Judeo-German Musicians Exiled to the United States (1933-1944)

It is estimated that approximately 1,500 musicians fled Europe for the United States between 1933 and 1944, driven out by Nazism and anti-Jewish laws. This flow of concert players, orchestra conductors, composers and musicologists, most often of Germanic culture, led to an incomparable blossoming of American musical life, and helped establish musicology as a university discipline.


Concert players who were already famous had no trouble finding their place, such as the pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), who left Berlin in 1939, or Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982), even though the latter decided to settle in Paris in 1954. Among the younger pianists, Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) was perhaps the one who embarked upon the greatest career in his country of adoption. He made his debut in 1920s Berlin, where he connected with the Busch Quartet, with whom he emigrated to the United States in 1939. He taught multiple generations of pianists at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which he later directed from 1968 to 1976. He was notably the first to record Max Reger’s Concerto for piano op. 114 in the United States, with the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Eugene Ormandy. In 1951, Serkin and Adolf Busch founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival, designed to promote chamber music.

Among violinists, Simon Goldberg (1909-1993), who was the violin solo for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1929 to 1934, made his debut in New York in 1938. In 1939 he recorded Mozart’s sonatas for piano and violin with his fellow exile, the pianist Lili Kraus (1903-1986) and also served as a very active teacher, notably at Yale University, the Juilliard School, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Internationally-known German orchestra conductors similarly had no trouble pursuing their career and enabled American orchestras to attain their highest level. Bruno Walter (1876-1962), who regularly conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1919 to 1933, and who followed Furtwängler as the head of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, took refuge in Austria in 1933 before going to the United States in 1938. He was a guest conductor in 1939 for NBC, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he served as musical advisor from 1947 to 1949. He integrated perfectly into the American lifestyle, conducted the Metropolitan Opera, and contributed to the diffusion in America of the music of Gustav Mahler, whom he had known well. The same is true of Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), a major German orchestra conductor and notably the director of Kroll Oper, the mythical place for musical innovation. He took refuge in Austria in 1933 before going to the United States, where he had already completed a tour in the 1920s. He was offered the musical direction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and thus began an international career in which he was recognized as one of the best conductors of the German repertoire.

Some musicians who had arrived at a younger age began their careers in the United States, such as Erich Leinsdorf (1912-1993), the assistant to Bruno Walter from 1934, who went into exile in 1937. In 1939 he was appointed the manager for the German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, and later conducted the Cleveland (1943-1945) and Rochester Orchestras, before succeeding Charles Münch as the head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1962. His successor in Cleveland was George Szell (1897-1970). A child prodigy who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 17, he went into exile in the United States in 1939. He was the guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera from 1942 to 1946, and later conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1944 and 1945 before becoming the head of the Cleveland Orchestra, which he made into a prestigious orchestra.

The situation was more difficult for composers, whose renown was often limited to their country, although Hollywood, which had become the centre of the musical world during the war, offered incomparable possibilities thanks to the blossoming film industry. These refugees elevated film music to an unrivalled level through the introduction of modern Germanic music, fusing Gustav Mahler and jazz. They also exerted an influence over George Gershwin, who notably visited Schoenberg.

Those who had already composed film scores in Germany brought their know-how, such as Frederick Hollander (1896-1976) and Franz Waxman (1906-1967). Hollander, who had become famous in 1930 with the music for Blue Angel, enjoyed great success in Hollywood, being nominated for four Oscars and composing the music for approximately a hundred films, including for George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder. Waxman wrote approximately 150 film scores, including Philadelphia Story and Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Suspicion, and The Paradine Case. Nominated twelve times for an Oscar, he won two for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951).

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) composed the music for numerous films, notably for Fritz Lang (Hangmen Also Die), but was expelled by McCarthyism in 1948. Kurt Weill (1900-1950), who had worked for Brecht, composed for Broadway (especially Lady in the Dark, over lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and One Touch of Venus). However, Ralph Benatzky (1884-1957), who wrote the famous operetta The White Horse Inn in Berlin in 1930, was unable to establish himself, as was Eric Zeisl (1905-1959).

Others, who did not have experience, by necessity had to accept the propositions of Hollywood, such as Ernst Toch (1887-1964) and especially Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), who brought recognition to film music. The leading composer in pre-war Vienna, his post-romantic style adapted perfectly to the cinema; in 1938, he was the first composer to be awarded an Oscar for The Adventures of Robin Hood by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn. The situation was more difficult for avant-garde composers like Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), especially when they were older, for instance Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). Dismissed from his position as professor of composition in Berlin in 1933, he was little-known in the United States. He taught at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, and then settled permanently in Los Angeles, where he taught from 1936 to 1944, later earning a living solely through private lessons.

Universities also benefitted from the exile of German and Austrian Jews. German musicology, which was pioneering in the discipline, established itself in the United States thanks to the most active scholars from Berlin and Vienna, such as Alfred Einstein (1880-1952), Curt Sachs (1881-1959), and Karl Geiringer (1899-1989). Einstein, who was the first editor of Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft, taught at Smith College, Columbia, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. He was famous for his works on Mozart, Schubert, and especially on romantic music. Curt Sachs, a co-founder in Berlin of modern organology—and co-inventor of the Sachs-Hornbostel universal classification system for musical instruments (1914), which is still in use—taught at New York University from 1937 to 1953, in addition to working at the New York Public Library. Finally, Karl Geiringer, the director in Vienna of the archives for the famous Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, as well as a specialist on Haydn, emigrated in 1940 and led a brilliant career, teaching in Boston for twenty-one years, before taking a permanent position in 1962 in Santa Barbara.

Others, who were a little younger, developed their career in America in particular, such as Willi Apel (1893-1988), who was awarded his doctorate in Berlin in 1936 on the music of the Renaissance and emigrated to the United States the same year. Famous for his Harvard Dictionary of Music (1944), he taught at Harvard from 1938 to 1942, and then for twenty years at Indiana University starting in 1950. Leo Schrade (1903-1964), who had taught at Königsberg and Bonn, also left Germany in the 1930s. Known for his work on Monteverdi, he spent his entire career at Yale University before directing the Institute for Musicology in Basel beginning in 1958. Finally, Manfred Bukofzer (1910-1955), whose book Music in the Baroque Era (1947) remains a reference, left Germany in 1933, earned his doctorate in Basel, before settling in the United States in 1939. He taught at UC Berkeley from 1941 until his death.

To quote from this article

Laure Schnapper , « Judeo-German Musicians Exiled to the United States (1933-1944) », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/20 , consulted on 21/05/2024. Permalink : https://ehne.fr/en/node/12303


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Du Closel, Amaury, Olivier, Philippe, eds., Déracinements. Musique, exil et transfert culturel pendant et après le Troisième Reich (Paris: Hermann, 2009).