After Infinite Harm: Music Education and Cultural Crisis in Postwar West Germany and Austria

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:10 PM
Price Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Joanna Curtis, New York University
Beginning in the mid-1950s, opinion-makers in West German and Austrian musical life began to express concern to cultural authorities about a crisis in music education. The conductor Herbert von Karajan, the philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno, and the composer Carl Orff all weighed in on the topic, as did the new International Society for Music Education, which had been founded under the auspices of UNESCO in 1953.

The crisis had at least four interrelated dimensions: first, a depleted audience for so-called “good”, or classical, music; second, a severe shortage of professional-caliber musicians to fill orchestral positions; third, an anxiety about the encroachment of recording technology and popular music; and finally, an increasing confusion about how music should be taught in elementary schools in light of both a new internationalism and changing tastes. Due to the constitutional principle of Landeskulturhoheit, by which each federal state of West Germany held authority over its own cultural and educational affairs, collaboration on solving what many viewed as a national problem proved challenging in that country. Meanwhile, cultural bureaucrats and music educators in Austria encountered related problems of their own, which led one bureaucrat to conclude, “Thirteen-year-olds have changed.”

By examining the transforming cultural hierarchies that shaped musical life after World War II, this paper elucidates both continuity and change vis-à-vis the Nazi concept of degenerate music. Whereas the term degeneracy itself was eliminated from discussions – like the similarly purged word Rasse – the notion that some music was healing and had a positive moral value and other music was harmful to society remained compelling to decision-makers in Austrian and German cultural policy for decades to come.

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