Generative and Degenerate Music


I have adopted this enigmatic and ambiguous title to focus on a small fraction of the rich musical complexity of the two and half decades (1910–1935) that directly preceded the accession to power of the Nazi Regime in Germany and to ask the broad question: what happens to Classical Music when it clashes with its society?


I have co-opted the word generative to denote the music that was, in general, composed, performed, and enabled to survive in the relative freedom outside the control of the Nazi suppression. “Generative” because, breathing fresh air, it could celebrate itself and produce artistic offspring. Much of this music was born and/or flourished in Paris. Although almost all these composers felt the effects of the Second World War, they were not dependent on the destroyed German culture milieu to for their survival and dissemination.

Degenerate Music is taken from the term Entartete Musik, which was used by the Third Reich to condemn and ban certain composers in 1938 at an infamous exposition in Düsseldorf. Of course, this is their term, not ours, and the music is anything but degenerate. I use it here simply to refer to those composers whose lives were shortened or creativity disrupted. As a result of the ban, performances and diffusion of their music was limited, their influence was narrowed, and they were rendered barren of progeny, hence "non-generative."

This schematic classification is, of course, artificial. Some composers fall into or show characteristics of both groups. Some of the "degenerate" composers were ultimately able, despite their struggles, to leave a legacy. Some of those who were less directly impacted by the war remained, nevertheless, relatively unrecognized.

The categories seek to draw our attention to our subsequent perception of some of these composers as well as to the spirit of the times. These figures may be viewed as avant-garde, conservative, or a mixture thereof, although these terms need to be applied cautiously, if at all. For, at the distance of close to a century, it is highly doubtful that such designations are important any longer.

This series attempts to juxtapose the well-known with the less so in order to highlight both the similarities and the differences in this small fragment of an era characterized by enormous creative energy. The categories, as well as the individuals within them, bespeak a vibrant variety of voices. Many of these works, even by the "better known," have fallen below the radar.

The history of this extraordinary period is deeply charged, as is its music. Fortunately, as long as a single manuscript survives and still exists, it need not fall out of history. It then needs only to “live” through being heard and experienced by contemporary audiences. An old book, never read, is like a new one—so goes the old adage—and the challenge to our ears is just as stimulating today as it was then.

March 12, 2008

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