Iris Zeng looks at exiled German composers from the Nazi era

When we think of wartime music, popular songs such as The White Cliffs of Dover and Do your balls (ears in the sanitised version) hang low? come to mind. Between WWI and WWII, patriotic anthems, classical music, swing, and jazz, sounded in the music halls, muddy trenches, and later,
radio broadcasts.

Like war poems, music evoked various sensibilities; some served to lift spirits and boost morale, as in Elgar’s setting of Rudyard Kipling’s The Fringes of the Fleet, while others reflected the tragedy of war or commemorated the fallen, such as Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony No.7.

During WWII, under the Nazi regime, music was strictly controlled and censored. The Nazi government was determined to promote Germanic culture and music, and spread propaganda messages via radio. Only certain ‘proper’ German and Austrian classical composers were allowed – the three grand masters being Beethoven, Wagner, and Bruckner – while Entartete Musik (‘degenerate music’) was heavily suppressed. Atonal music, jazz, which was deemed ‘Negroid’, and works by Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Arnold Schoenberg were banned.

Our Sunday Special program German music between the wars, features music by composers who lived and worked in Germany and Austria between World War I and World War II. Many of these composers were soldiers in the first world war; some went into exile, including Erich Korngold, Paul Hindemith, and Kurt Weill.

Labelled an ‘atonal noisemaker’ by Goebbels, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was one of many composers who fled the Third Reich due to both musical and racial persecution, as his wife was part Jewish. By 1937, Hindemith’s music was virtually banned in Hitler’s Germany, during which time he wrote one of his most powerful orchestral scores: Symphonic Dances, whose Scherzo movement mirrors mechanized warfare with its contrapuntal energy. Hindemith led the Gebrauchsmusik (‘utility music’) movement, writing scores that had a social or political purpose, and intended for the amateur player rather than virtuoso.

Another German composer influenced by Hindemith and Gebrauchsmusik was Kurt Weill (1900-1950). Between the wars, the Berlin cabaret and theatre scene was famed for its extravagance and decadence. Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) was a satirical play about the London underworld in the 1920s, written by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill. Based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, it follows notorious criminal and womanizer Macheath (Mack the Knife), who marries Polly Peachum. Displeased, her father plots to hang Mack. The music draws from jazz and German dance music. Famous songs from this piece of music theatre included the Ballad of Mack the Knife, which features in Sunday’s program. Mack the Knife became a hit all around the world, and has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Sting, amongst others, transcending the horrors of war.

Sunday Special program German Music Between the Wars, Sunday November 26 at 3pm