In December 1934, during a speech at the Berlin Sports Palace, Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced composer Paul Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker”.

Usually, I am apathetic to Nazi-related things. I was always interested in the World Wars and learnt about them, so it’s safe to say I know a fair amount about the Nazis… but I guess that it also made me less emotionally-attached.

However, this statement by Goebbels has brought some of the animosity back. It seemed outrageous to me that someone would dare call Hindemith a “noisemaker”, and even worse, “atonal”. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said, “That word [atonal] was very loosely used in the old days to mean almost anything uncomplimentary about modern music. But Hindemith was never atonal.”


“It simply means using all the 12 different notes of the chromatic scale in such a way that no one note ever seems more important than another. In other words, in atonal music no idea of a key, or a home base, is ever established as it is in the regular diatonic 7-note scale.”

This, however, is not the case with Hindemith’s music. Inspired by Baroque and Romantic-era music, he had merely been given a more advanced harmonic and melodic language than what Bach had in his time. And although he is not always talked about as one, he was in fact a revolutionist in the TONAL harmonic approach of the first half of the 20th century, along with French composer Maurice Ravel and Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

These stood in stark contrast to the atonal movement, led by Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, leader of the Second Viennese School – a group characterised by their chromatic, atonal music and the use of the twelve-tone serialism. Well, you should probably know by now that Hitler and Co. did not invent approaches to harmony themselves. They did, however, have an influence on music in Europe on the macro level.

Since the second half of the 19th century, composers were trying to innovate. Nationalism, which was very common at the time in Europe, seemed to spark an interest in each country’s composers to give their homeland’s music a distinct sound. Before that, most European classical music sounded pretty much the same, whether it was composed in Germany or Italy.

But with nationalism (on a mostly harmless level) widely spreading, composers were looking to project their country’s “sound” outwards. Some, like Czech Antonín Dvořák, were using their land’s culture and folk songs as inspiration, while some, like German Richard Wagner, were coming up with new “sounds” to defer their country from the rest. This may sound like a race, but it was more about “paying back the favour” to one’s culture than beating the others.

This process, and may documented history be my witness, continued into the 20th century. Somewhat more discreet in some cases, it nonetheless did.

But what is now known as “late-romanticism” is when things began to get a tad… experimental. Composers were becoming less than enthusiastic with the grandiose nature of Romantic-era music (which, admittedly, has a lot to do with the growth of the symphony orchestra that had occurred around that same time), and instead of composing in a similar fashion, they got a bit more “art-sy”, so to speak.

To put it simply, in the days of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn there would be a lot of “recycling”: the use of similar melodic themes and chord progressions. That is the only plausible explanation as to why they both have so many symphonies! (I’m joking…)

Nationalism, at least in the musical realm, wasn’t about that. It was about being true to oneself, and sometimes that meant looking for unique sounds and textures as a means of expression. Indeed, there was a decrease in the amount of pieces one composer would complete in a lifetime, but there was much more material of quality and of interest.

So when all late-romantic composers went (or, more accurately, sat at their respective pianos) to look for new elements, they mostly had to invent them. There was very little more to harmony and melody than the writings of Baroque-era composers like French theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau.

So by the time the 20th century came around, music was much more developed. And like with all that is new, there was quite a lot of criticism.

(Quick reminder here: NONE of the music composed until roughly 1908 is considered “atonal”)

Anarchy then became the sound of post-modern classical music

Fast forward to Adolf Hitler. A nationalist, and a passionate Wagner and Beethoven fan (therefore, the NSDAP, or The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, will probably be forever associated with these composers). A Reichsmusikkammer (“State Music Bureau”) was established to rid Nazi Germany (and, by proxy – all of its occupied territory) of what they called “degenerate” music – which included atonal music, jazz, and music by Jewish composers.

What was essentially enforced was a renaissance to a (albeit purified) early Romantic era, which cancels out most of the musical developments of the 19th and early 20th century music. Many composers, like Swiss Ernest Bloch, fled Europe. Some, like French Olivier Messiaen fought their own war: to compose and teach 20th century compositions techniques in a temporarily musically-regressed Europe.

The Nazis may have failed their ultimate goal, but they did succeed in one thing: The Second World War forced a new world order on what was left on the scorched Earth. That was apparent in the process of de-colonialism, the establishment of new democracies, and many more aspects of life. One of them was music.

Although Romantic music was still performed, and is to this today, some composers associate it with Nationalism and the pre-war era, and since they’ve acknowledged that nothing will ever be the same as before – neither could music. Anarchy then became the sound of post-modern classical music. Gone are the lovely melodies, gone are the logical harmonies.

Is this their revenge on the Nazis?

Perhaps, but it is also a disregard of tonal music development, much like the one the Nazis enforced. Music has undergone so many changes, especially in the 19th and 20th century, and it seems as if much of it has been cast away and forgotten.

Interestingly though, the majority of classical music that is performed today is from the Romantic period. So maybe there is something to the pretty melodies, gratifying harmony, and grand orchestration.

Even French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, a post-modernist in his approach to composition, had some of the most magnificent of Romantic-era pieces performed under his baton.

“Music will never be the same as before the Nazis.”

Young composers have many places to draw harmonic and melodic ideas from, unlike the composers who had to invent them in the first place, more than a hundred years ago.

When I visited a composition class in Berlin last year, I was told by the teacher exactly what I explained in this article: “Music will never be the same as before the Nazis.” He then proceeded to discuss the works of avant-garde 20th century Hungarian composer György Ligeti with us, with great passion.

Earlier that day, though, I sat in on an orchestration class, in which they were discussing a piece by Russian pre-war composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

I cannot guess what the future of classical music holds, but I do know that even though the Nazis had what may prove to be an everlasting impact on it – the discussion and development of tonal music has not ceased.

I encourage you to listen to Carter Pann’s “Love Letters” or Nico Muhly’s Viola Concerto, if you need any proof.

Image: Veronika Kupczyk

Daniel is an independent composer and orchestral arranger. He was part of a Folk/Neo-Classical duo with Violist Sara Umansky, with whom he had released two albums. He writes orchestral arrangements for other artists, and occasionally conducts chamber orchestras playing his original compositions, as well as arrangements of well-known pieces. He is an avid music listener and collector, but when not engaging in any musical activity - he spends his time researching and writing opinion pieces about history, cinema, music and human communication. An unhealthily-impassioned addict to History Channel, Discovery Channel, and basically everything culture.

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