The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich

By Evans, Joan | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich


Evans, Joan, Canadian University Music Review


Michael H. Kater. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. xv, 327 pp. ISBN 0-19509620-7 (hardcover).

Musical life in Nazi Germany has attracted growing attention ever since Fred K. Prieberg's pioneering study of 1982 surveyed the dubious record of German musicians during the Nazi period.1 Within the last few years a number of full-length studies have contributed to our growing understanding of this previously dark corner of music history.2

Michael H. Kater is a distinguished social historian with a broad knowledge of the workings of Nazi society. He has written authoritative books on the SS, the social make-up of the Nazi party, and the medical profession under Hitler. After first training his sights on Nazi Germany's musical life in Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), Kater has turned his attention to concert music. In The Twisted Muse he has drawn extensively on archival sources, contemporary publications, and personal interviews to create a richly documented account of musical life in the Third Reich. (Kater's forthcoming Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits will complete his trilogy on musicians in Nazi Germany.)

The Twisted Muse, a vivid account of the activities of Germany's musicians, reveals much that is new and thought-provoking. Choosing his case studies to illustrate a broad spectrum of the country's musical life, Kater not only examines the careers of celebrated composers, conductors, instrumentalists, and singers, but also those of orchestral musicians, church organists, and music teachers. Kater avoids the easy categories of heroes and villains; his portraits are painted in shades of grey. He argues that to pursue an artistic career in Nazi Germany meant accommodating oneself, to a greater or lesser extent, to the demands of the regime. Karl Böhm, for example, occasionally performed "politically daring" repertoire (p. 64), worked with progressives such as the stage designer Caspar Neher (a former associate of Bertolt Brecht), and supported the composer Boris Blacher, who was racially suspect. Yet Böhm is on record as having praised the cultural aims of the regime. Some musicians attempted to circumvent onerous obligations, while others applied themselves assiduously to playing according to the new rules. But all, Kater maintains, compromised their artistic integrity, emerging in 1945 as "gray people against a landscape of gray" (p. 6).

One of the insights to emerge most clearly from Kater' s study is the speed with which most musicians adjusted themselves to the new realities after January 1933. The authorities, fully cognisant of the importance of music, were nonetheless aware of the impracticality of attempting to exercise rigid centralized controls over the vast panorama of Germany's musical activities. Instead, the day-to-day workings of the country's musical life were left largely in the hands of its leading practitioners. Music was thus allowed much more autonomy than were the other arts, especially those such as film, for example, which could be more easily harnessed for propaganda purposes. That this self-regulatory approach proved to be successful was largely due to the cooperation of Germany' s musicians. Great and small, they proved more than willing to enlist their art in the service of the new Germany.

Very few Gentile musicians were sufficiently motivated to leave Nazi Germany (a situation that obtained in the general population as well). Thus most of the German or Austrian musicians who emigrated to the United States, for example, were Jewish. Kater follows a number of leading Jewish musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Otto Klemperer, and Bruno Walter into exile, examining the various factors that affected their adjustment to life in a foreign land. As for the non-Jewish emigres, Kater calls for a closer look at the circumstances surrounding their departure.

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