The Making of Musical Bolshevism: Revolution, Degeneracy, and Kultur in the Weimar Republic

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:50 PM
Price Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Jonathan Gentry, Kennesaw State University
The concept of “degenerate music” typically brings to mind the 1938 Nazi exhibition poster with its image of an ape-like figure playing a saxophone and wearing the Star of David. One of the striking qualities of the exhibition’s poster – and the Nazi aesthetics more broadly – was its capacity to link together seemingly disparate phenomena and people as one entity. Atonal music, popular music, leftist music, Jewish composers, African-American composers, and the mentally ill were all considered expressions of “musical Bolshevism.” Indeed, the stated goal of the exhibit was to combat “cultural Bolshevism,” a concept which originated during the chaotic birth of the Weimar Republic. Musical Bolshevism managed to unite (and confuse) separate, but long standing fears about the decline of German music, including the ascendance of international and popular genres. In light of the revolutions in Russia and Germany, the concept also gave added political urgency to circulating debates about German musical identity.

This paper explores the origins and fate of musical Bolshevism in Germany by focusing on responses to Hans Pfitzner’s radicalized polemics on musical nationalism. As one of the era’s most famous living composers, his voice carried enough weight to ignite serious media debate about the possible existence of far right concepts of racial determinism and cultural Bolshevism. While many leading figures in the musical world denied the very existence of “musical Bolshevism,” Pfitzner gave greater legitimation to anti-foreign and anti-Semitic sentiments among the musical establishment. Broadly speaking, this paper aims to illuminate the continuities and war-born ruptures in German musical identity from the Kaiserreich to the Third Reich. While fear of degenerate music remained a constant thread, the definition of and antidote to musical degeneracy shifted following the revolutions.