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Book review: Forbidden Music: the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, By Michael Haas


A poet beloved of 19th-century composers, Heinrich Heine was aware of the complexities of German national identity, particularly for German Jews. His epic Germany: a Winter's Tale acts as springboard to this compelling exploration of the role Jewish musicians and composers played in the cultural life of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It moves from Jewish emancipation (in 1867 and 1871 respectively), through the golden years of liberalism in Vienna to the migratory shift to Berlin in the 1920s, the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, and the legacy of those who sprung from such a rich tradition and whose voices were silenced or forgotten.

Mendelssohn's ghost presides over the "old German school", with its reverence for the past and ideals of Enlightenment, in opposition to the "new" school championed by Wagner and Liszt: the rational versus the slippery concept of the "German soul" of Romanticism. Brahms is depicted as the representative of the liberal years, the counterpoint to a growing distrust of "the Other" as infamously voiced by Wagner. How short the time, Haas marvels, between those years of tolerance under Emperor Franz Josef and the slide into the apocalypse as anticipated by Schoenberg.

Forbidden Music is rich in unexpected facts and quotes, from Joseph Roth to Stefan Zweig, Theodor Adorno to Julius Korngold. It ranges from Mahler's development of the symphony to Schoenberg's 12-tone revolution; from the musical criticism and social essays in the once-great Neue Freie Presse of Vienna to that quintessentially Jewish construct, the salon; from cabaret to film music; from the compositions of exiles interned on the Isle of Man to a masterpiece of Theresienstadt camp.

Its greatest virtue is the unearthing of composers, critics, conductors and musicians destined for obscurity. Haas makes a pleasingly detailed argument for honouring a treasure trove to which the development of Western music owes a considerable debt.