Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis

Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis
By Michael Haas
Yale University Press; 306 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German Classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

Of course, Richard Wagner plays the heavy early on. The nineteenth-century opera giant’s anti-Semitism is well known, and Haas describes Wagner’s impact not only on Jewish composers of his day, like Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ignaz Moscheles, but also on those of the twentieth century. Offsetting this was Johannes Brahms, who embraced emancipation and did what he could for rising Jewish star Gustav Mahler.

By the start of the twentieth century, no composer epitomized the fully assimilated Jewish composer more than Mahler. It was from his shadow that many young Jewish composers spent their careers escaping. These were Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky, Hans Gál, Ernst Toch, and many, many others. Indeed, the extent to which Jews dominated German music in the early 20th century is astounding…not only as composers, conductors, and musicians, but also as publishers, impresarios, and librettists. They dominated the music-savvy public as well.

Contrary to stereotypes, these men were no followers of Arnold Schoenberg. They were modern yet tonal, and were keen not to indulge in the heady excesses of Romanticism. At the same time, they struggled to remain sufficiently “German” and contribute to a cultural heritage they felt was theirs as much as anyone’s. Some of them were also immensely popular.

Of course, the Nazis took a cudgel to all this. It was brutal and swift. We all know what happened. Only, we don’t. Haas walks us through the messy and untold aftermath of the Holocaust and the war from a musical perspective—the desperate escapes, the grinding refugee life, the depression, and the sorrow. He tells of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the “model” concentration camp, which held geniuses like Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein before they were killed. He tells of brilliant musical minds churning out schmaltzy Hollywood scores for steady pay. He tells of great careers ruined by indifference abroad or by a postwar Europe that had no interest in reliving the past.

But if these composers are so brilliant, why are they virtually forgotten today? Haas offers a blunt and chilling response: because most of their public had been murdered. This is a hideous wrong he tries to set right with his excellent book Forbidden Music.

This book review appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

See all our book reviews.