How the London Philharmonic Orchestra became a pawn in a Nazi propaganda scheme

In 1936, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and his London Philharmonic Orchestra visited Germany and became pawns in a Nazi propaganda coup, as Erik Levi explains

How the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra became a pawn in a Nazi propaganda scheme

Before the Second World War, the Nazis tried to sway British public opinion in their favour. What better way of showing the hand of friendship than to launch a programme of cultural exchange with a potentially amenable ally such as Britain, so deflecting public attention away from the less savoury side of Germany’s long-term political ambitions?

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The idea was the brainchild of Joachim von Ribbentrop, a leading Nazi politician who in August 1936 was appointed German ambassador to Britain. 

A few months before his arrival in London, Ribbentrop met up with the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham to propose that Germany and Britain should exchange the best of each nation’s musical resources. Going directly to Beecham rather than the British government was a shrewd and calculated move. Ribbentrop appealed to Beecham’s vanity, praising the conductor as one of a very select group of foreign musicians that enjoyed a burgeoning reputation in Germany.

It was also advantageous to Ribbentrop that Beecham exerted an almost unparalleled degree of influence over British musical life in his roles as director of the Covent Garden opera seasons and as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (LPO), an entirely new orchestra which he had founded in 1932.

How did the cultural exchange work?

With these considerations in mind, Ribbentrop arranged for the Dresden State Opera to visit Covent Garden to present a short season of performances. In return, Beecham was invited to make an extended tour of Germany with the LPO, the financial costs of which would be underwritten by the substantial box office receipts expected from the Dresden Opera season. Both events were designated to take place in November 1936. 

Dresden Opera’s London
Playbill of a performance of Der Rosenkavalier by the Dresden Opera House in London.

Dresden Opera’s London visit was certainly one of the highlights of British musical life in the 1930s. Over a fortnight, the company presented a spectacular series of productions at the Royal Opera House: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Marriage of Figaro, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, as well as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. These all sold out many weeks before they took place. Furthermore, they became major society events, attracting many of the wealthiest members of the British aristocracy, several of whom were actively sympathetic towards the Nazis.

Despite a crammed schedule, time was also found for the Dresden Staatskapelle to give three orchestral concerts at the Queen’s Hall. Most of the performances were conducted by Karl Böhm, the Dresden Opera’s music director who shared the rostrum with Richard Strauss, the venerable composer having been specially invited to London to receive the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious gold medal.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Dresden season was that British audiences saw the entire opera company at work, as all the theatre’s performers and technical staff were brought to London. This mammoth undertaking, fully subsidised by the Reich’s Propaganda Ministry, involved transporting all personnel and musical instruments by train and boat from Dresden, and reserving seven railway wagons for carrying technical and stage equipment. Transferring stage designs specially made for the Dresden theatre into an entirely different space was by no means straightforward, but the Covent Garden staff were on hand to help their German colleagues ensure that the adaptations worked just as effectively in their new surroundings.

What was the reception of the London performances?

The press reaction was unanimously positive in both countries. Reporting on the triumphant first night of Rosenkavalier, one Dresden newspaper labelled it a ‘smash hit’ (Bombenerfolg), adding with somewhat unfortunate militaristic connotations that the ‘Staatsoper had come, saw and conquered’. The Daily Mail refrained from such tub-thumping, but its comments were no less effusive.

Under the headline ‘3,000 cheer composer at the opera’, the newspaper noted that a huge audience, ‘including guest of honour Herr von Ribbentrop making his first public appearance since his appointment as German ambassador, prominent members of Mayfair society and people who had queued for 36 hours outside the gallery doors, filled the Royal Opera House for one of the most remarkable exhibitions of musical enthusiasm shown by the British public for a generation.’

When Richard Strauss, who shared a box with Ribbentrop, appeared before the curtain after the second act, the paper noted the ‘audience response reached fever pitch. Clapping went on unceasingly for several minutes, and even people in the boxes and stalls stamped their feet and shouted.’

What about the German tour?

Three days before the end of the Dresden season, Beecham and the LPO embarked on their ten-day tour of Germany, performing in Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Ludwigshafen and Cologne. Beecham’s decision to accept Ribbentrop’s invitation, however, caused some unease among the orchestra’s players.

Its Jewish members expressed anxiety about performing in Nazi Germany, as did other players who had served in the First World War. Beecham assuaged these fears by arguing that the main purpose of the tour was to show their hosts that a British orchestra was perfectly capable of matching and even exceeding the playing standards of any German ensemble. Furthermore, he declared his total opposition to any external political interference in musical matters. As a symbol of his independent outlook, Beecham proposed to programme Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, knowing full well that the great composer’s music was outlawed in Germany on racial grounds. 

Beecham soon realised that performing Mendelssohn would be a step too far – during the tour itself, the composer’s statue in Leipzig would be pulled down– and the proposal was hastily withdrawn even before they reached Germany. Nevertheless, he and the orchestra could not avoid the Nazis exploiting the tour for propaganda purposes.

Their opening sold-out concert in Berlin, featuring music by Dvořák, Haydn, Berlioz and Elgar, was given with Hitler, Goebbels and other leading Nazi functionaries in attendance. The performances received a rapturous reception, but a Berlin newspaper claimed that the most significant aspect of the concert was that Hitler was present. It noted that the honours the Führer had paid to Sir Thomas would undoubtedly have been specially appreciated in the influential ranks of the British aristocracy, which had always been the main focus of the Reich’s diplomatic efforts in Britain.   

As the tour progressed, the Nazi emphasis on political propaganda coupled with an almost obsessive desire to exploit the social aspect of the exchange became increasingly a burden for the orchestra. One member later recalled that the over-zealous and boozy post-concert receptions, organised in all the cities the orchestra visited, resulted in some players harbouring much stronger feelings against the Nazis than before.

Beecham also became increasingly disenchanted. After his concert in Munich, he complained to the British ambassador that despite his intention that the tour should to be appreciated from a strictly musical point of view, his efforts were being thwarted: firstly by the obligation to meet a seemingly endless number of Lord Mayors and local Gauleiters at each event, and then by festivities organised for the players after each concert which lasted well into the night and only succeeded in tiring out his orchestra.

Though Beecham and the LPO were received enthusiastically everywhere they performed, and the reviews in the German press were extremely positive about their playing, the overt propaganda they encountered was such that further musical exchanges of this kind were no longer deemed viable. There were a few more attempts to cement Anglo-German friendship through music: a concert of British music was given by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1936, featuring the German premiere of Walton’s recently composed First Symphony; and the same orchestra made two separate visits to Britain with Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1937. But the increasingly unstable political situation in the late 1930s meant the two countries were destined ultimately to make war, not music.

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