The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich by Fritz Trümpi (Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg) - review by Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht

Playing Dirty

The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich


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One morning in January 1946, an old man living in southeast London received a letter from the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra inviting him to return as leader, a position he had been kicked out of as a Jew in March 1938, when Austria became part of Hitler’s Germany.

Arnold Rosé replied by return of post. The elderly refugee, now eighty-two, had led the Vienna Philharmonic from the first violin’s seat for more than half a century. He had married the sister of its conductor Gustav Mahler; his quartet had given the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, the piece that crashed through the barriers into atonality. No living musician wielded more Viennese tradition than he. But Rosé was not about to return.

His daughter, Alma, had been murdered in Auschwitz, along with several of his former colleagues. ‘There remained 56 Nazis in the orchestra,’ wrote Rosé. But, trapped in an agony of ambivalence, he went on to advise that the former Nazis ‘should stay, so that the orchestra can survive’. Long after Hitler’s defeat, the Vienna Philharmonic was still so contaminated that removing its Nazi players would have changed the orchestra’s character. Rosé died alone in Blackheath in August 1946.

Compare this to how the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra treated its own former leader. Szymon Goldberg, a Polish Jew, was recruited to Berlin in 1930 by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Expelled from the orchestra in 1934, he roamed Europe and Asia, finally winding up in a Japanese internment camp on Java. In 1945 he wrote to the Berlin Philharmonic, asking for his job back. They refused. Ten years later he applied for compensation. His request was refused again. It was 1970 before the orchestra acknowledged that Goldberg, a violinist of high pedigree, had been unfairly dismissed.

It is case histories like these that illuminate the persistence of Nazi practices decades after the war. The Vienna Philharmonic welcomed old Gauleiters to its concerts the moment they came out of jail. The Berlin Philharmonic, under Herbert von Karajan, stuck to the Nazis’ anti-modernist agenda, though the anti-Semitic programme was modified slightly with doses of Mendelssohn and Mahler. Both orchestras were valued as prestigious state assets and neither faced much scrutiny or criticism until the present century.

The Political Orchestra by Fritz Trümpi, a professor at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts, contrasts the conduct of Berlin’s and Vienna’s elite ensembles in the Nazi era and beyond. Neither emerges with any credit. The Berlin Philharmonic musicians surrendered their hard-won self-governance in 1933 in exchange for fat salaries from Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, taking Nazi orders on what not to play and which countries to tour as standard-bearers of the new Germany.

Furtwängler, their apolitical chief conductor, was long believed to have intervened to save Jewish players from the death camps. In fact, as Trümpi points out, there were none left in the orchestra for Furtwängler to worry about. After Goldberg’s dismissal, there were two solo cellists, Nikolai Graudan and Joseph Schuster, and a first violinist, Gilbert Back. They were the last Jews in the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra is pictured in 1936 impassive on stage at Nuremberg as Hitler harangues a rally.

After the Anschluss of 1938, the Vienna Philharmonic struggled with Hitler’s decree to reduce Austria to a province of the Third Reich. Goebbels refused to fund the orchestra, placing it under the authority of the Vienna Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, a lover of sentimental music. Schirach, who described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Jews to the death camps as a ‘contribution to European culture’, authorised the New Year’s concerts that became the orchestra’s trademark. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide: Schirach, Seyss-Inquart, Reichskommissar of the occupied Netherlands, and the German railways boss Rudolf Toepfer.

A Vienna Philharmonic trumpet player, Helmut Wobisch, trained mass murderers to play marches. After the war, this SS man became the orchestra’s business manager. Its wartime chairman, double-bassist Wilhelm Jerger, was a fellow SS officer. He appealed to Schirach to ‘adjust’ the deportation of five Jewish musicians, but the letter went out long after they had been sent to their deaths. Jerger, with the pettiness typical of good Nazis, banned a cellist with a Jewish wife from playing a solo in Brahms’s Double Concerto.

Amid these horrors, both orchestras maintained an exceptional standard of playing in their concert seasons. Furtwängler’s recordings from Berlin convey a surreal otherworldliness alongside an audible tension that echoed the worsening situation outside the concert hall. The Vienna Philharmonic worked under such conductors as the Nazi enthusiast Karl Böhm and the complaisant Clemens Krauss and Hans Knappertsbusch. For the players, it was music business as usual.

Trümpi, his thesis centred on the rivalry between the orchestras, pays little attention to individual tragedies and the lack of personal consequences for miscreants. Despite this shortcoming, there is much to admire in his trove of graphs and documents, which reveal the influence of authoritarian government on every aspect of the two orchestras’ activities, not least their repertoires.

There is something at once absurd and deeply ominous about civil service debates on the level of daily allowance to be paid to musicians on tour in German-occupied countries – countries that were stripped of their wealth and parts of their populations. Trümpi calls this bureaucratic process the ‘politicization’ of the orchestras. To my mind, it had more to do with the nullification of individual conscience and the mass suspension of moral responsibility.

Most chilling of all, these exchanges took place within a framework of law. Everything was completely legal and in conformity with statute and precedent. Hitler governed by executive decree, a method that has suddenly come into vogue again. It was a form of government that was subject to no checks or balances except those provided by the nation’s leading institutions. Engaged with a government that they generally supported, musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic abandoned all considerations of humanity and collaborated with the greatest evil. There are lessons here for our own grave times.

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