In an impassioned speech delivered at the United Nations in 1958, the great cellist Pablo Casals proclaimed his belief in the universality of music.

Music, he argued, was the one artistic form of expression that ‘transcends language, politics and national boundaries’. Such idealism, however, stands in stark contrast to what actually happened during the first half of the 20th century, when two world wars ruptured open exchange between music and musicians on opposing sides in these conflicts. In Britain, this process began with a vengeance in August 1914 when the country was dragged into a four year-long struggle with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Coincidentally, war had broken out at roughly the same time that Sir Henry Wood was announcing the repertoire for the forthcoming season of Promenade Concerts. As always, the programme included a substantial number of works by foreign composers that would be performed in Britain for the first time.

A large proportion of these emanated from Germany and Austria, most notably Reger’s Four Tone Poems after Böcklin, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra and Korngold’s Sinfonietta. In addition, Wood wanted to pay tribute to Mahler, who had died three years earlier, and proposed to feature a number of his orchestral songs, including the British premiere of Kindertotenlieder.

All these plans, however, were shelved as a result of the new political circumstances. Indeed, such was the febrile atmosphere at this juncture that Wood also removed an all-Wagner concert, replacing it with music by French and Russian composers. But there was such a widespread outcry at this action that Wagner was reinstated later on in the season.

What happen to German music during the First World War?

More extreme measures were taken in the educational arena. In September 1914, the Music Committee of Corporation of London issued a memorandum declaring its intention to dispense with the services of all professors of German, Austrian or Hungarian nationalities that were contracted to teach at the Guildhall School of Music, and to ban all students from enemy countries from attending the institution.

They followed this with a proposal to confiscate all pianos of German origin and replace them with instruments manufactured in Britain. Pressure groups started a campaign to persuade the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music to suppress contemporary German and Austrian repertory from its examination syllabuses and, wherever possible, promote a far greater proportion of British works. The composer Thomas Dunhill went so far as to castigate ‘dastardly teachers’ of harmony for allowing their pupils to write the chord of the German sixth, suggesting perhaps sarcastically that one should ‘protest against its use in the name of patriotism and national honour’.

Following Wood’s censorship of almost all contemporary Austrian and German music from the 1914 Proms programme, it was widely accepted that further performances of such repertoire would be off-limits in Britain as long as the country was at war. On the other hand, there was far less consensus as to whether there should be a more widespread ban on Austro-German music.

More like this

The issue was raised frequently in the press and was even discussed in the House of Commons in 1915. Tory MP Sir Arthur Markham took a particularly hard line, attacking the Proms for continuing to programme German music and advocating a total ban.

Saner voices, however, prevailed. Sir Henry Wood continued to feature the standard works of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in his concerts. His steadfast approach was praised by the Musical Times which declared that ‘the music of these composers has been our mother’s milk and we cannot banish it from our memory’.

Sir Charles Stanford strongly endorsed this view by drawing a clear distinction between the great 19th-century German composers, to whom he was devoted, and their more recent counterparts. According to him, ‘neither Wagner nor Brahms had any truck with the Prussianised crew who have arisen since their day. To identify the “frightfulness” of Strauss and the mass formations of Reger with either of them is an insult to them and their art.’

By and large, British concert-goers raised little objection to enjoying Wagner, Brahms and other 19th-century German composers during the war. But from time to time, there were some awkward moments. Perhaps the most conspicuous took place in March 1915 when the Oxford House Choral Society mounted a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem as a tribute to the British soldiers that had fallen in the war.

Stanford was particularly incensed by such crassness, and in a letter to the Daily Telegraph attacked the concert organisers in no uncertain terms: ‘If they desired to give the work for its own sake as a masterpiece common to the world, no one would gainsay their choice. But in announcing the German Requiem as a memorial to our dead soldiers, they are doing what its composer, if he were living, would have resented as strongly as the performance of a French or English work to commemorate fallen German soldiers in Berlin.’

In contrast to Wagner and Brahms, who remained largely unscathed from anti-German propaganda, the music and personality of Richard Strauss attracted much greater opprobrium. This turn of events was particularly surprising given that barely a year earlier, in January 1913, the British premiere of his recent opera Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House had elicited a particularly warm reception. Furthermore, Strauss conspicuously avoided taking a political stance as far as the war was concerned. In October 1914, he refused to add his name to the Manifesto of the 93 which had been signed by Germany’s most prominent scientists, scholars and artists declaring their unequivocal support for German military action.

Nevertheless, Strauss was now presented to the British public as the musical embodiment of the enemy. This presumably explains the extraordinary decision by HM Customs in 1916 to impound the score and parts for his wartime orchestral work Ein Alpensinfonie in Liverpool docks. It had been placed in transit to the US where various orchestras had vied with each other for the privilege of presenting the work’s American premiere. Much to the annoyance of the Americans, British officials delayed releasing the material for several months before they were entirely satisfied that no secret codes were embedded in the music.

Strauss’s position as the bête noire of German music was reinforced in several vituperative articles on the composer that appeared between 1914 and ’18. Colin McAlpin, writing in the Musical Times, suggested that ‘Strauss undoubtedly voices the modern spirit of Germany. He is of Berlin – bombastic, blatant, given to a brutish outspokenness and prone to cynical candour. In his music, we detect a sinister revolt against interior law and order and the ear is bruised and battered by an inartistic anarchy of noise that renders nugatory any afterthought of possible loveliness.’

In the only entry on a musician in the wartime dictionary Who’s Who in Hunland, Frederic William Wile castigated Strauss for his ‘deliberately sensual and degenerate musical art’. As the ‘most successful producer of sheer din the world has ever known, his cyclonic effects in such noise-poems as Elektra, Salome, The Rose Cavalier and his mid-war tornado, An Alpine Symphony, reduce the Niagara-like roars of Wagnerian “themes” to the dimensions of a whisper.’

What happened to German music once the war ended?

Following the cessation of hostilities in 1918, tentative steps were taken to rehabilitate contemporary German and Austrian music and once more give it a platform in Britain. A test case took place in March 1920 when Sir Henry Wood programmed Strauss’s Don Juan for the first time since 1914. Anticipating potential objections from the audience, he judiciously placed the work right at the end of the concert, thereby enabling people to leave the hall if they so wished. In the event, only a handful of the audience walked out, and the conductor felt sufficiently emboldened to programme more Strauss in later concerts.

A more contentious episode blew up two months later. The first orchestral programme of the newly formed British Music Society was to feature Elgar’s overture In the South and Vaughan Williams’s recently composed A London Symphony. Yet a proposal to end the concert with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, barely two years after the end of the war, aroused considerable outrage. Composer Sir Granville Bantock was sufficiently incensed to write a letter of protest to The Times, lambasting such programming as a ‘gratuitous insult to British music and its musical heritage. It seems that the old parasitic system is to be resumed; we are to return like dogs to our own vomit and the lying promises with which we have been deluded are to be forgotten.’

The organisers of the British Music Society caved in to this pressure and agreed to remove the Strauss, though the decision to replace it with music by Ravel was also heavily criticised. Writing in The Manchester Guardian, critic Ernest Newman deplored this whole episode. He reminded readers that ‘if the objection to Ein Heldenleben is that Strauss is a German, some of us are constrained to point out that we are no longer at war with Germany and that we see no reason to deprive ourselves any further of whatever pleasure German music can give us. Let us by all means encourage British composers, but why need music be an affair of nationality at all? Why must we be so narrow-minded and glory so openly in our indestructible insularity?’

What did the Nazis do during WW2?

During World War II, the Nazis centralised musical censorship in tandem with their political alliances: while music by Italians, who were allied to the Germans, was performed, composers from enemy countries such as France and Poland were banned. Exceptions included Bizet’s Carmen, which remained a popular favourite in German opera houses, and Chopin, who enjoyed the patronage of Hans Frank, the Governor of Occupied Poland. Russian music temporarily enjoyed favour between 1939 and ’41 with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but largely disappeared after Germany invaded Russia. 

What did the British do during WW2?

The British were less regimented, preferring the fluid policies that guided musical life during World War I. Nevertheless, the BBC issued a list of composers whose work was deemed unsuitable for British audiences. The voluminous correspondence to be found in the BBC Written Archives reveals that the researchers who compiled the list of forbidden German and Austrian music had failed to do their homework properly. Among those proscribed were several composers who were not only victims of Nazi persecution, but who had also been granted refugee status in Britain.


Erik LeviJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.