Spain’s Musical Politics During World War II

For Spain in 1940, the impact of war on musical life was not a new phenomenon. During the 1920s and 30s, Spain became an international centre for music, hosting renowned musicians including national composer Manuel de Falla, and attracting famous figures such as Igor Stravinsky (who visited Barcelona five times between 1924 and 1936). But the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 brought an eerie silence. This was partly due to financial difficulties. Catalan composer Federico Mompou, for example, had to leave behind composition and turn to running a bell foundry to make ends meet. The war also shattered the national spirit, which had been so central to Spanish identity in the preceding decades. Composers such as Joaquin Turina chose not to compose at all, orchestras disintegrated, and musical figures including musicologist Adolfo Salazar, composer Julian Bautista, and cellist Pablo Casals went into exile. By 1939, Spanish musical life was devastated.

The new authoritarian regime led by General Francisco Franco hoped to use music to provide cultural and ideological support for the new state, the 'Nuevo Estado'. Franco tried first to encourage musicians to return to Spain; de Falla was named a Knight of the Order of King Alfonso X of Castile in 1940 and offered a large pension if he would return home, but he refused. Its failure to encourage exiles to return led the Spanish regime to set in motion a new cultural crusade that aimed to revitalise Spanish music by drawing on the musical influence of other countries. Music critic Federico Sopeña wrote in the newspaper Arriba on 31 December 1941: 'We do not wish to demand a hasty creative activity, but only to draw attention to the responsibility – the glorious responsibility – of those in whom all hopes are set.'

The use of international models in Spanish music was not new: France's influence in the 1900s and 1910s had dominated musical life. But now, attention turned to Axis states, specifically Germany and Italy. This took place at a time when Spain seriously considered entering the war to support Germany, with several meetings taking place between Franco and Hitler. It was also encouraged by the 'Falange Española', Spain's fascist party which assumed a position of power in the government during the early years of World War I and took control of press, propaganda and culture.

Spain and Germany

Germany was seen by culturally marginalised Spain as the most advanced musical nation in the world. It was not just Germany's esteemed musical history that informed this portrayal, but also the particular importance placed on music by Hitler. Developing a musical relationship with Germany thus had a symbolic value for Spain.

In 1940, after an absence of 10 years, the Berlin Philharmonic returned to perform in Madrid, an event that was repeated several times over the next few years. In return, the Philharmonic was conducted by Spanish composer Conrado del Campo in Berlin in January 1942. The Berliner Kammerorchester also made two visits to Madrid in 1941 with Italian tenor singer Tito Schipa and violinist Vittorio Brero. A Spanish Commission of Music was created in 1940 headed by Joaquin Turina, which appointed musicians to act as ambassadors of Spanish music abroad. Turina also reorganised the Madrid Royal Conservatory in an attempt to raise it to an international level that would equal that of German institutions.

These events paved the way for the establishment of a larger cultural exchange: the prestigious Hispanic-German music festival, which took place in Bad Elster in July 1941 and July 1942, and in Spain in January 1942. The most famous composers and performers from each country were invited to attend. The festival was regarded by Spain as the pinnacle of musical events. The critic Sopeña wrote after the first festival:

'The fact that the most musical of nations, Germany, organizes in the middle of the war a series of concerts dedicated to Spanish music is not only a proof of vitality – it bears as well the symbol of the special unity of these two nations, whose sons fight again against the universal enemy: Communism. […] Tomorrow, our shared triumph in the trenches which protect the highest essences of both nations will result in a new artistic communion.'

The political overtones in this statement were not disguised, but were rather a well recognised feature of the festival. Political acts accompanied the music, including a visit of the German attendees to the tomb of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who founded Spanish fascism, and a visit of the Spanish attendees to Bayreuth.

Politics continued to inform musical exchanges as the Falange used culture to try to gain status and prestige within the Nazi regime. Members of the Commission for Music and leaders of the Franco regime welcomed German political leaders in Madrid, and in return were received by officials including Heinz Drewes, leader of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer, an organisation that promoted 'Aryan' music. It became commonplace for embassy representatives to attend folk music events in Madrid. During a visit to Madrid in 1943, the famous Wagnerian conductor Hans Knapperbutsch and the Berlin Philharmonic gave a fundraising concert for the Spanish Blue Division, a unit of Spanish volunteers who served in the German Army on the Eastern Front.

Interestingly, there is no evidence of new music having been commissioned by the Franco regime. However, there have been suggestions that some works were considered to represent Spain abroad, such as Guridi's Diez Melodías Vascas (ten Basque melodies), premiered in December 1941, of which Sopeña wrote: 'We now have two obligations: repeat it, and let it be heard by European audiences'. The work was performed at Bad Elster and later in Madrid where, according to Sopeña, it pleased a German audience for its novelty, but at the same time its 'precious European divulgation of [Spanish] regional colours' and 'typically Spanish flair'.

This national character was something of which Spanish music critics were fiercely proud. The secretary of the Spanish Commission of Music, Antonio de las Heras, praised Spanish music in comparison with rootless 'international music'. Perhaps this sense of national identity was valued because it was seen to be a feature of German music, and so associated with high art. For example, Joaquin Rodrigo highlighted the 'Germanness' of composers such as Mozart. Although Spain was keen for a fertilisation of ideas with Germany, its composers made a point of maintaining its national 'Spanish' character in composition, using this as a base upon which to build strong links with Germany.

Spain and Italy

As with Hitler and Germany, Mussolini's love of music encouraged Spain to build a cultural relationship with Italy. However, there was a historical problem behind linking the two countries musically. Prior to the Franco regime, Spanish histories of music had blamed Italian influences, in particular the bel canto tradition, for overshadowing and ultimately ruining Spain's own musical development. For example, at the end of the 19th century, composer and musicologist Felipe Pedrell complained that after centuries of glorious Spanish polyphony and the success of Spanish Zarzuela, a dramatic form that combined spoken and sung scenes, Italian opera had eclipsed everything.

To overcome this problem, critics found a twofold solution. First, critics who had previously complained about Italian opera for its musical features simply chose to ignore musical or narrative aspects, focusing instead on more neutral territory such as the Italian divas, singing abilities, and audience responses. Secondly, critics drew on racial theory and the concept of Latinitas (Latin-ness) to show an essential unity between Spain and Italy and create an ideological base that justified their cultural partnership. For example, critic and composer José Forns published a series of articles in which he praised 'ethnical peculiarities' such as melodies full of chiaroscuri (contrasts of light and dark) which he called 'a most Latin, Mediterranean feature'. He claimed that the music of the 1930s and 40s was a 'modern Italian renaissance', and went on to write favourable profiles of a number of Italian musicians including Ottorino Resphighi and Ildebrando Pizzetti.

A similar policy was at work in Italy. In 1942, Italian composer Alfredo Casella visited Madrid to give a talk at the Institute of Italian Culture. He discussed Domenico Scarlatti, whose Italian birth and Spanish career made him a perfect bridge between the two countries. Casella concluded that Scarlatti 'gained his prodigious artistic personality thanks to his contact with the Spanish and [also] the Portuguese world', meaning that he could effectively be claimed as a national composer of both Spain and Italy.

In fact, most of the impetus for this Spanish-Italian union came from Italy. Although Spain welcomed performers, most of their own musical activity was targeted at Germany. But Italian institutions worked hard to promote their music in Spain. For example, the Italian fascist party opened an Institute of Italian Culture in Madrid in 1940 which quickly opened branches in ten other cities. The Liceo Italiano, an educational organisation in Spain that hosted the children of Italian citizens, organised a series of musical events supported by the Italian Embassy. Newspapers estimated that at least 25 larger events, including festivals, given by touring Italian musicians took place between 1940 and 1944. As with German musical exchanges, these events became a forum for political engagement, including speeches from senior government spokespeople and fundraising both for the war effort and to support the government. Opera in particular became a popular vehicle for propaganda. The trade union Obra Sindical de Educación y Descanso (union organisation of education and leisure) launched a series of enterprise concerts (Conciertos de Empresa) in collaboration with the Italian Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, featuring a mixture of Italian and Spanish opera singers performing a selection of the most popular Italian arias. The aim of this concert series was that the popularity of the opera, provided free of charge, would attract audiences that would also absorb some of Spain's diplomatic agenda through experiencing the presence of both Italian and Spanish authorities at the event.

Spain and Portugal

A similar cultural and ideological policy to that of Spain and Italy was at work in Portugal. Another racial foundation was found on which to base a musical partnership. Sopeña claimed in April 1942 that the music of composers such as Manuel de Falla was symptomatic of a 'peninsular music' that integrated both Spanish and Portuguese composers. Although Falla had left for Argentina two years earlier, his music was still much loved. Sopeña's appropriation of him as a Spanish-Portuguese composer provided a tangible foundation on which to build stronger musical links between the two countries. Critic Lorenzo Garza echoed this rhetoric, writing in 1944: 'Our music is a constant vibration in the sensibility of the Portuguese people, for this art is able to go into the feelings deeper than the visual arts'.

As with Spain and Germany, a number of musical exchanges took place during the war. Folk music events in Madrid attracted Portuguese diplomats; orchestras from both countries visited the other, including a tour of the Spanish National Orchestra to Portugal in 1944; and Portuguese composers such as Fernando Lopes-Graça and Rui Coelho and conductors including Pedro Freitas Branco made visits to Spain.

The fall of the Spanish-Axis exchange

Although Spanish musical ties with Germany, Italy, and Portugal were initially encouraged and even contrived for political reasons, there is a sense that they came to be enjoyed for their own cultural value. Even after it became clear that Spain was not going to enter the war, musical links were maintained. Indeed, links with Portugal continued long after 1945, and Spanish critics continued invoking German and Italian music in their writings until 1948. However, the majority of musical relations with Germany and Italy remained dependent on the war situation.

From the summer of 1942, Germany's problems on the Eastern Front caused unease about the likelihood of a German victory in the war. Franco reacted by taking a more cautious approach to foreign policy, which was mirrored to some extent in musical activities. Some of the major events jointly held by Germany and Spain, such as the Hispanic-German music festivals, ceased in the summer of 1942. By autumn 1944, Germany's victory was looking even less likely, and other high-profile German-Spanish musical events, such as visits from the Berlin Philharmonic and Berliner Kammerorchester, drew to a close. Meanwhile, activities involving the British Institute flourished as Spain turned its attentions to the Allies to counterbalance its involvement with Axis powers.

By 1948, even Spanish critics were avoiding reference to Germany and Italy in an attempt to re-establish Spain as an autonomous country, free from Axis ties. But it took a long time for the Allied countries to rebuild their trust in Spain, and it was not until 1955 that Spain was allowed to join the UN.

By Daisy Fancourt


Javier Suárez-Pajares, ed., Música Española Entre Dos Guerras (Granada: Archivo Manuel de Falla, 2002).

Eva Moreda-Rodriguez 'Italian Musicians in Francoist Spain, 1939-1945: The Perspective of Music Critics' Music & Politics 2, Number 1 (Winter 2008)

Eva Moreda-Rodriguez 'Fascist Spain and the Axis: Music, Politics, Race and Canon' British Postgraduate Musicology vol. 9 (2008)

Donald S. Detwiler, ‘Spain and the Axis during World War II’, The Review of Politics, xxxiii (1971): 36–53.