Should a composer’s anti-Semitism influence the way we listen to their music?

Maria PrinzMon 30th September 2013
The 20th century Concerto GrossoThe 20th century Concerto Grosso

Pianist Maria Prinz introduces the new Chandos album featuring music by a two persecuted composers and an anti-Semite

This new recording is the result of an idea which came to me in December 2011, followed by many months of planning. ‘The 20th century Concerto Grosso’, contains concertos by Erwin Schulhoff (Concerto doppio for flute, piano, string orchestra and two horns, 1927), Ernst Krenek (Concertino for flute, violin, piano, and string orchestra, 1924) and Vincent d'Indy (Concert for piano, flute, and cello, with string orchestra, 1926). I must be honest: the choice of repertoire was motivated by purely musical reasons, namely, I wanted to record pieces for flute, piano and orchestra. There are not so many possibilities for this constellation, but these three concertos musically made perfect sense. All of them are in Concerto Grosso style and all were composed almost simultaneously (1924-1927).


There was though an important ideological motivation too. Schulhoff and Krenek were both composers who were persecuted by the National Socialists. Schulhoff was Jewish, Krenek was not (but was frequently branded a Jewish composer by the Third Reich), and both were considered creators of ‘degenerate art’. It is hard to believe that Krenek’s concerto in particular was very rarely performed and has not been recorded until now.


The third concerto, by Vincent D’Indy, fits perfectly in the musical logic of this CD, but the composer’s biography and his ideological and political beliefs were the opposite of those of Schulhoff and Krenek. In fact, I was quite shocked when I started to research D’Indy’s life and ideology.


D’Indy, who in his earlier years was enthusiastic about the operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer, later became an admirer and devotee of Richard Wagner (he was not alone in his admiration; many French composers like Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Chabrier were taken with Wagner’s music) and went as far as to embrace Wagner’s anti-Semitic views. He published an anti-Semitic tract on Wagner’s influence on French music in 1930. Most of his theories are based on Wagner’s article ‘Judaism in Music’ and are full of the most disgusting anti-Semitic defamations. In the Dreyfus case D’Indy clearly took an anti-Dreyfus position and damaged his relationship with Albéric Magnard and other composers, who admired D’Indy’s music but not his political ideas. Paul Dukas (a Jew) was one of the most ardent admirers of D’Indy’s music.


So, when programming this CD, I had to ask myself: is it morally acceptable to put d’Indy’s Concert alongside works by Krenek and Schulhoff? But one could equally ask: is it morally acceptable to play Wagner? What a question in the Wagner Year!


First of all, I think that we have to acknowledge, that there is – alas – no correlation between musical genius and qualities of a composer’s character. There are too many examples of discrepancy between human virtues and musical potency, Wagner is one of the most obvious. But there was no discussion about the musical importance and influence of Wagner’s music for the generations that immediately followed him, even Schoenberg and Zemlinsky would have been very different without Wagner’s musical influence. Not to mention the fact that Toscanini (the conductor, who said: ‘It is my duty to fight for the cause of artists persecuted by Nazis’) performed in 1938 (at the first Lucerne festival) Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll at the very place where the piece was created. And at this time Toscanini had already refused to perform in Hitler’s Germany and especially at Bayreuth.


In this context, I found Michel Kater’s book Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (OUP) very informative. He writes about eight composers (Werner Egk, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Carl Orff, Hans Pfitzner, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss) and traces their different ideological attitudes and destinies, concluding that the ‘often contradictory patchwork-quilt of evidence’ makes it impossible to describe any character as fully guilty or fully innocent.


My personal opinion is that, although as performers we should keep personality of the composer in mind, we shouldn’t ever go so far as to make lists of works by composers with hideous ideologies and stop performing and recording them. This would be to imitate the approach of totalitarian regimes!


In 2001, Daniel Barenboim gave an interview about Wagner in which he said: ‘Wagner was an anti-Semite, but his music wasn’t…The music is not ideological.’ If this is true of Wagner, it surely is also true of d’Indy.


Barenboim, himself Jewish, has performed Wagner in Israel, and if it was not an easy decision for him, he had his reasons and his convictions – and the right to undertake the performance.


Finally, in full knowledge that there are ideological issues, I think that the quality of the music – which is high – and the opportunity – which is rare – to present three different 20th-century approaches to a popular Baroque musical genre, was sufficient reason to bring our recording project to fruition.

'The 20th century Concerto Grosso' (Chandos CHAN10791) is out now. Click here to buy the recording from Amazon.

Maria Prinz's picture

Maria Prinz

Maria Prinz has performed with leading orchestras throughout Europe, including several performances with the Vienna Philharmonic, collaborating with renowned conductors Riccardo Muti at the Salzburg Festival and Seiji Ozawa in Vienna, and with Neville Marriner in Bulgaria. As a recitalist, she has appeared in the United States, throughout Europe and in Japan. In addition to her performing career, she has taught at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna since 1987.

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