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The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America

The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America
By Melissa D. Burrage
University of Rochester Press, 315 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Fans of Classical music like to think that music can transcend politics. After all, music is the language of beauty that crosses borders and cultures—and most often this is true. Sadly, Classical music can be a creature of politics as well, as Melissa Burrage reveals in her absorbing history The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America.

In 1906, German conductor Karl Muck was at the height of his powers. Lured to the Boston Symphony Orchestra by financier Henry Lee Higginson, Muck quickly became ensconced in Boston high society. Muck was extraordinarily popular and became the face of Classical music in Boston, a city which was home to a large German-American community. He was also the most accomplished conductor in the New World at the time.

Things began to turn badly for Muck during World War I as America became more and more involved in the European conflict. Pro-Germanic feeling gave way to near-fanatical hatred of everything German as the US government ramped up its war effort. In the popular press, socialite Lucie Jay led the anti-German charge against Muck from her perch on the Board of Directors of the New York Philharmonic. Jay seemed to have patriotic apprehensions regarding enemy aliens and objected to Muck’s preference for German music and German musicians in his orchestra. However, Burrage shows how Jay really wished to damage the Philharmonic’s closest competitor by taking out its star conductor. She also owned stock in shipping lines which profited enormously from the uptick in immigration at the time. Higginson was a famous immigration restrictionist whose contacts in the U.S. Senate made him a voice to be reckoned with on the national stage. Jay could only benefit from his and Muck’s downfall.

Popular opinion turned against Muck in 1917 in a striking example of yellow journalism and scandal-mongering from the press. Higginson received many requests to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a concert and decided against it without telling Muck. An unscrupulous journalist later accused Muck of intentionally leaving out the future national anthem because of his support for Germany. Despite being a falsehood, the story took a life of its own and damaged Muck’s career and reputation almost beyond repair.

Still, the authorities could not arrest Muck until unconstitutional breaches of his privacy, egged on by Jay and undertaken by a young J. Edgar Hoover, revealed a humiliating scandal of a personal nature. This resulted in Muck’s internment and ultimate deportation after the war. That Muck ultimately became lionized by the Nazis in Germany and helped implement their anti-Semitic policies during the 1930s only provides a sad ending to this sad story evocatively told by Melissa Burrage.

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

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