Weimar Germany: Music, Modernity, and Tradition

A review of The Promise of Tradition: Music, Modernity, and Mass Society in Weimar Germany, by Brendan Fay.

Brendan Fay has a bone to pick with Weimar scholars. For all of the attention that historians of modern Europe have paid to what scholar Peter Gay coined “Weimar culture,” we have missed the fact that not everyone was shimmying to jazz music in Berlin’s dance clubs à la Josephine Baker. Nor were the majority of German listeners deeply engrossed in the modernist music of Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern. Many German listeners and music critics were still greatly concerned with performing, listening to, debating, and defining Schubert Lieder, Wagner operas, and Brahms symphonies—in other words, traditional German art music.

Historians’ disinterest in traditional classical music (and the listeners who championed it) stems from the assumption that its supporters were often politically, culturally, and musically conservative, behind the times, and unable to keep up with current and popular trends. An image of the geriatric listener in the balcony of a symphony hall glaring at a tittering, chattering youth and telling them to shush comes to mind here. Historians have especially tended to portray conservative music critics in the 1920s as proto-Nazi vanguards protecting German music from desecration, denouncing its detractors as heretics. But we would be wise, Fay warns us, to remember Helmut Walser Smith’s clever line about a “hearse in reverse,” where historians fall into the trap of viewing the Weimar period as a road to Nazism. Fay’s dissertation argues for a re-reading of Weimar culture and the music critics who shaped it.

And it’s about time for a re-evaluation of Weimar musical culture, too. The historiography of Weimar Germany for the past two decades has voiced skepticism that the “conservative” vanguards of German culture look the way that we have tended to portray them. One of the first serious critics to take a swipe at this notion that German conservatives in the 1920s were antimodern and behind the times was Jeffrey Herf, whose book Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (1984) blew apart the myth that German political conservatives and Nazis were “traditionalists” who viewed technology and new media with suspicion. Today, scholars such as Dagmar Herzog, whose book Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth Century Germany (2005) revealed a shockingly sex-positive ideology at work during the Third Reich, have continued to push the boundaries on how we define social, political, and cultural conservatism. Music critic Alex Ross, arguably the most famous contemporary writer on 20th-century music, has also cast doubt on our penchant to tie cultural and musical conservatism to political conservatism: “The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and of conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous historical reality” (Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, 2007, p. 346).

Brendan Fay’s dissertation urges us to remember L.P. Hartley’s famous line that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. In other words, perhaps German musical conservatism is not what it appears to be. In his dissertation, Fay explores the central tenets of German conservative musical thought; analyzes how these critics adapted to societal, economic, and political changes; and discusses how they also sought to shape the musical world they lived in. Fay accomplishes this through four case studies: responses to inflation, the rise of the radio and mass media, the popularization of “internationalism” in the 1920s, and constructs of race.

In the first chapter, entitled “Composing the Nation: German Music Criticism over the Long Nineteenth Century,” Fay illustrates the deep involvement of German music criticism in the messy project of nation-building. What had begun as a small aesthetic endeavor in the early 19th century exploded into a vibrant and vital aspect of German cultural life by the 20th century, with much help from aesthetes such as Robert Schumann and Eduard Hanslick.

Fay’s second chapter, “Cultural Origins of the Nazi Revolution: Inflation and Concert Life, 1919–1923,” is the first case study in which the author examines how “traditionalists” responded to drastic economic, societal, and political changes in Weimar Germany. In this chapter, Fay calls foul on the notion that Germany’s economic crisis led to a cultural crisis in the ways historians have tended to suggest in the past, namely through the lenses of jazz and modernism. Moreover, Fay also demonstrates that many conservative critics’ greatest fears had little to do with jazz but rather stemmed from the growing uneducated “New Audience” that emerged after WWI. Facing attacks from both the gauche working class, who received discount tickets to attend concerts, and from the nouveaux riches, who attended concerts not to gain an aesthetic experience but rather to see and be seen, conservative critics who proudly saw themselves as the descendants of the Bildungsbürgertum sought to protect the Austro-German musical tradition from demise by, ironically enough, insisting that concert halls broaden their programs. In exposing the “New Audience” to musical modernism, they surmised, they would gain new supporters of traditional concert music, for no listener with a serious ear and an affinity for the universal in music could tolerate modernist music for long. “Traditional culture,” Fay writes, “stood to gain from modernism’s loss” (p. 79).

In chapter three, “Radios and Records: Image and Reality in Weimar Technology,” Fay sets out to prove that traditionalists were not as opposed to radio as we might have assumed. Indeed, denunciations of radio and the nascent panic that it would somehow supplant “a mass existence for a unique existence” came originally from progressive cultural icons such as Walter Benjamin. Radio, many traditionalists believed, had the ability to positively transform German society. For conservative critics such as Alfred Heuss, Fay writes, “the advent of radio into German homes did not signal cultural decline or calls for a return to some imagined pre-war belle époque. Far from it, the radio opened up vistas of cultural recovery and rebirth” (p. 102). Now, millions of listeners could become exposed to the edifying powers of German music. The irony here, which Fay rightly points out, is that listeners did not want to listen to art music nearly as much as they wanted to hear Schlagermusik (pop music) and commercial recordings. Whereas conservative critics saw the radio as an educational tool to morally instruct the masses, the radio became in actuality a successful propagandistic device thanks to its ability to entertain and distract. The group that by the late 1930s had most successfully monopolized radio was, of course, the Nazi party, much to the dismay of conservative critics, who had nurtured higher hopes for this new media.

Chapter four, “Internationalism, Nationalism, and the Case of Hans Joachim Moser” examines debates about the Germanness of music through the writings of Weimar’s and Nazi Germany’s most famous conservative critic, Hans Joachim Moser. Here Fay contributes to a growing body of scholarship on music and belonging by bringing to light critics’ conversations on who had the right to compose and perform “national” music. Whereas some critics insisted that a German musician such as Johannes Brahms could not truly compose in a Hungarian style, others disagreed, such as the leftist critic Paul Bekker, who in exasperation wrote, “What in the world are the elementary, organic differences between national vs. international music? Do the Germans have tonality as a part of their inheritance, or somewhere within a certain art form? Are there national and international C scales or violins?” (p. 130). In particular, Fay takes up Hans Joachim Moser’s famous work, Geschichte der deutschen Musik (1922–1924), to illustrate that Moser’s fears of German degeneracy stemmed less from his (well-acknowledged) anti-Semitism and more from what he saw as larger structural problems in German society.

Fay’s last chapter, “Judging Performance, Performing Judgments: Race, Ethnicity, and Authenticity in Weimar Musical Discourse” wades into the murky waters of authenticity debates in the 1920s and 1930s. Here, Fay charts out the main questions that concerned music critics throughout the early to mid 20th century (and still plague us today): What makes a performance “authentic”? How big a role do a performer’s ethnic origins or local upbringing play in his/her musical cultivation? In Weimar Germany, conservative critics expressed a wide array of contradictory opinions on these questions. “Weimar critics,” Fay writes, “saw no apparent contradiction…in lauding Jews, on the one hand, as consummate musicians who contributed in profound ways to the performance of the German classics while lamenting them as compositionally ‘uncreative’ and ‘usurious’ on the other” (p. 193). Weimar reviews of concert music illustrate how mutable notions of race and ethnicity were even among Weimar’s most conservative critics.

Weimar enthusiasts will find much to be excited about in Fay’s dissertation on music, culture, and the nation in the 1920s. Written in clear, clever, and delightfully witty prose, Brendan Fay’s dissertation brings to light many of the movers and shakers in the 1920s who dictated what was culturally relevant to music enthusiasts. He often highlights key primary sources from some of the most popular newspapers and magazines (Simplicissimus, Musikblätter des Anbruch) in ways that remind us why Weimar culture has been so alluring and captivating for so long. Vibrant, glamorous, a mix of old and new, Weimar’s musical culture was never monolithic, never politically stagnant, and always brimming with exciting possibilities.

Kira Thurman
Department of History
University of Akron

Primary Sources

Simplicissimus
Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung
Musikblätter des Anbruch
Walter Gieseking, So wurde ich Pianist. Berlin: F.A. Brockhaus, 1975
Hans Joachim Moser, Geschichte der Deutschen Musik Vom Auftreten Beethovens bis zur Gegenwart (vols. 1- 3). Berlin: Cotta, 1923.

Dissertation Information

Indiana University. 2013. 236pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Roseman.

Image: Eduard Hanslick. Wikimedia.

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