Contemporary music and fascism

Hanns Eisler, Typescript for lecture, c. 1944.

See background notes by G Mayer and list of Eisler’s writings in English.

Taken from Hanns Eisler – Musik und Politik – Schriften 1924-1948, ed. Günter Mayer
(1973: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig), pp. 489-493. © Stephanie Eisler.

Page turns in the 1973 edition are inserted here according to the principle that |411-2| means the change from page 411 to 412.

Home page at this website (Philip Tagg, Liverpool) Home
Access to texts by P Tagg and other authors Online Texts


Before the war it was not unusual to hear people of many sorts, (particularly of the so-called professional or intellectual type) express their admiration for the successes of fascism or for the personalities of their leaders. Perhaps, they said, fascism has really brought a new idea to the world. They have found a new solution for the social crisis that dominates our time.

Success always has a certain fascination.

Today, the total bankruptcy of fascism is recognized by everyone as the biggest flop in history. German anti-fascists have always declared that fascism had nothing new to offer, neither new ideas nor even the intention to find such ideas — that it was nothing more than good, old-fashioned barbaric |489-90| reaction — a more forceful and efficient suppression of the people than ever before invented — made more efficient by borrowing and stealing from all sides, digesting and adapting everything to their totalitarian purpose.

We musicians are apt to consider our art as something a little apart from life and its crises. But on the other hand music is extremely sensitiv to all social trends. When fascism first touched German music, German musicians found it difficult to understand this contradiction. If Flaubert for instance could write and publish L’éducation sentimentale under Napoleon III1 why couldn’t a modern German composer continue to write chamber-music under Hitler?

There is a reason: fascism, more organized and brutal than everything Napoleon III could imagine, cannot afford even the slightest dissonance in their artificial harmony — or a breath of opposition even in the most abstract and remote arts and sciences. Everything is controlled. Physics, mathematics, even the art of landscape or still-life painting are observed as being potentially dangerous.

What does fascism require of a musician? Nothing and everything! First of all, preserve the musicial traditions of the past. Good performances of classical music, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart continued. There was even an attempt to continue the Weimar Republic’s programme of `bringing good music to the masses’. On the other hand there was an energetic encouragement of the folk music movements. It was in folk music that they hoped to find an attractive substitute for the dominance of American jazz in the entertainment, field songs, dances, operettas, etc. Perhaps the clearest way to understand all these problems is to imagine yourself as a modern composer trying to survive fascism. What must you do? If you are young you have to find your own way after you have digested the innovations of Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók. But before you begin, fascism stops you. The music of these three modern masters has been labelled as Kultur-Bolschewistisch, degenerate. Their works are forbidden and if you follow them you will find yourself in a dangerous position. What does fascism have against these three masters? And why especially against Schönberg, the most hated of these? Schönberg’s music reflects the complexity and crisis of our times. If I may say so, he expressed long before the invention of the airplane the fear that one experiences in an air-raid shelter under bombardment. Everything fought for by the Nazis — enthusiasm for their |490-1| imperialistic goals, devotion to their leader, conformity to their way of life — all this is challenged by the work of Schönberg. The loneliness, despair, torment expressed by Schönberg, as modern society confronts him, are unacceptable to the nazis. In 1942 Herr Goebbels reafirmed the rules which the state authorities laid down for the artists:

`No art for art’s sake, no individual choice of subject. The artist should express the newly risen spirit of the Reich, he must avoid psychological problems and depict the Nazi soldier-type, the worker, the city, the industry’.

According to such standards modern music became the enemy of fascism.

If you write modern music, you will have to follow certain rules. Go ahead, write it, but if you want it performed and to be supported by the Nazis, you must write an eclectic style, steering cautiously between Richard Strauss and certain moderate moderns. Has a school of modern German music come from this base? I am happy to report — no. And not for lack of talent! The majority of responsible modern German composers living in greater Germany prefer silence, writing and hiding their new works supporting themselves as conducters in provincial operahouses? Teachers, arrangers, etc.

When I was in Prague in 1937 I was visited by a young German composer who had sneaked over the border as a tourist to show me the score of his new opera, based on the events of the Thirty Years War. This extremely gifted work was written in a most advanced style so that aside from the revolutionary tendencies of the subject, the music itself, as Kultur-Bolschevismus, was unacceptable to the Nazis. When I proposed a Brussels performance of the overture alone, he was terrified.

`The Gestapo would ask me how I had not presented my score to the proper art authorities... And they have a most unpleasant manner of asking questions — even of musicians. So he prefered silence — waiting for better weather.2

Let me tell you another story: A young German refugee composer called Leibowitz was hidden and protected by the French underground during the German occupation of Paris.3 As a gesture of gratitude he rehearsed secretly (with five French musicians) one of the most modern works of Schönberg — the Quintet for Woodwinds.

The French musicians were most delighted to do this. All France was tired and disgusted with the endless mass-singing of the German soldiers, bellowing their folk and military |491-2| songs. This music of Schönberg expressed at least the feeling and suffering of a human being in difficult times. These are not unique cases.

Another aspect of modern music is the so called Gebrauchsmusik — a sort of departure from modernism by those composers who were left unsatisfied writing only for the concert hall, and wanted to bring music closer to real life, even declaring that music is obliged to serve a concrete purpose. In the famous festivals of Donau-Eschingen and Baden Baden, we experimented with the media of theatre, film, radio, music for bands, community singing, schoolchildren, short operas, etc. There were two tendencies in this field. The right wing interpreted their task as purely functional —any function was good enough — dentists’ congresses or folk festivals. The left wing had a more realistic interpretation of this new function in music — the closer relation of music to practical life. The value of this music was to be measured by its usefulness to the people in their struggle. And this struggle was the struggle against reaction and fascism.

This left wing of Gebrauchsmusik was naturally a very specific enemy that had to be annihilated by Hitler. The right-wing, however, with its programme of simplicity in music, flexibility for all purposes, was welcomed and assimilated. But in ten years, all this ideas of functional music boiled down to simple marching songs, so called workers songs and patriotic jingles. The popular composer had his difficulties too. Obviously all German popular music within the past twenty years borrowed or stole from American jazz. Even the grandpa of the Viennese operetta, Léhar, began to swing a little. The statements and decrees of the Nazi authorities, forbidding all jazz music as the product of lower and degenerate races broke like a thunderbolt over the amusement market.4 But there were two alternatives. You could color jazz with a fake folklore dress, or, as Hitler was a close friend of Franco and has some friends in the Argentine too, Latin rhythms were permitted. Heaven alone knows how many foxtrots were dressed as tangos and rumbas — no one had told Goebbels about the African origin of the rumba. So American jazz in sheep’s clothing, has survived in the Hitler-Regime.5

About folk music itself let me say only that the industrial revolution in Germany ended folk music a hundred and fifty years ago — and its so-called revival under Hitler is a purely |492-3| artificial and manufactured task and has nothing to do with the real tradition of folk music. This is a museum matter in modern Germany and not the basis for creation of new musical life.

In the field of music Hitler has met defeat as total as at Stalingrad. Not even successful Quislings have appeared in the ranks of modern German composers. It is refreshing, to report that in the years of crime and corruption in Germany, German music remained silent. No Hitler symphonies, no Goering operas, no Goebbels quartets, no Horst Wessel tone poems. Although money and power were offered as never before good music and honest musicians were and always will be arch-enemies of fascism.


1. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) completed his L’éducation sentimentale in 1869. Napoleon III (1808-1873), nephew of Napoleon Bonaprte I reigned from 1852.

2. Eisler is most probably referring to Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-63) and his chamber opera Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend which was composed in 1934-5 and first performed in Köln in 1949.

3. René Leibowitz (b. Warsaw, 1913) went with his parents to Paris in 1926. He studied composition, first in Berlin with Schönberg from 1930 to 1933, then with Anton Webern in Vienna.

4. At a meeting of radio directors [Radioindentanten] in 1935 it was decided that `Nigger jazz shall as of today be prohibited across the entire German radio network’ (evening edition of the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, 12 October 1935),

5. For a more precise account of popular music in fascist Germany, see Wicke (1985).