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When Classical Music Was an Alibi

Allied forces were keen to “clean up” the reputations of musicians whose talents they valued, and even aided some in gliding through the denazification process. On July 4, 1945, the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was asked to fill out a Fragebogen because she was on the Salzburg register of National Socialists in Austria. Had the form been deemed acceptable, the American military would have approved her return to the stage.

But when the American intelligence officer overseeing her case, Otto von Pasetti, realized that she had lied on the form, he destroyed it. The following day, she was asked to fill out another one. Although it was not any more accurate, Pasetti accepted it because Schwarzkopf’s status as a celebrity diva had convinced him that “no other suitable singer” was available for major operatic performances. Shortly thereafter, she climbed into a jeep driven by an American officer, Lieutenant Albert van Arden, and was driven 250 kilometers to Graz, Austria, to sing Konstanze in Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail.”

After 1945, then, career continuity was more the norm than the exception. Denazification status defined immediate employability but was only one factor in musicians’ prospects. Artists looking to resume their careers readily identified themselves as POWs, refugees, bombing victims, disabled soldiers and widows, many facing housing and food insecurity. Reference letters used postwar hardship as a justification for priority consideration or tried to explain how a person had been pulled into, as one put it, the “vortex” of Nazi politics. One baritone assured administrators that although he had been detained in a prison camp for several years, he still “had the opportunity to practice.”

These claims of hardship easily slid into narratives of victimhood. Bombed concert halls and opera houses in formerly Nazi territories were potent symbols of destruction and the necessity of rebuilding, but also enabled the focus to shift from Nazi atrocities to German suffering. At the opening of the rebuilt Vienna State Opera on Nov. 5, 1955, just months after Williams’s debut in “Butterfly,” the conductor Karl Böhm — who had led concerts celebrating Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 — was on the podium for the celebration. No Jewish survivors were invited to participate.

Performances amid the rubble reignited a sense of community and attempted to rehabilitate classical music as inherently humanistic, universal and uplifting after its supposed “corruption” by propagandistic use during the Nazi era. In “The German Catastrophe” (1946), the historian Friedrich Meinecke evoked the power of German music as a restorative force: “What is more individual and German than the great German music from Bach to Brahms?” For Meinecke, the country’s music was redemptive, expressing the national spirit while still possessing a “universal Occidental effect.”

Some composers, encouraged by the Allies, promoted the idea that modernist musical techniques were particularly antifascist because they had been banned by the Nazis — an exaggeration both of Nazi officials’ stylistic understanding and of the level of control they exerted over the arts. Winfried Zillig, a German who composed in the 12-tone style, had many career successes from 1933 to 1945, including major opera premieres and a position in occupied Poland, granted as a reward for his operas’ political values.