How Britain Censored German Composers During World War I


In an impassioned speech delivered at the United Nations in 1958, the great cellist Pablo Casals proclaimed his belief in the universality of music.

Music, he asserted, was the only form of artistic expression that “transcends language, politics and national boundaries”. Such idealism, however, contrasts sharply with what actually happened during the first half of the 20th century, when two world wars severed open exchanges between music and musicians on opposite sides in those conflicts. In Britain, this process began with force in August 1914 when the country was embroiled in a four-year struggle with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Coincidentally, the war had broken out around the same time as Sir Henry Wood announced the repertoire for the next Promenade Concerts season. As always, the program included a significant number of works by foreign composers which would be performed in Britain for the first time.

A large part of these came from Germany and Austria, in particular from Reger Four-tone poems after Böcklinby Webern Six pieces for orchestra and Korngoldis Sinfonietta. In addition, Wood wanted to pay homage to Mahlerwho died three years earlier, and offered to perform a number of his songs for orchestra, including the UK premiere of Kindertotenlieder.

All of these plans, however, were abandoned due to the new political circumstances. Indeed, the feverish atmosphere at this time was such that Wood also scrapped an all-Wagner concert, replacing it with music by French and Russian composers. But there was such an outcry at this action that wagner was reinstated later in the season.

What happened to German music during the First World War?

More extreme measures have been taken in the field of education. In September 1914 the Music Committee of the Corporation of London published a memorandum declaring its intention to dispense with the services of all teachers of German, Austrian or Hungarian nationality engaged to teach at the Guildhall School of Music, and to prohibit all students from enemy countries to attend the institution.

They followed this with a proposal to confiscate all pianos of German origin and replace them with British-made instruments. Lobby groups have launched a campaign to persuade the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music to remove contemporary German and Austrian repertoire from its examination programs and, where possible, to promote a much larger proportion of British works. Composer Thomas Dunhill went so far as to castigate ‘despicable teachers’ of harmony for allowing their students to write down the German sixth chord, perhaps sarcastically suggesting that one should ‘protest against its use in the name of patriotism and national honor.

Following Wood’s censorship of nearly all contemporary Austrian and German music from the 1914 Proms programme, it was widely believed that further performances of such repertoire would be banned in Britain while the country was at war. In contrast, there was much less consensus on the desirability of a more generalized ban on Austrian-German music.

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The issue was frequently raised in the press and was even discussed in the House of Commons in 1915. Tory MP Sir Arthur Markham took a particularly hard line, attacking the Proms for continuing to program German music and advocating a total ban.

Healthier vocals, however, prevailed. Sir Henry Wood continued to present the reference works of mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in his concerts. His unwavering approach has been praised by the Musical times who declared that “the music of these composers has been our mother’s milk and we cannot banish it from our memory”.

Sir Charles Stanford strongly supported this view by drawing a clear distinction between the great German composers of the 19th century, to whom he was devoted, and their more recent counterparts. According to him, “neither Wagner nor Brahms had a truck with the Prussianized crew that has sprung up since their time. To identify Strauss’ dread and Reger’s mass formations with either is an insult to them and their art.’

On the whole, British concert-goers raised few objections to enjoying Wagner, Brahms and other 19th-century German composers during the war. But every once in a while there were awkward moments. Perhaps most notable was in March 1915 when the Oxford House Choral Society staged a performance of by Brahms german requiem in honor of British soldiers who fell during the war.

Stanford was particularly irritated by such rudeness, and in a letter to the The telegraph of the day unequivocally attacked the organizers of the concert: “If they wanted to give the work for itself as a common masterpiece in the world, no one would dispute their choice. But by announcing german requiem as a memorial to our fallen soldiers, they do what its composer, if alive, would have felt as strongly as performing a French or English work to commemorate fallen German soldiers in Berlin.

Unlike Wagner and Brahms, who remained largely untouched by anti-German propaganda, Richard Strauss’ music and personality garnered greater opprobrium. This turn of events is all the more surprising since just a year earlier, in January 1913, the British premiere of his recent opera The Rider of the Rose at the Royal Opera House received a particularly warm welcome. Moreover, Strauss visibly avoided taking a political stance regarding the war. In October 1914, he refused to add his name to the Manifesto of 93 which had been signed by Germany’s most eminent scientists, scholars and artists declaring their unequivocal support for German military action.

However, Strauss was now presented to British audiences as the musical embodiment of the enemy. This likely explains the extraordinary decision of HM Customs in 1916 to confiscate the score and parts of his orchestral wartime work. Ein Alpensinfonie on the docks of Liverpool. It had been placed in transit to the United States where various orchestras had competed for the privilege of presenting the American premiere of the work. Much to the chagrin of Americans, British officials delayed releasing the material for several months before they were fully convinced that no secret code was embedded in the music.

Strauss’s position as a pet peeve of German music was reinforced in several abusive articles about the composer that appeared between 1914 and 18. Colin McAlpin, writing in the Musical times, suggested that “Strauss undoubtedly expresses the modern spirit of Germany. He’s from Berlin – bombastic, blatant, brutally outspoken and prone to cynical candor. In his music we detect a sinister revolt against inner law and order and the ear is bruised and battered by an inartistic anarchy of noise which renders any ulterior motive of beauty possible useless.

In the only entry on a musician in the dictionary of war Who’s who in Hunland, Frederic William Wile castigated Strauss for his “deliberately sensual and degenerate musical art”. As ‘the most successful producer of pure din the world has ever known, its cyclonic effects in raucous poems such as Elektra, Salome, The Cavalier Rose and its mid-war tornado, an alpine symphony, reduce the roars of niagara by Wagnerian whisper-sized ‘themes’.’

What happened to German music after the war was over?

After the cessation of hostilities in 1918, tentative steps were taken to rehabilitate contemporary German and Austrian music and once again give it a platform in Britain. A test case took place in March 1920 when Sir Henry Wood programmed by Strauss Don Juan for the first time since 1914. Anticipating possible objections from the public, he judiciously places the work at the very end of the concert, thus allowing the public to leave the room if they wish. As it happened, only a handful of spectators came out, and the conductor felt emboldened enough to schedule more Strausses in later concerts.

A more controversial episode erupted two months later. The first orchestral program of the newly formed British Music Society was to feature Elgarit is opening In the south and Vaughan Williamsis recently composed A London Symphony. However, a proposal to end the concert with Strauss Ein Heldenleben, barely two years after the end of the war, aroused considerable indignation. Composer Sir Granville Bantock was furious enough to write a letter of protest to The temperature, castigating such programming as a “gratuitous insult to British music and its musical heritage”. It seems that the old parasitic system is to be resumed; we must return like dogs to our own vomit and the false promises with which we have been deceived must be forgotten.

The organizers of the British Music Society gave in to this pressure and agreed to remove the Strauss, although the decision to replace it with music by Fraying was also heavily criticized. write in Manchester goalkeeper, critic Ernest Newman lamented the whole episode. He reminded readers that “if the objection to Ein Heldenleben It’s because Strauss is German, some of us are forced to point out that we are no longer at war with Germany and that we no longer see any reason to deprive ourselves further of the pleasure that German music can give us. Let’s encourage British composers by all means, but why should music be a matter of nationality? Why must we be so narrow-minded and so openly glory in our indestructible insularity?

What did the Nazis do during World War II?

During World War II, the Nazis centralized music censorship alongside their political alliances: while the music of the Italians, who were allied with the Germans, were played, composers from enemy countries like France and Poland were banned. Exceptions included Bizet Carmen, who remained a popular favorite in German opera houses, and Chopin, who enjoyed the patronage of Hans Frank, the governor of occupied Poland. Russian music temporarily enjoyed favor between 1939 and 1941 with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but largely disappeared after Germany invaded Russia.

What did the British do in World War II?

The British were less regimented, preferring the free-flowing policies that guided musical life during the First World War. Nevertheless, the BBC published a list of composers whose work was deemed unsuitable for British audiences. The voluminous correspondence found in the BBC’s written archives reveals that the researchers who compiled the list of banned German and Austrian music had not done their homework properly. Among those proscribed were several composers who were not only victims of Nazi persecution, but who had also been granted refugee status in Britain.


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