When classical music was an alibi

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Allied forces were keen to “clean up” the reputations of musicians whose talents they valued, and even helped some sneak into the denazification process. On July 4, 1945, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was invited to fill out a Fragebogen because she was entered in the Salzburg register of National Socialists in Austria. Had the form been deemed acceptable, the U.S. military would have approved his return to the stage.

But when the US intelligence officer in charge of her case, Otto von Pasetti, realized she had lied on the form, he destroyed it. The next day, he was asked to complete another one. Although this was not more accurate, Pasetti accepted it because Schwarzkopf’s status as a famous diva had convinced him that “no other suitable singer” was available for major opera performances. Shortly after, she got into a jeep driven by an American officer, Lieutenant Albert van Arden, and was driven 250 kilometers to Graz, Austria, to sing Constance in “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” by Mozart.

After 1945, career continuity was therefore more the norm than the exception. Denazification status defined immediate employability but was only one factor among many in musicians’ perspectives. Artists seeking to resume their careers easily identified as prisoners of war, refugees, bombing victims, disabled soldiers and widows, many of whom face food and housing insecurity. Reference letters used post-war difficulties as justification for priority consideration or attempted to explain how a person had been drawn, as it was said, into the “vortex” of Nazi politics. A baritone assured administrators that although he was held in a prison camp for several years, he still had “opportunity to practice”.

These claims of hardship easily slipped into narratives of victimhood. The bombed-out concert halls and opera houses in former Nazi territories were powerful symbols of destruction and the need to rebuild, but they also served to shift the focus from Nazi atrocities to German suffering. At the opening of the rebuilt Vienna State Opera on November 5, 1955, just months after Williams’ debut in “Butterfly”, conductor Karl Böhm – who had conducted concerts celebrating the annexation of Austria by Hitler in 1938 – was on the podium for the celebration. No Jewish survivors were invited to participate.

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

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

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