Composers of the Nazi Era

Like most other Germans during the Nazi period, composers faced three prospects: exile, some degree of accommodation, or (particularly if they were non-Aryans) death. In his study of German music during this dark period, Michael H. Kater recounts the lives of eight representative composers, examining in detail their responses to the Nazi agenda of creating a purely “German” music, free of “degenerate” influences.

Few of the figures Kater deals with appear in a complimentary light; only the little-known Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Jewish emigres Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg emerge unscathed. Richard Strauss, clearly the most important of the eight, is shown as behaving somewhat more creditably than other biographies have suggested. The absurdly egotistical anti-Semite Hans Pfitzner is totally discredited, while Carl Orff (famous for his still-popular Carmina Burana, 1937) is revealed as callously self-absorbed, glad to advance his career by whatever means necessary and intent on fabricating a new personal history after the war. Orff’s colleague and sometime friend Werner Egk seems to have been equally opportunistic. Even Paul Hindemith, who spent the period in the United States, turns out to have been a reluctant emigre who might never have left Germany had his genius been officially recognized.

Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits completes a trilogy of works that includes Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (1992) and The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich (1997). Kater is so anxious to share his massive body of original research that he runs the risk of losing his readers in parenthetical asides and details. However, no one interested in the history of music in the twentieth century will be able to ignore his work.