In 1938, senior Nazis wanted to open a Degenerate Music Exhibition in Dusseldorf, much like the Degenerate Art Exhibition that opened in Munich in 1937. As fuzzy as the concept of Degenerate Art was, at least it was visually detectable – anything Jewish, Bolshevik, abstract, negroid, abstract, cubist or anti-Teutonic. But what was Degenerate Music?
catalogue cover, Degenerate Music Exhibition, 1938
Because the Dusseldorf curator in 1938, Dr Hans Ziegler, was an expert on theatre and was not a musicologist, he had no idea what “degenerate music” meant. But he was a very loyal member of the Nazi Party and did his best. Ziegler decided that a simple chord structure was inherently Germanic and natural. And anything which departed from tonality was basically Jewish and therefore degenerate. Hitler believed that music had absolutely immense power and that with music, a human personality could be shaped. Thus Dr Ziegler also thought that music was powerful, and that they needed to mould their fellow citizens along approved cultural lines.
The 1938 Degenerate Music Exhibition included works by Jewish composers or those with Jewish parents or grandparents (eg Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Gustav Mahler), by socialists, by modernists and by jazz musicians. Why a right winger like Igor Stravinsky was included as a degenerate eludes me, but he was just as reviled as the Jewish and Jazz musicians were.
For this event, a small catalogue was published that included the opening-speech by Ziegler and Goebbels, quotations of Hitler's words, photographs, caricatures and paintings as they appeared in the exhibition.
Dr Ziegler must have done his job well. After Dusseldorf, the Degenerate Music Exhibition travelled to Weimar, Munich and Vienna, where the displays continued to be very popular.
Visitors to the Degenerate Music Exhibition, 1938. Anne Frank Museum photo.
No musician was safe from scrutiny or Nazi re-branding. In his recently published book Mozart and the Nazis: How the Third Reich Abused a Cultural Icon, Erik Levi explored the way in which the Nazi regime manipulated Mozart's music for political gain. Puccini and Verdi seemed to have been subject to a similar appropriation.
Now let us leap forward to the 1980s. Dr Albrecht Dumling is a Berlin-educated musicologist who was responsible for Entartete Musik in 1988, a reconstruction of the Nazis’ Degenerate Music Exhibition in Dusseldorf fifty years earlier (in 1938). How perfect that the reconstruction opened, of all possible places, in the Dusseldorf Tonhalle. The exhibition travelled to other countries, but alas did not come to Australia.
In 2003-4 the same Dr Dumling used the National Library of Australia’s music and manuscript collections to document both the personal experiences of refugee musicians and their professional contributions to the musical life of Australia. In his new book The Vanished Musicians: Jewish Refugees in Australia, 2011, he discussed the reception Australia offered to German-speaking refugee musicians who arrived in Australia from 1933 on.
book by Dr Dumling, The Vanished Musicians: Jewish Refugees in Australia, 2011
Australia should have felt blessed when world-famous Jewish musicians arrived on our shores. Consider Jascha Spivakovsky and the other two members of the trio (Nathan Tossy Spivakovsky and Edmund Kurtz), Artur Schnabel, Richard Tauber and Yehudi Menuhin and the conductor Maurice Abravanel. German born and educated Felix Werder was only 18 when he was imprisoned on the Dunera ship in 1940, so his splendid works, including his symphonies, chamber music, choral works and operas, were all written in Australia. The composer and bassoonist George Dreyfus was even younger when he left Germany in 1938, so he did all his musical studies in Australia.
How tragic that these Jewish refugees, fleeing Nazism at home, would be declared enemy-alien-Germans in Australia. Most were imprisoned in rural camps, in isolated Hay and Tatura.
The modern viewer wants to ask if at least the Musicians’ Union of Australia tried to save these professional musicians and composers during the late 1930s. Apparently not. The Musicians’ Union of Australia felt it was hard enough to find full-time work for “real” Australian citizens and applied pressure to the Immigration Department to turn foreign musicians away from our shores or put them in non-musical jobs.
The idiocy of making a truly gifted violinist become a shoe-maker must have seemed breath-taking. If a musician wanted citizenship in Australia in 1939, he was well advised to say he was a factory worker or farmer. Most did.
Spivakovsky-Kurtz Trio c1936, published in The Australian.