A fairly obscure musicologist and writer before 1933, Karl Blessinger’s career was made by the Nazis’ rise to power. What might previously have been dismissed as the musings of a fringe right-winger became, with the Nazis' formalised antisemitism, a legitimate voice. Above all it was Blessinger's 1939 book Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Mahler: Three Chapters of Jewry in Music as the Key to Music History of the 19th Century that established his reputation as one of the most prominent anti-Semitic musicologists of the Third Reich. Alongside Herbert Gerigk’s infamous Lexikon Der Juden in Der Musik (Lexicon of Jews in Music), the book was recognised as an important piece of Nazi propaganda. It was so successful that it was reprinted several times with the more catchy title Jewry and Music: A Contribution to Culture and Racial Politics. It allowed Blessinger to become a popular public lecturer, and earned him the respect of high officials and fellow Nazi musicologists. However, with the defeat of Nazi Germany, his period of fame ended and he faded back into obscurity.
Little is known about Blessinger’s life before the success of his book. He received his doctorate in music history in 1913, writing his dissertation on the 17th century music of Ulm. He became known as a conservative, even reactionary thinker, but dedicated more of his energy to reviving German interest in early music than to antisemitism. During the 1920s, he published many pamphlets and articles condemning modernism and modern music, supporting an increased interest in medieval and early modern music, and developing theories of the racial degeneration of the USA and England (as centres of ‘new music’, especially atonality and jazz).
Blessinger joined the Nazi party in 1932, passionate in his desire to reform the German music scene. It was not until the publication of his 1939 book, however, that he made any kind of lasting impression. His book reveals the Nazi paranoia of a worldwide conspiracy of Jewry. It is divided into three main sections, each dedicated to one of the three great Jewish composers of the title. Based on the assumption that the Jewish ‘infiltration’ of German music was a systematic process accomplished in three distinct phases, the book aligned each phase with a different composer. According to Blessinger, Mendelssohn represented the dangerous assimilated Jew, Meyerbeer the unscrupulous business Jew, and Mahler the fanatical oriental Jew.
Addressing the book to the general reader rather than the music expert, Blessinger allowed the power of his emotional rhetoric to take centre stage. The lack of evidence for his claims, the absence of an index, and the abundance of simple historical inaccuracies did not decrease his audience. Rather than attempting to be academic, his language was strident and repetitive:
In the interests of purging the musical life of Germany from the vestiges of our immediate predecessors' outlook – an act of purification which has become very necessary – we must ensure that at least the essential points of a development that has allowed the Jews to advance to a position of musical domination are able to emerge with fundamental clarity, and are hammered home for musical Germany to see for herself.
Blessinger’s career with the Nazis did not end with this book; he was one of Herbert Gerigk’s assistants in gathering information to denounce Jews and exclude them from musical life. Between 1940 and 1944, he informed on dozens of so-called non-Aryans, so that they could be included in Gerigk’s Lexikon.
Blessinger's faith in the Nazi party and the German army remained with him until the end of the war. As late as 1944, he published a third edition of his book, wherein he argued
that the fight for or against degeneration in music is an eminent political problem; indeed, it is part of the enormous world struggle within which we now stand. For that reason, the struggle for the final recovery of German music reaches far beyond the artistic cultural arena.
Dümling, A., 2002. The Target of Racial Purity: The Degenerate Music Exhibition in Dusseldorf, 1938. In Art, culture, and media under the Third Reich, ed. Richard A Etlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.
Potter, P., 1998. Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the end of Hitler's Reich, New Haven: Yale University Press.