What's So Degenerate About Korngold?

While blogging about Renee Fleming’s performance of “Ich ging zu ihm,” I mentioned in passing that Korngold’s opera was considered Entartete Musik (“degenerate music”). What does this mean? 

korngold.gifEntartete (“degenerate” or “decadent” in English) was Nazi epithet for art and music the regime considered objectionable for racial or ideological reasons. Korngold, as a Jewish composer, was automatically in this category, but race was not the only way to be designated decadent. Ties with Jewish friends and colleagues would do it, as Anton Webern (somewhat a Hitler supporter in the early years) would learn. Content (like the black characters in Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf) would do it. Being too modern or too jazzy (i.e. “African”) qualified as well. (See our recommended books.)

The Nazi campaign against many of its best musicians was part of a larger, more notorious campaign against modern art, which in 1937 climaxed in a multi-city exhibition of “degenerate” art selected from thousands of pieces stolen from museums. The following year, an exhibit on degenerate music opened in Düsseldorf. An image of the Entartete Musik exhibition catalog can seen here. (Warning: it’s pretty offensive.)

Decca released an Entartete Musik CD series beginning in the 1990s, with special emphasis on more rarely performed works.  

“From a purely musical point of view, the “Entartete Musik” series has, with unanimous international critical acclaim, brought back to life more than 30 forgotten key works from the first half of this century by composers such as Braunfels, Goldschmidt, Haas, Korngold, Krása, Krenek, Ullmann and Waxman. These recordings may help the listener imagine what the musical life in Europe was before its destruction by the Nazis, and what it might have been if these great branches had not been abruptly cut off.” (Decca press release)

Korngold was among the lucky ones — he made it to Hollywood and wrote several popular film scores. But some of the composers mentioned in this Decca press release (Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Viktor Ullman) died in the Holocaust.  I will try to get together a list of the “degenerate” composers and performers along with their main works and fates. For now, I just have a great reading list on degenerate music.