-Jewish composer, composed extensively while in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. While his works from the camp survived, much of his previous music was lost during WWII as a result of his persecution. This lost music serves as a haunting reminder of the terrible blow that persecution, extremism, censorship can deal to classical music as a whole.


  1. Alexis - Lovely piece. I wonder if you've read Martin Goldsmith's The Inextinguishable Symphony - the story of how Jews continued to perform music after they were expelled from German orchestras in the spring of 1933. Goldsmith's parents were in the Jidische Kulturbund, which Joseph Goebbel's Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda set up to show the rest of the world how well the Nazis were actually treating the Jews. (Uh-huh.) It's a fascinating story.

  2. I haven't read that, but I'll definitely look into it, it sounds fascinating.