Composers in Exile

For many Jewish composers, the rise of Nazism in Germany and Austria resulted in a stark choice: stay and submit to an unknown future in an increasingly hostile environment, or leave for foreign lands, cut off from one’s cultural heritage. In the early days of Nazism, when the choice was still not an obvious one, it was far from an easy decision. Shortly after Hitler seized power, Kurt Weill (a prominent composer of the Weimar Republic) noted: 'I consider what is going on here so sickening that I cannot imagine it lasting more than a couple of months … But one could be very wrong.' Once the Nazis had passed laws ‘cleansing’ Germany’s cultural life of Jews, composers were forced for financial reasons, irrespective of their feelings of foreboding, to consider exile: they could not join the newly-created Reich Music Chamber, and while the rules in the first few years of Hitler’s regime were not rigorously enforced, royalties from compositions soon dried up.  Many composers left for the United States – there to find employment in universities, on Broadway, and in Hollywood – while others (such as Egon Wellesz and Berthold Goldschmidt) headed for Britain. Some of the most prominent Jewish composers of the early 20th century were thus forced into a tremendous upheaval that had a lasting effect on their music, among who we can count Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Erich Korngold. Other composers, such as Ernst Krenek and Paul Hindemith, were driven from Europe for reasons other than their racial identity.

In the mountains of Santa Monica: Otto Klemperer, Prince Hubertus von Löwenstein, Arnold Schönberg and Ernst Toch Source: UCLA, Ernst Toch Archive, Rights: Courtesy of the Ernst Toch Archive, 1, Music Library Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles

Schoenberg is perhaps the most well known of this group of exiled composers. A converted Catholic, he nevertheless returned officially to the Jewish faith in 1933 shortly after his dismissal from the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where he had taught since 1925. Schoenberg was one of many composers (including Ernst Toch and Igor Stravinsky) who ended up in the warm climate of California, and like many others he found it difficult to adjust at first to a life outside Europe. His music – which the Nazis had thought to be a sign of degeneracy and artistic Bolshevism that completed a process of musical ruin begun by Mahler – proved barely more popular in his adopted homeland until after the war, and he was forced to accept numerous teaching positions at Californian universities in addition to taking private pupils. He did, however, produce a number of significant works in exile, including Kol Nidre (1938) and most powerfully, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), which was inspired by tales of courageous Jews singing on their way to the gas chambers. Schoenberg became a US citizen in 1941, and remained in California until his death in 1951.

In contrast to Schoenberg’s relative reticence to engage with his new cultural surroundings, Kurt Weill positively embraced the new opportunities afforded him by his exile, making a major contribution to American musical theatre. The composer of The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1927-9), he had long been a target of Nazi activists by the time the wave of arrests that accompanied the Reichstag fire in Berlin (27 February 1933) convinced him that he was in danger.  Following a period of time in France, where he was at least relatively well known, he was drawn to the United States in 1935 to work on a visually spectacular pageant of Jewish history, The Eternal Road. By the time it finally premiered in 1937, Weill had resolved to leave his European past firmly behind, and to try his hand at American musical theatre. He scored notable successes on Broadway with Knickerbocker HolidayLady in the Dark, and One Touch of Venus, and though he did not participate in any active political way against Nazism, his musical contributions to the 1943 pageant We Will Never Die ensured that some knowledge of the Holocaust spread throughout America. Like Schoenberg, Weill became a US citizen; he died in New York in 1950.

Weill also attempted to gain employment in Hollywood (an important source of work for many exiled writers and orchestral musicians), but could not accept the restrictions placed upon him by movie producers. For the Viennese former child prodigy Erich Korngold, however, this proved less of a problem. As a well-known opera composer on both sides of the Atlantic (his 1920 opera Die tote Stadt had been a big success at New York’s Metropolitan Opera), Korngold had flirted with Hollywood as early as 1934 at the invitation of fellow émigré Max Reinhardt; however, it was only in 1938 – when work on the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood encouraged him to leave Austria just as the Anschluß with Nazi Germany was taking place – that he became a permanent exile in California. Korngold contributed hugely to the relatively new art of film scoring, and many more recent film composers (such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith) have acknowledged the debt they owe to Korngold’s music. The sound of Old Vienna is still readily detectable in many of his scores, however, and the first score written in exile was affectionately known by members of the Warner Bros. orchestra as Robin Hood in the Vienna Woods. Though he attempted to return to Austria after the war to resurrect his concert and operatic career, Korngold was evidently more comfortable with the nostalgic image of pre-war Europe that his music often evokes, and remained in California. He too became a US citizen, and died in 1957.

It was not only Jewish composers, though, who were forced into exile. The Austrian Ernst Krenek was, by Nazi definitions, of pure Aryan descent. Nevertheless, he was considered a cultural Bolshevist, and was often branded a Jew by Nazi propaganda. As the composer of the 1927 jazz opera Jonny Spielt Auf, he warranted a place at the infamous ‘degenerate art’ exhibition of 1938 (which also had several display placards devoted to Weill), and when the Nazis annexed Austria, he emigrated to America, where he became a naturalised citizen. Similarly, the German composer Paul Hindemith was one who, as he put it, 'recklessly danced in front of the trap and even ventured inside; quite by chance, when [I] happened to be outside, the trap closed!' A prominent composer in the neo-Baroque style of the 1920s (the so-called ‘new objectivity’), and a composer who paid particular attention to the practical role of music, many of Hindemith’s works were banned by the Nazis for evincing features of cultural Bolshevism. Though he and the regime flirted with each other at various points, his symphony Mathis der Maler (1934) came under particular scrutiny, and when propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels denounced him, the composer began to consider emigration. He made several trips to Turkey, helping Jews to escape, and in September 1938 left Germany for Switzerland.  Eventually, Hindemith emigrated to America where, like many exiled artists, he suffered from an initial bout of depression, before finding a new role at Yale University. He continued to compose successfully and took US citizenship, satisfied that he could contribute just as effectively to American cultural life as he had in Germany.

Although non-Jewish Austro-German composers were also driven from their homes, there can be little doubt that Jews were the Nazis’ chief victims. Evidently Jewish composers of international standing enjoyed a certain amount of financial independence, and were therefore in a far more enviable position than the countless millions for whom exile was not an option. While composers like Schoenberg, Korngold and Toch suffered from varying degrees of homesickness, were uprooted from their former lives, and forced to abandon friends and family (Berthold Goldschmidt lost 22 relatives in the Holocaust), they were in some senses the fortunate ones. Indeed, Schoenberg talked of being 'driven into paradise,' such was his gratitude for the land that gave him a new home. While many felt that their exile disturbed their careers to such an extent that they never recovered their reputation (Toch believed himself 'the most forgotten composer of the twentieth century'), more music of the early 20th century branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis is thankfully becoming better known. These voices, unlike countless million others, were not permanently silenced.

By Ben Winters


Brinkmann, Reinhold and Christoph Wolff (eds). Driven into Paradise: The Musical Migration from Nazi Germany to the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Duchen, Jessica. Erich Wolfgang Korngold. London: Phaidon, 1996.

Lincoln, John. Ernst Krenek: The Man and his Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Ringer, Alexander L. Arnold Schoenberg: the Composer as Jew. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Schebera, Jürgen trans. Caroline Murphy. Kurt Weill: An illustrated Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.