Hannes Richter

Entartete Musik Resurrected

Hannes Richter

In the early 20th century an experimental wave of modernism swept over Central Europe. A multitude of  isms sought to supply the answer to society’s needs: Socialism, Fascism and Communism, together with other schools of thought. Personalities like Freud came up with intellectual answers to seemingly impossible questions about human behavior. Artists like Klimt and the erotic paintings of the Viennese Jugendstil responded in kind by appealing to the taboos of sensuality and the subconscious. Composers like Schoenberg and Mahler wrote music that sounded abrasive in its use of atonality and complex polyphony.

Entartete Musik Poster

Society was being confronted with interesting new trends which contrasted painfully with the idealized notion of human nature portrayed by the previous generation of the Romantics.

This new environment put forth a Jewish bourgeoisie made up of composers like Franz Schreker, Eric Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky, and others.

Emerging between the wars in Central Europe, this group of  progressives  claimed to be a successfully enfranchised minority. They were liberal and socially tolerant. As artists, they scaled social heights unheard of in the past, enjoyed respectability, success, and gave pleasure to what was an appreciative, predominantly non-Jewish public.

All of this came to an end with the rise of National Socialism. By 1933, anti-Semitic policy had removed the works of Jewish composers from the stages, opera houses and concert venues of Vienna. For decades, the music written by the distinguished composers of this era remained buried and neglected. But now this music, which is so much part of the Austro-Hungarian fin de siècle, is being reborn. This past July, the famous Salzburg music festival turned from exclusive celebration of its local hero, Mozart, to honoring a composer whose origin stems from this time: Franz Schreker, born in Monaco as the son of a photographer from Bohemia and an aristocratic mother from Austria. When the Nazis relieved him of his duties in 1933, Schreker was teaching a masterclass at the Prussian Academy of Arts. He died from a stroke a year later, at the age of fifty-six.

Franz Schreker (1878-1934)

It was Schreker’s masterpiece, Die Gezeichneten (The Branded) that the elite of the West saw on opening night in Salzburg. It is a dark and erotic opera with unmistakably Freudian overtones. Entering somewhat decadent moral territory, the opera tells the story of a a group of debauched aristocrats and, in particular, a hunchbacked nobleman, involved in abduction and rape, mirroring civilization’s moral decline.

Much has changed since the days when Schreker was labelled a pervert by the National Socialists at the exhibition on Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) in 1938. The Salzburg Festival also honored his ouevre by an exhibition in the Festival’s Grosses Festspielhaus. The exhibition was in many ways the story of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was as much about Vienna’s cultural history as it was about music.