Berthold Goldschmidt

One of the most interesting dimensions of World War II was the diverse and creative use of propaganda. The 1936 Berlin Olympics and American pamphlets proclaiming ‘inevitable victory’ are well-known.  In addition, there were many other ways in which the warring forces tried to convince their enemies’ populations that their side was not only inferior, but also losing the war.  One of the most creative was the BBC's use of oppositional music propaganda. In the later years of the war, the British radio sponsored a regular programme in its European Service, directed towards Germany.  The purpose of the programme was to give Germans the chance to hear music that had been banned under the Nazis due to the ‘racial’ or political status of the composer.  Under the guidance of the German-Jewish composer and conductor Berthold Goldschmidt, it relied on the power of music by Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn and Mahler, and recordings by artists such as Kreisler and Schnabel, to persuade Germans to challenge the values of their regime.  Short-lived as this programme was, it remains a fascinating example of the political mobilisation of classical music. For Goldschmidt, the job merged his love for Germany with his hatred of the Nazis, his musical passion and political convictions.

Berthold Goldschmidt was born in Hamburg on 18 January 1903.  With the support of his musical parents, he took piano lessons from the age of six, and started to compose at an early age.  As a youth, he was particularly drawn to the music of Bach and Mahler.  Too young to serve in the army, during World War I he was sent to the country to do agricultural work in support of the war effort.  While there, he witnessed the everyday mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war held as forced labour.  This early exposure to racism and exploitation was to affect his political and musical development, and he eventually became a convinced anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian.

After the war, Goldschmidt began studying philosophy and art history at the University of Hamburg.  Soon, however, he decided to return to his first love, music, and moved to Berlin to study with, among others, Franz Schreker.  Aware that he was not good enough to become a performing musician, he focused his studies on conducting and composing, and already by 1925 had begun to make a name for himself as a composer.  In the late 1920s he began work on his first opera, Der Gewaltige Hahnrei (The Mighty Cuckold).  The opera was controversial from its opening performance, as it was a barely-veiled critique of the destructive power of authority.  First performed in February 1932, as the Nazis were gaining and consolidating their power, it received extremely positive reviews.  Nonetheless, other theatres only agreed to produce it under a contract allowing them to cancel the piece immediately in case of political difficulty.

Goldschmidt had been harassed and threatened by the Nazis for years, for being Jewish, ‘politically unreliable’, and a proponent of new music.  He was well-acquainted with the ‘typical’ antisemitism of the small towns that he would tour in.  Like most other German Jews, he did not take it too seriously.  In 1933, however, the Nazis ensured that he was fired from all positions, and that his works were banned.  In the spring of 1935 he decided to emigrate to England.  By means of a visit to family in Switzerland, he managed to smuggle money with him to London, where he initially supported himself teaching harmony and counterpoint to private students.  His younger sister was to die that same summer, his father two years later.  He was able to get his mother out of the country immediately before the outbreak of war.

It was in England that Goldschmidt was finally able to marry his non-Jewish fiancée, a trained singer whom he had met in Berlin.  His flight to England was to signal the gradual decline of his career as a composer.  Not only did he slowly cease to compose new music, but his unpublished work prior to 1935 was lost.  As the war began, Goldschmidt found it increasingly difficult to compose, and he struggled to support himself and his young family.  As a result of his reputation as a musically talented German-speaker and an anti-fascist, he was invited by the BBC to head their German music programme, broadcasting forbidden music into Nazi Germany.  He stayed at the BBC until 1947, when Germany was allowed to begin rebuilding its musical life, and the BBC programme was dismantled.

During the 1950s, Goldschmidt composed several major works, including three concertos for clarinet, cello and violin. His inability to get many of his works performed so discouraged him, however, that after 1958 he gave up composing, a discouragement that was made even worse by his beloved wife’s developing leukemia.  (She was to die from the disease in March 1979).

Unable to succeed as a conductor in Great Britain, and marked as a German despite the death of many family members at the hands of the Nazis, Goldschmidt was forced to rely on his skills as a conductor.  Through his connections at the BBC, he was invited to conduct for the radio, and he became increasingly valued as a conductor.  Having accepted the erasure of his identity as a composer, Goldschmidt was pleasantly surprised by the re-discovery and revival of his work beginning in the early 1980s. His forgotten opera Beatrice Cenci was finally premiered in 1988, and the ‘Mighty Cuckold’ put on to rave reviews in the US, Switzerland and Germany.  Goldschmidt died in England in October 1996.


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

Matthews, D., 1983. “Berthold Goldschmidt: A Biographical Sketch” . Tempo, 144(March), 2-6.

Peterson, P. ed., Zündende Lieder - Verbrannte Musik: Folgen des Nazifaschismus für Hamburger Musiker und Musikerinnen, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag.  

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

Traber, H. & Weingarten, E. eds., 1987. Verdrängte Musik: Berliner Komponisten im Exil, Berlin: Argon.