Author Article by Erik Levi: Mozart and the charade of fascist culture

In Mozart and the Nazis, ERIK LEVI reveals how the Third Reich sought to further the goals of its regime by appropriating Mozart’s music to aggressively promote the supremacy of Germanic culture. But as Levi explains, tailoring the peace-loving composer’s image to suit a fascist agenda involved considerable cultural manipulation. Here the author writes about how he came to tackle this fascinating subject, which so vividly highlights the insidiousness of Nazi propaganda.

The original impulse for writing Mozart and the Nazis came four years ago during the 250th anniversary celebrations of the composer’s birth. At that time I was invited to act as an academic consultant for an exhibition on Mozart’s Jewish-born librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte which was taking place in Vienna. My specific task was to chart the reception of Da Ponte during the Third Reich looking in particular at the ways in which these ‘Jewish- tainted’ librettos were aryanised so as to make them ideologically acceptable to the regime.

Yet the extraordinary lengths to which the Nazis went to try and suppress Da Ponte’s contributions to Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro represented only one aspect of a much more involved and cynical narrative surrounding the composer. At this juncture I was particularly fascinated by the unusually elaborate musical celebrations that took place in the Greater German Reich during 1941 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. At the behest of Joseph Goebbels, the whole nation was urged to honour the ‘great German genius of music’. Thus every major city in the Reich organised its own Mozart celebrations with innumerable concerts, opera performances, exhibitions and lectures. The radio joined in the jamboree with an ambitious series of fourteen broadcasts charting Mozart’s life, some of which were beamed from cities such as Paris and Prague that were now under German occupation. Such events were designed to enhance morale on the home front and also brought considerable financial rewards to musicians who were particularly grateful to the Reich for providing them with such extensive employment opportunities. But equally important was the message that this kind of cultural activity sent to those fighting on the Eastern front. This explains for example former Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach’s astonishing claim, delivered to an audience which included many ambassadors and foreign ministers from nations allied to Germany at the Mozart celebrations in Vienna in December 1941, that ‘those who draw the sword for Germany were also drawing it for Mozart.’.

By 1941 of course the problematic issues surrounding Mozart’s suitability for becoming a Nazi icon had largely been solved. Despite incontestable evidence that the composer loathed militarism and felt equally at home in all the nations of Europe, it was necessary to present him as a staunch German nationalist. Furthermore given Nazi hostility towards Freemasonry, Mozart’s enthusiastic espousal of the cause, most obviously manifested in the opera The Magic Flute, had to be suppressed.

The Nazi appropriation of Mozart also had profound implications for musical life outside the Third Reich. Scholars like Alfred Einstein who left Germany in 1933 to pursue a successful academic career in Britain, Italy and the United States, worked tirelessly in a series of extensive publications to further knowledge of a composer whom he regarded as a beacon of humanitarianism in a dangerous and troubled world. Equally significant was the contribution of two other German exiles, conductor Fritz Busch and producer Carl Ebert. Accepting John Christie’s invitation to inaugurate the first Glyndebourne Festivals in the mid 1930s, they managed to revolutionise the nature of Mozart opera performance in England, emphasising a much closer integration between music and drama than had ever been imagined before.

Mozart and the Nazis

Mozart and the Nazis: How the Third Reich Abused a Cultural Icon

Erik Levi is Reader in Music, Royal Holloway University of London. He is the author of Music in the Third Reich and has written numerous articles and chapters on many aspects of twentieth-century music, especially on music in Germany during the Nazi regime. His latest book, Mozart and the Nazis: How the Third Reich Abused a Cultural Icon is published in November and is available to order here.

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