The Third Reich wanted to stamp out Judaism in music. The problem, writes the scholar Michael Haas in his new book “Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis,” was figuring out what that meant. Was Jewish music old, reactionary, tradition-bound, unable to be creative? Or was it new, offensive to the senses, avant-garde? The Nazis thought of themselves as forward-looking, but their artistic tastes were anything but progressive. They ended up sanctioning a lot of safe and since-forgotten music by party members, and tarring most of the rest with the brush of “degeneracy.”
Years have passed since the nightmare, but labeling music is still a thorny and controversial topic. Today, there are many and various ongoing efforts to return so-called “degenerate” music to the canon. What’s controversial is how to define this music. The term “Holocaust music” signals the general theme to people who might not know what “degenerate music” is. But in working to revive or remember art under such a sensational and clumsy rubric risks diminishing composers’ artistic achievement in favor of their historical importance: privileging artifact over art.
“By labeling certain works of art as ‘Holocaust music,’ ” wrote James Loeffler, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, in the online magazine Tablet earlier this month, “we risk creating a genre that turns the details of history and the complex meanings of music into one saccharine lesson in universalist tolerance. . . . The true heresy is to turn Jewish composers into shadow images defined only by their status as Hitler’s victims.”
For several decades, a number of musicians and musicologists have increasingly devoted themselves to the forgotten music of the Third Reich. The conductor James Conlon has started a foundation and led a number of operas from the early 20th century by composers who were later banned: Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker. The Italian pianist and musicologist Francesco Lotoro has made it his life’s work to track down every piece of music he can find that was written in a camp. The heirs of Franz Gál, who fled to the British Isles but never achieved the level of prominence there that he had enjoyed in Germany and Austria, simply want his music to be heard. Bret Werb, the music curator of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, focuses on popular songs: work songs, bitingly satirical cabaret numbers. “These songs from the ghettos and camps,” he says, “that is Holocaust music.”
And many performers, including the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, have at least dipped a toe into the repertoire from the bizarre “show camp” Terezin (or Theresienstadt), where some leading musicians were incarcerated and encouraged to create, in part to demonstrate to the world that the camps really weren’t so bad after all. (Many of them were later gassed at Auschwitz.)
So the music has been making its way in the world. But branding it is difficult. As a result, many audiencesfeel that what they are seeing represents a unique foray into a wholly forgotten realm.