Clemens Krauss (1893-1954)
Clemens Krauss was an Austrian conductor and opera impresario who has been called ‘the most powerful man in German opera,’ and a ‘culture leader’ in the Third Reich. Although he was tried and acquitted in the denazification tribunals after the Second World War, Krauss’ career advanced significantly under the Nazi regime, in part because he overtook positions that had previously been held by anti-Nazi conductors. Despite this, Krauss was described by friends as politically indifferent towards the Nazis, and he contributed to an operation run by British sisters Ida and Louise Cook that enabled Jewish families to escape from Germany during the 1930s. Krauss spent much of his career at the Vienna State Opera (Staatsoper), establishing the traditional New Year’s Day Pops concerts which began in 1939 and are still broadcast internationally.
Born in Vienna to a young ballet dancer and an Austrian Imperial Court official, Krauss was a choirboy in the Vienna Imperial Choir from a young age. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory with Hermann Graedener and Richard Heuberger, graduating in 1912 before becoming choirmaster at the Brno Theatre. He travelled to Berlin as a choirmaster, and from 1922 conducted the Vienna State Opera; he also conducted at the Salzberg Festival from 1926.
Although Krauss was not a member of the Nazi Party, it is rumoured that he applied for membership in 1933 and was denied on the basis that he was an opportunist. Nazi documentation also notes that Krauss’s politics did not comply with Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, he was friends with Austrian Nazi leader Alfred Frauenfeld, and corresponded personally with Hitler on matters related to opera. During the Nazi regime, Krauss advanced his career by taking over positions that had been vacated by those opposed to Nazi Party ideology. He became conductor at the Berlin State Opera from 1935, after Erich Kleiber resigned in protest to the Nazis’ judgement that Alban Berg’s second opera, Lulu, was entartet (degenerate) and therefore banned. Krauss had once championed Berg’s works, but during the 1930s spoke negatively about the composer’s music. Krauss was good friends with composer Richard Strauss, as he wrote the libretto for the composer’s opera Capriccio, which was premiered in Munich in 1942, and conducted premieres of many of Strauss’s new works. Krauss stepped in to conduct the premiere of Strauss’s opera Arabella after Fritz Busch’s resignation for political reasons; he also received a generous salary as intendent at the Munich State Opera from 1936, after Hans Knappertsbusch’s forced resignation.
Krauss personally corresponded with Hitler, suggesting that he should become the artistic director of an alliance between the Munich and Vienna State Operas, although his request was denied at first. He did not return to Vienna until 1944 after theatres in Munich were destroyed by Allied bombing and opera staff and musicians were called up for war service. In the 1944-45 season, half of the orchestral programming was made up of works by Johann and Josef Strauss, and the perception of Strauss’s music as a link between ‘high symphonic culture and popular entertainment’ was exploited by the Reichsmusikkammer, as ‘light music’ was intended to distract audiences from the realities of wartime. Goebbels was subsequently forced to supress details of the Strauss family’s Jewish ancestry, recording in his journal that he had ‘no desire gradually to undermine the entire German cultural patrimony.’ However, Krauss did not quell rumours that he himself had Jewish ancestry, and he supposedly helped to protect Richard Strauss’s Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, from persecution.
During the 1930s Krauss and his second wife, Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac, performed at Covent Garden and met the Mills & Boon writer and opera fan Ida Cook (pen-name Mary Burchell) and her sister Louise. Krauss and Ursuleac later asked the sisters to look after their Jewish friend Mitia Meyer-Lismann, who thus became the first person the sisters helped emigrate to the UK to escape Nazi persecution. From 1937 until August 1939 the sisters helped at least twenty-nine families to gain British visas by travelling to Germany and Austria under the guise of wealthy opera-goers, and persuading British citizens to act as guarantors. The sisters corresponded with Krauss and Ursuleac, who would provide details of opera performances and castings in order to make their story more believable, and often performed the sisters’ favourite operas during their visits to Germany. Ida and Louise financed and organised the operation themselves, risking their lives (often unknowingly) by wearing Jewish-owned jewellery and furs on their return journeys, and lying to Nazi officers and border officials. The sisters were among the most effective transporters of Jews to England during this time, and were recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1964 for their work.
After the war, Allied officials forbade Krauss from appearing in public until 1947, when information about the help that he had provided the Cook sisters in saving Jews from persecution was made public. He resumed his position in Vienna and conducted internationally until his death on tour in South America in 1954. He is buried in Austria next to his second wife, Ursuleac.
By Abaigh McKee
Cook, I. (1950) Safe Passage (first published as We Followed Our Stars) (London: Harper Collins)
Crichton, R. (n.d.) ‘Krauss, Clemens’ The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (available online: www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15493, accessed 28/11/2016)
Davidson, J. (2013) ‘Davidson on the Vienna Philharmonic’s Suppressed Nazi Past, Vulture (available online: www.vulture.com/2013/03/davidson-on-the-vienna-philharmonics-nazi-era.html, accessed 28/11/2016)
Kater, M. H. (1997) The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press)
Monod, D. (2005) Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and the Americans, 1945-1953 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press)