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  • A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Cultural League by Lily E. Hirsch
  • Pamela Potter
A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Cultural League, Lily E. Hirsch (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), x + 258 pp., hardcover $75.00, paperback $30.00, electronic version available.

The Jewish Culture League (Jüdischer Kulturbund) stands out as one of the most perplexing paradoxes of the early years of the Third Reich. In the midst of an aggressive campaign to exclude Jews from participating in public cultural activities, this government-sponsored organization allowed Jews to carry on a rich and varied [End Page 113] program of such activities for their co-religionists. Historians have long pondered the motives of Nazi administrators in sanctioning these programs but thus far have been able to offer little more than speculation: Was it an insidious duping of the Jewish population into a sense of complacency, a pragmatic measure to alleviate the spike in the numbers of unemployed Jewish artists, or simply an antidote to rising international criticism about Germany’s treatment of its Jewish citizens? In her study of the musical politics of the League, Lily Hirsch reminds us once more of this puzzle.

In her introduction, Hirsch revisits the historical conundrum of the Culture League, devoting considerable space to tracing the history of Jewish activity in German musical life since the Emancipation. She briefly introduces the key individuals in the formation of the League: Jewish musicians Kurt Singer and Hans Baumann, and their Nazi partner Hans Hinkel. A member of Alfred Rosenberg’s circle, Hinkel later served other, more influential power-brokers of Nazi cultural administration. In the first chapter (“Why the League?”), we are introduced to other prominent Jewish musicians and the early operations of the League. Hirsch also alerts us to the many paradoxes the League poses and speculates about its function (including comparisons to the functions of concentration camps and ghettos). Most important, this chapter sets the stage for what will be the central focus of the rest of the study: the League’s challenge to find an appropriate repertoire, and the contradictions this search revealed about German Jews and their sense of kinship with German culture.

The vexing question of the role of music in German-Jewish cultural identity becomes the central theme of the remaining chapters. In chapter two, “What Is Jewish Music? The League and the Dilemmas of Musical Identity,” Hirsch sheds light on schisms within the Jewish community—especially those arising from Zionist critiques—over the League’s purpose. She provides a detailed overview of the well-known controversy over Jewish music. That debate, which arose at the League’s national conference in 1936, highlighted German Jews’ ambivalence toward their Jewish identity—an uncertainty manifested in their lack of connection with traditional Jewish music. The following chapters look more closely at the programming of “Jewish” and “German” music respectively: in chapter three, Hirsch points to efforts to expand the “Jewish” repertoire by gleaning any available art music with Jewish themes and by including art music with a non-German national flavor (Czech, Hungarian, Russian, and others). She notes the glaring omission of German Jewish exile composers Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg, as well as the privileging of Ernest Bloch. With regard to “German” repertoire, Hirsch discusses in chapter four the safety of performing German art song in private settings as a way of surreptitiously cultivating German identity. The discovery of Schubert’s settings of Old Testament and even Hebrew liturgical texts provided a means of satisfying the requirement for “Jewish” repertoire, but the composer’s own reception as an “outsider” presumably gave Jews an additional point of affinity with him. Chapter five revisits the Nazi [End Page 114] debates over Handel’s suitability in the Third Reich, owing to his troubling use of Old Testament sources in his oratorios, and the opportunity this ambiguity afforded the League to maintain access to these works. Verdi, too, was fair game, because as a foreign composer his works were not restricted by the authorities. Hirsch takes a closer look at the enthusiastic reception of the League’s performances of...


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pp. 113-115
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