- Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis by Michael Haas
Recent years have seen a proliferation of literature on the fate of music under National Socialism, some of it noteworthy (if arcane), some of it self-serving or sensationalistic. I am pleased to report that Michael Haas’s effort is an outstanding contribution to the genre: it is superbly researched and organized, filled with original insights, and written with eloquence and real passion.
Forbidden Music emerged from Haas’s long career in the classical music industry, particularly from his work as the driving force behind the ambitious “Entartete [End Page 154] Musik” project, a series of recordings of pieces by composers branded “degenerate” by the Nazis. Some of the book’s appeal surely owes to this back story—its mildly exploitative title, for example, echoing that of the CD series. Haas has, however, reworked his “Entartete Musik” findings (and subsequent research for exhibitions at Vienna’s Jewish Museum) into a detailed portrait of a “lost generation” of composers and the cultural milieu that nurtured its rise and brought about its downfall.
That milieu, for Haas, was Austro-German. Each of the figures singled out for broad treatment in this study was born and schooled in the Austro-Hungarian or the German Empire, and each made his reputation in Vienna, Berlin, or other Germanic municipalities. Many were scarcely cognizant of an ancestral Jewish heritage, but all were Jews according to the Nuremberg Race Laws. Their names remain largely unfamiliar outside the world of music scholarship: Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942), Franz Schreker (1878–1934), Karl Weigl (1881–1949), Walter Braunfels (1882–1954), Egon Wellesz (1885–1974), Ernst Toch (1887–1964), Hans Gál (1890–1987), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), and Hanns Eisler (1898–1962). (Haas also devotes space to better known Austro-German-Jewish composers Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill.)
The book’s opening chapters contextualize this core group of composers with an overview of Jewish participation in Austrian and German artistic movements from the Enlightenment through the first decades of the twentieth century. This is no potted history but a rich and illuminating retelling that calls on Heine’s poetry, Mendelssohn’s musical antiquarianism, and Wagner’s letters and polemical writings to address the Jewish cultural presence in Germanic domains, as well as the nationalist and antisemitic backlash this presence provoked. Haas also integrates extensive passages from the era’s spirited music journalism into his narrative, incidentally providing some of the book’s greatest pleasures. If the anti-Wagnerian tastemaker Eduard Hanslick comes acrossasa prig in these pages, his fellow-correspondents Julius Korngold and Paul Bekker shine in Haas’s fluent and stylish translations. Indeed, the quotable Korngold, father of the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and lead critic for Vienna’s paper of record, the Neue Freie Presse, emerges as an improbable hero of Forbidden Music. Haas has done his readers a service in rescuing the writings of Korngold Sr. and colleagues from the newspaper morgue; I would hope to see more of them appear in English.
Subsequent sections take up each composer in turn while carrying the story forward in time. In contrast to similar efforts, such as Michael H. Kater’s Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (2000), Haas does not allot his subjects separate chapters but rather weaves their biographies into chapter-length evocations of their cultural and political surroundings. He places Mahler, for instance, in a liberalized Imperial capital with an assimilating Jewish middle class whose members attended salons, patronized Secessionist artists, and devotedly followed their favorite feuilletonists in the (Jewish-owned) Neue Freie Presse. The backdrop for the post-Mahler generation of Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Weigl, and Schreker, on the other hand, is a Vienna [End Page 155] transitioning from Jugendstil aesthetics to harsher, modernist ideals, contending with strident antisemitism, and on the verge of war, defeat, and irrelevancy.
Haas is especially good at connecting the arts, which in this Austro-German context encompass philosophy and...