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Music Banned By Nazis Survives, Flourishes

  • Lonny Shavelson

Art will find a way to flower, despite official government efforts to distort, denigrate or destroy it. Lonny Shavelson brings us the story of music that was banned by the Nazis 60 years ago but enjoys a resurgence of interest today.

Balmy summer evenings are perfect for taking in a concert under the stars, and communities all across the United States host summer music series. Music in the Vineyards takes place in an idyllic setting, a luxurious winery in California's Napa Valley. But the focus of this evening's concert is less than idyllic. The musicians are performing music banned by the Nazis.

Their first piece is String Quartet no. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff. The Czech composer began his career in the period between the First and Second World Wars.

Michael Adams, artistic director of the Music in the Vineyards Festival, says Schulhoff is not a familiar name today, but he was then. "Dvorak discovered him as a boy wonder in Prague and he got first-rate musical education with the best teachers."

Schulhoff loved jazz and the avant garde, and even set the Communist Manifesto to music. "Now in hindsight," Adams observes, "as a Jew living in Nazi Germany, declaring you were a communist was probably not a good idea. But up to then Schulhoff had been a really big deal all over Germany as a composer and pianist. And he was officially labeled a degenerate musician."

Degenerate art banned in Nazi Germany

The title of this evening's concert is Degenerates. That's what the Nazis called art they deemed decadent or subversive – especially works by Jewish artists. Albrecht Deumling, a Berlin-based expert on degenerate music, says the Nazis had very narrow musical tastes. They favored Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. "They said it's good enough to perform these excellent composers, and not to introduce the more controversial." Controversial included anything new and non-German. And of course, anything composed by Jews.

Deumling says many Jewish musicians fled Nazi Germany, though not all. "Some of the musicians wanted to stay on, and in the end they were transported to places like Terezin or even Auschwitz," he says. Erwin Schulhoff stayed; he died in the Wulzberg concentration camp in 1942.

Musicians who fled Germany flourished on world stage

Concert organizer Michael Adams points out that, in a sense, German suppression of what they called degenerate music scattered the seeds of innovation to flower elsewhere. For instance, Kurt Weill, whose work is also featured in the concert, left Germany in the 1930s and eventually wound up in the United States.

Weill's best-known work, The Threepenny Opera, was written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht while both men lived in Berlin. The poet and playwright, a member of the Communist party, also fled Germany when the Nazis came to power.

The Threepenny Opera became a huge success, translated into 18 languages. The tune "Mack the Knife," which opens the musical, became one of the most popular songs of the 20th century.Adams says the show struck a cord with American audiences. "Its biting political commentary combined with the sounds of 1920s Berlin – dance bands and dance halls and cabaret music- created the kind of musical theater that paved the way for things we know now, like Cabaret."

Ironically, Albrecht Deumling, Berlin's expert on degenerate music, thinks there's too much focus on the Nazi suppression of works by Erwin Schulhoff and his contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler. He thinks people should appreciate their compositions for what they are: good music.