Thursday, December 20, 2007

Government Censorship of Music in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia - Part II

Episode Number: 013
Title: Government Censorship of Music in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia - Part II
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale - Recorded December 20, 2007

The Nazis in Germany preferred the style of post-Romanticism[1], and Hitler especially liked the music of Richard Wagner.[2] Atonality was shunned because it could not be incorporated into propaganda very easily;[3] music with text was expected to be in German. Carl Orff (1895-1982) was one of the most famous composers of the Nazi era and he got along well with the Nazi regime for most of the time that they were in power. Orff never joined the Nazi party but he benefited much from their patronage. Orff’s music fortunately shared many of the same aesthetic features the Nazis looked for, such as “the use of ostinato rhythms, melodic economy, rudimentary diatonicism, repetition and monophony, and thematic allusions to Volksmusik (folk-music).”[4] Carmina Burana (which was comprised of all the aesthetic features listed above) propelled Orff into the international spotlight and it soon became very popular with the Nazis. Orff was not commissioned to compose Carmina Burana and he was anticipating it being rejected by the government.[5] Fortunately for Orff it became a success and was granted a prize of 500 Reichmarks (RM) only two weeks after the premier.[6] Orff was motivated by financial rewards for working with the Nazis, even though he may not have agreed with their ideologies.[7]

In March of 1938 Orff was asked by the Nazis to write music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Orff desperately needed the RM5, 000 cash advance and quickly jumped at the opportunity.[8] The significance of new music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was in the fact that it was intended to replace Felix Mendelssohn’s famous version from the mid-nineteenth century. The Nazis blacklisted all of Mendelssohn’s music because of his family’s Jewish background. Even if Orff was not a Nazi at heart, it was still morally wrong for him to take on that endeavor and he knew it. As soon as the Nazis left power, Orff tried to distance his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Third Reich as much as possible. Apparently, Orff created multiple legends to justify his own reasons for writing the new music that “gave away his bad conscience.”[9] By 1944, Joseph Goebbels had taken particular interest in Orff and Goebbels’s Reich Culture Chamber asked Orff and several other artists to contribute a homily in honor of Hitler. Orff did so and never worried again about falling out of favor with the Nazis.[10]

Paul Hindemith was another famous composer of the Nazi era, though he did not share the same level of success that Carl Orff had found. Before the Nazi party took over Germany Hindemith was known for his avant-garde stage works and his modernist style of compositions.[11] By the 1930s, Hindemith’s style shifted slightly towards a style representing “an extension of traditional harmony”.[12] In 1932, he began working on his next opera, Mathis der Maler. He formed a three-movement symphony based on excerpts from the yet unfinished opera, and this was a huge success. Even Nazi critics of Hindemith greeted the work with enthusiasm.[13] One critic hailed, “[Mathis] conformed very precisely to the official expectations for modern German music in the Third Reich”.[14] Unfortunately for Hindemith, his modernist and avant-garde works predating Nazi-Germany could not be forgotten. Despite all attempts to “rehabilitate” himself he could not escape his own past. He had many enemies in the Nazi party as well as outside, all of which constantly made efforts to keep Hindemith from being successful. He wrote music that conformed to Nazi ideals and even met with representatives of the Hitler Youth to discuss grand plans for the musical education of the “new” Germany.[15] These actions suggest that Hindemith was conforming to Nazi ideologies. They also suggest that he was attempting to “play a constructive role in Hitler’s Germany for as long as was humanly feasible.”[16] Many high-ranking Nazis noticed these efforts, yet Hindemith still had powerful enemies intent on ruining him. In a last effort to restore his grace with the party, he traveled to Turkey as an ambassador of music education to promote German culture and values. All of these efforts were to of no avail and Hindemith was forced to leave the country. He remained in self-imposed exile until after World War II. When he returned in the mid-1940s, his music was once again played and he enjoyed much more success than he had during the Nazi rule. Still, though the Nazis were no longer in power, the German people had been brought up with the “phony culture of the National Socialists”[17]and not everyone was open to Hindemith’s bold style.

Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had similar goals, and similar means to reach those goals, even though their ideologies were not exactly the same. Each had a dictator that ruled with an iron fist, though in Germany the Nazi party fell with Hitler while in the Soviet Union the communist party continued well after Stalin’s death. Each nation sought to shape public opinion by manipulating the media and by means of propaganda. This required the cooperation of many, including artists, writers, and musicians and composers. If a composer was not willing to cooperate, each country had various methods of achieving cooperation. Both countries used public humiliation as a punishment and both could keep work and income from the composer until he had to choose between starving and cooperation. By cooperating, these composers created bodies of work that reflected the ideologies of their government. This meant the rejection of ideas from outside the country’s borders and usually revered past musical aesthetic features while shunning modern aesthetic features. Eventually these regimes would both fail, inviting innovation and fresh ideas back into their musical communities. When studying the music from these countries during this period one must consider the political atmosphere. One must know that the choice of notes the composer used in a particular may have been based on whether he or she wanted to have running water again or if he or she would be able to provide food for their family. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Music History podcast. Please visit the website at and take a moment to sign the guestbook or take a listener poll. I’ve recently added a bibliography section so you can see my sources and if you’re interested, read them for yourselves. There’s also a section to look up names and dates of composers and theorists, and I’m working on a searchable database of complete composers’ works. Thanks for listening.

       Paul Hindemith in 1928 Carl Orff Felix Mendelsohn Adolph Hitler


[1] Michael H. Kater, Composers of the Nazi era: eight portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 123
[2] Barry Millington: “(1) (Wilhelm) Richard Wagner,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 21 October 2007),
[3] Eric Levi, “Music in the Third Reich,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 3. (June 2006), (accessed October 22, 2007), 867.
[4] Kater, 128.
[5] Ibid., 123.
[6] Ibid., 124.
[7] Ibid., 118-19
[8] Kater, 125.
[9] Ibid., 127.
[10] Ibid., 132-3.
[11] Ibid., 31.
[12] Ibid., 33.
[13] Kater, 33.
[14] Ibid., 33.
[15] Ibid., 35.
[16] Ibid., 35.
[17] Kater, 50.