- - Monday, December 26, 2016


By Fritz Trumpl

University of Chicago Press, $50, 344 pages, illustrated

No one can say that the topic of classical music and its practitioners in Nazi Germany has gone unexamined. If by its very nature, a totalitarian society subsumes into the state all aspects of national culture along with everything else, music was a special case, given Hitler’s keen — to put it mildly — interest in music. There have been many works — articles, books, even plays — examining how various institutions and personalities behaved during those shameful years.

But this book by Fritz Trumpl, an assistant professor of music history at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna is something quite different from any others I have read. Certainly it is replete with detail about the subordination of music to the iron maiden of Nazi ideology and disgraceful dismissal of Jewish musicians from the positions in the two fine orchestras at the heart of his study. But Mr. Trumpl digs deep to show that this was possible because of a trend that began long before Hitler.

The rivalry between the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics — indubitably, from a musical standpoint, orchestral pinnacles in Europe and perhaps globally — began as nationalistic competition when they represented the two great Germanophone Empires in whose capitals they were located. The patriotic fervor associated with World War I understandably enlarged and invigorated this process, but what is remarkable is the extent to which it continued under the democratic regimes in Germany and Austria in the interregnum between empire and totalitarianism. Mr. Trumpl quotes that sage, Theodor Adorno:

“It was not, as is usually assumed, the pressure exerted by the National Socialist terror that brought regression, neutralization, and a funereal silence to the arts, for these phenomena had already taken shape in the Weimar Republic, and in liberal continental society generally.”

His own exhaustive examinations of the two orchestra’s writhing accommodation to the state in all its varied forms shows that their conduct during the Third Reich had deep roots in the preceding eras, as the notion of nationalistic music vied with and resisted the forces of Modernism.

Which is not to imply in any way that this book minimizes the iniquities visited upon the Jewish players in both orchestras, not merely their abrupt dismissals without regard to merit but only race as defined by the Nazis but also the all too often dire fate awaiting them personally. But he shows that orchestras became just another institution dictated to by the state which imposed its strictures across the board.

Unlike many writers who have become bogged down in futile debates about actions taken by individual conductors and administrators during the Third Reich, Mr. Trumpl, while giving due attention to such already well-documented figures like Wilhelm Furtwangler, concentrates on the larger picture. For in a regime as obsessed with its version of Germanic culture as the Third Reich, Nazi Party figures at the top, like Joseph Goebbels in Berlin and Baldur von Schirach in Vienna, set the tone and established the overall parameters, while individual “commissarial leaders” within the orchestras attended to the nuts and bolts involved in running them. It is, as always, fascinating to see how much the totalitarian regimes of mid-20th century Europe had in common: Soviet commissars were not alone in reaching deep down into every aspect of national culture.

It is sad to note that the individual characteristics that managed to survive were all too often negative ones, like the rivalry between the two great orchestras which, since the Anschluss had incorporated Austria as a part of the German Reich, found themselves vying for the national primacy each had previously enjoyed. Of course, they maintained their longstanding individual qualities, like the magisterial Berlin or lighter Vienna sounds, but given Goebbels’ exalted place in the Nazi pecking order, it was inevitable that the Berlin Philharmonic would emerge victorious, the capital’s band inevitably being the national standard bearer.

Lest readers think that all these nationalist effects on German music are a thing of the past, Mr. Trumpl brings us up short by telling us that it can still make stormy waves in the 21st century:

“In 2006 a hot debate erupted over the “German sound” of the Berlin Philharmonic, which emerged from a polemic against the principal conductor of the orchestra, Simon Rattle, from Great Britain. The journalist Axel Bruggemann, who initiated the polemic, stated that under Rattle’s baton the orchestra had lost its ‘soul-seeking romantic sound’; now, he averred, other ensembles could play in black, red, and gold better’ [the colors of today’s German flag] than the Berlin Philharmonic.”

Of course, in a free society, it is easy to defend such robust nationalistic effusions. But Mr. Trumpl’s highly informed study of the nefarious flowerings in other times, under different ruling passions, of just such attitudes makes his book not just an enlightening look at the subtleties of past history, but a cautionary tale for our present — and our future.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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