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Home / Articles / Music / Music Features /  Degenerate Music
Music-ProfFranks1
Professor Tom Franks, opera lecturer extraordinaire.
Loren Bienvenu

Degenerate Music

Bringing Nazi-banned opera back into the light

January 15, 2013, 8:00 pm

Some might argue that it all began with Richard Wagner.

Although the famous 19th century German composer died 50 years before Hitler co-opted his masterpieces into the anthemic music of the Third Reich, Wagner helped pave the way for Hitler’s discriminatory suppression of major works of art.

In an 1850 essay translated as “Jewishness in Music,” Wagner laid out an attack against what he perceived to be a hereditary incapacity for Jews to compose music, before going on to say that the only way for Jews to redeem German culture would be through “self-annulment.”

The influence of Wagner on Nazism is direct.

Particularly damning to Wagner’s legacy is Hitler’s oft-quoted line: “There is only one predecessor to National Socialism: Wagner.” Under Hitler’s reign, the new terms “degenerate music” and “degenerate art” were used to label everything considered unacceptable to the regime’s ideals. Anything “un-German” was banned, including, among other things, all works of art by people of Jewish descent.

Enter Tom Franks, professor emeritus at Eastern Michigan University. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, Franks gives a lecture titled Forbidden Opera, in which he discusses and plays musical samples by composers labeled as degenerate.

In a recent conversation, Franks stated his motives: “I’m trying to bring to light, from out of the darkness, some of these [composers] whose works have disappeared.” On his list are the composers Ernst Krenek, Eric Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Shereker and Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Zemlinsky wrote two operas derived from Oscar Wilde stories, which provided the initial impetus for the Santa Fe Opera Guild-sponsored lecture. This summer, the Santa Fe Opera will premier Oscar by Theodore Morrison, a work based on the writings of Wilde that the organization commissioned.

Franks, who is a popular lecturer at the opera house, expanded his theme from Zemlinsky’s two banned operas into “a sociology of oppression and taste in the arts.”

Not all of the composers in Franks’ program were oppressed because of Jewish heritage.

One example is Krenek, who wrote the highly popular and scandalous Jonny Spielt Auf, a 1920s opera typifying the height of that era’s decadence.

Franks succinctly explains that the opera was banned because “it was about a black man who steals a violin and seduces white women.”

While the Nazis procedurally suppressed any art that stems from African and African-American culture (all jazz, for instance), they found Jonny Spielt Auf particularly threatening due to what they considered to be its so-called moral corruption.

To make an example of the work, Nazi propagandists caricatured its title character into the main image for their “degenerate music” posters and advertisements.

However, composers of Jewish heritage experienced Nazi suppression to a decidedly more dangerous and extreme degree. Franks points to a work that Nazi censors found to be critical of Hitler: “Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which was written in [the “Paradise”] concentration camp, resulting in the death of the participants.”

Ullman, the privileged son of a noble, assimilated Jewish family, was sent to Auschwitz shortly after completing the opera and killed in the gas chambers. It is only because he entrusted a copy of the work to the prison librarian, who in turn smuggled it into the outside world, that there exists a record of the score and libretto.

While the hardships of these suppressed composers add to the historical provenance of their work, Franks stresses that their musical merit is equally worthy of consideration. “What’s so unfair [is that] these are as good as many of the operas that we do perform regularly from that era, but they have been simply ignored,” largely as a result of having been suppressed, he says.

Franks, who also happens to be a Wagner scholar, argues against “politicization of music,” which has tarnished Wagner’s legacy as much as it limited those of the composers who figure into his lecture.

“The question,” he muses, “comes down to whether one ignores the political views of a person or artist, or whether one concentrates on their art and tries to ignore [the political views]. Or do you try to keep both things in mind, which is what I think we can do. We can see the one thing without letting it ruin the other.”


Forbidden Opera

5:30 pm Wednesday, Jan. 16. $10. Unitarian Universalist Congregation
107 W Barcelona St., 982-9674

 

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