Werner Egk

Werner Egk, the so-called Komponist des Wiederaufbaus (Composer of the Reconstruction), is best remembered for the role he played in rebuilding the musical landscape of a physically devastated and culturally demoralized post-war Germany.  Appointed Director of the Berlin Music Academy, President of the German Composers’ Association, and holder of numerous other positions of influence in musical associations in West Germany until his death in 1983, Egk’s career under the Nazis was largely ignored, regarded as a footnote to an otherwise great career.  With the exception of a brief period of criticism during the leftist student revolts of the 1960s, it is only recently that this narrative has been challenged.  This is hardly surprising, for even the Nazis were hard-pressed to find a political or ideological message in his music.  In the eyes of many Nazi officials, Egk was a great German composer, but his link to Nazism was harder to pin down.  Praise for him, though effusive, tended toward the abstract and idealistic.   Like so many of his fellow German composers, Egk chose simply to disengage from his political surroundings.  Neither actively resisting nor condoning the actions of the Nazi state, he accepted state honours and the admiration of Goebbels and Hitler without directly participating in the purges and denunciations that defined the lives of so many of his colleagues.

Werner Egk was born Werner Joseph Mayer in Auchsesheim in 1901. Musical from an early age, he entered a municipal conservatory at the age of 18, and later studied theory, composition and conducting with Carl Orff in Munich.  He adopted the nom de plume Werner Egk, an acronym based on his wife’s name: ‘Elisabeth, geborene Karl’ (Elisabeth, née Karl).  After supporting himself and his small family through private music teaching, Egk got a job in radio, which remained a lifetime interest.  After several years in Munich, he relocated to Berlin, where he met important representatives of the artistic avant-garde including Arnold Schoenberg, Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

Egk rose to prominence in the early 1930s with his popular opera Die Zaubergeige (The Magic Violin), which became one of the most frequently performed works of the period.  The opera combined tonality and the use of Bavarian folk material with freely dissonant orchestral writing – a key influence was Stravinsky – and complicated rhythmic patterns.

Already there were a few voices criticizing the modernist influences in his music.  However, his defenders were more persuasive than his enemies. One enthusiastic Nazi critic defended Egk against suspicions of left-wing sympathies and, asserting his Germanic allegiances, assured his readership that Werner Egk

wants nothing from the radicals, and even less from the conservative musical sense of the reactionaries. Without compromise he creates a musical style that rings with the sound of Heimat, that is tied to the folk, a style that is entirely timeless.

The debates that surrounded Die Zaubergeige were augmented in the dramatic saga of his next opera, 1938’s Peer Gynt, based on Ibsen's play.  While the story itself was praised, the score was attacked for atonality and some jazz elements. Particularly provocative were the numbers that bore an uncanny resemblance to the ‘degenerate’ music of Kurt Weill.  The potential discomfort with the opera was reflected in its lukewarm early reviews; however, as had been the case with his earlier opera, Peer Gynt was an enormous success with the public.

Goebbels was impressed by Egk's work, writing in his diary that

Egk is a huge, original talent. He moves in his own very individualistic direction. Does not associate himself with anybody and anything. But he knows how to make music. I am totally delighted and so is the Führer. A new discovery for both of us; we have to remember this name.

Peer Gynt was selected as featured opera in the 1939 Reichsmusiktage (Nazi Music Festival) in Düsseldorf, and the composer was awarded a string of prizes, honours and commissions.  He composed marches for the Hitler Youth, worked on a film score about them, and created songs for the Munich Olympics.

In 1941 Egk replaced Paul Graener as head of the Board of Composers of the Reichsmusikkammer. Busy, popular and well-paid, Egk carved a comfortable niche for himself in the cultural establishment of the Third Reich, remaining a favourite composer of Hitler throughout the war years.

In early post-war Germany, Egk managed to avoid being implicated in the Nazi regime.  Although one of the most successful composers of the Third Reich, his lack of political activity and his more progressive musical style freed him from the need for denazification.  Instead, he was embraced as a key figure free of the taint of Nazism, capable of rebuilding Germany’s musical world.   In the early 1950s Egk worked as Professor of Composition and Director at the Berlin Music Academy, and later directed the Bavarian State Opera.

Werner Egk died on 10 July 1983, an internationally respected and admired composer.

Sources

Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.  

Meyer, M., 1993. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich, New York: Peter Lang.  

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.  

German postage stamp (2001), celebrating the 100th Birthday of Werner Egk.