Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler's Reich

By Riethmuller, Albrecht | Shofar, April 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler's Reich


Riethmuller, Albrecht, Shofar


Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler's Reich

Half a century after the end or World War II, Pamela Potter has offered the first full-length study of German musicology during the Third Reich. Her pioneering contribution, based on her doctoral dissertation at Yale University, breaks through the intense public silence surrounding this topic. For decades, most channels of information were padded with rumor and gossip. None of the colleagues who lived during the time in question -- whether they were born before or after World War I, whether German, non-German, or émigré scholars -- undertook to reflect publicly upon their discipline's involvement under Hitler's rule.

The author explicitly states that her intention was not to offer a general history of musicology from 1918 to 1945 or to list the accomplishments of individual musicologists in the field, but rather to "provide a glimpse into musicologists' actions and preoccupations in light of economic, political, and social developments during one of Germany's most tumultuous periods" (p. xv). Aspects considered are outlined in eight chapters, including academic personnel, institutions (universities and other research organizations), methodology, and topics dealt with by musicologists. Special emphasis is given to questions relevant at that time, such as racial research in music (musikalische Rassenkunde), how musicologists were engaged in the SS-"Ahnenerbe," the Rosenberg Bureau and his "Sonderstab Musik," how the composer Georg Friedrich Handel was viewed, and the then rabid quest for "Germanness" in music, which, after all, may be regarded as a variation on the racial theme.

Nazi ideology could profit from the enormous and world-wide prestige of "German music"; music, and therefore musicology, had many offerings of thanksgiving from a rich harvest to bring to the Reich's altar. In spite of the strong impact music by German composers had on German culture, it proved to be more difficult to establish musicology as an equally respected discipline within universities than in the comparable case of art history. In general, the Nazi period helped the still young and modest academic discipline of the twenties to prosper (p. 87: "the overall financial and organizational backing it [the Nazi regime] offered to the field far exceeded support from prior administrations"). That music was "the most German of the arts" gradually became a common belief among German musicians, audiences, and musicologists and coincided with the increasing nationalism in Europe since the mid-nineteenth century. Nazi ideology easily employed and exploited this trademark. Likewise, German society felt comfortable with a solely German-centered ideology.

As with many other academic disciplines, the forced exodus of German Jewish scholars strengthened the field of musicology elsewhere, particularly in North America. After World War II some émigré scholars, especially those having ties to socialism or communism, returned to East Germany. None of them, it appears, reinstated themselves in West Germany. Was this due to an aging generation or to a general unwillingness to return? In any case, there were apparently no efforts made on the part of Germany to get them back. When major academic positions between 1945 and 1960 opened up, those who had remained in Germany were appointed, and neither the concept of reeducation nor the idea of change was embraced within the discipline. Instead of an "ideological conversion," only "symbolic gestures of purging German musicology of National Socialist thought or initiative" were made (p. 256). This is Potter's main conclusion: Musicology slipped into the Third Reich and slipped out of it again without deeper changes to its face. …

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