Articles & Essays

German-speaking musicologists in exile: Was Europe's loss America's gain?

By Melina Gehring

Even though musicology was a relatively young and fairly small academic discipline when Hitler seized power, Germany lost more than one hundred of its music researchers to exile; they included Jews and opponents of the regime. 1 The implementation of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Reconstitution of the Civil Service) of April 7, 1933, dismissing non-Aryans from any position in the public sector, also put an end to many university careers. It may come as a surprise that, compared with the number of those who had to leave the country, few musicologists lost proper university positions. The reason for this is that the years preceding the ‘Third Reich’ were already severely marked by anti-Semitic discrimination. In the Weimar Republic, German-Jewish scholars had had great difficulty obtaining professorships. 2 Since academia at the time was predominantly conservative and anti-republican, often in conjunction with anti-Semitic ideology, Jews were rejected for their alleged liberal attitudes. Thus, the professional discrimination against Jewish scholars in the Weimar Republic should be considered more political than ethnic or religious.

When Jewish scholars were expelled from academia in the Third Reich, only two professorial posts became vacant: those of Curt Sachs and Erich von Hornbostel at the University of Berlin. Both men worked in the newly-established field of systematic musicology. It was no coincidence that Sachs and Hornbostel, of all scholars, had succeeded in securing professorships. Although it had been comparatively easy for Jews to excel professionally in mathematics or the sciences, the humanities were closely associated with German identity and culture. Subjects related to the fine arts were therefore defended by conservatives against Jewish influence, since Jews were regarded as not ‘really’ German. Comparative musicology, on the other hand, was marked by a scientific methodology and was therefore ideologically less suspect. 3

Many of those lucky enough to escape from the terrors of Nazi Germany sought refuge in the United States, but those who gained entry faced several professional hurdles upon arrival. Apart from the competition for university positions, with a multitude of fellow exiles, 4 the most obvious barrier to success was linguistic in nature. Whereas the sciences had a more international tradition and scientists could communicate in formulas, and whereas musicians spoke a virtually universal language through their art, refugee scholars in the humanities were expected to master the English language up to the subtlest detail. Moreover, they had to learn that, status-wise, professors did not enjoy as high a rank in America as in their German-speaking home countries, and that manners were more casual in American academia. Often their American colleagues laughed at them for their German stiffness. Last but not least, Jewish exiles in the US were often confronted with acts of discrimination similar in many ways to the ones they had just fled. 5

In spite of these difficulties in the process of acculturation, some of the German-speaking exiles ended up looking back on their academic careers in America as a blessing. In the Weimar Republic, the majority of them had been forced to earn a living as journalists, librarians, archivists or editors and had had to restrict musicological research to their spare time, whereas in the US some of them now had good university positions in prospect. This held true especially for émigré scholars who had succeeded in making names for themselves in the professional field in spite of anti-Semitic suppressions in Weimar Germany. Music historian and composer Hugo Leichtentritt (1874-1951) earned his living at the Berlin Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory as a teacher of composition, music history and aesthetics, giving private lessons in composition and writing music criticism on the side. With the National Socialists' seizure of power at the beginning of 1933, he could not continue teaching, because he was Jewish. However, he kept working as a correspondent for Britain's Musical Times until October 1933. In the section “Musical Notes from Abroad: Germany“, he reported critically on the changes in German cultural life, such as the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Culture League of German Jews) and the exile of prominent musicians and music teachers. Having attended a US high school for some time and having studied at Harvard University, Leichtentritt accepted an invitation from Harvard, where he worked as a lecturer in music from 1934 until his retirement in 1940. During his American exile, Leichtentritt exerted a strong influence on behalf of Béla Bartók's academic endeavors. Although the general conditions for his professional exile were comparatively good, Leichtentritt was disappointed by his compositions' lack of success as well as by the sceptical attitude toward his critical and musicological writings. 6

The Viennese musicologist Karl Geiringer (1899-1989) took his family to London upon the National Socialists' assumption of power in Austria in 1938. In England, he worked for the BBC, wrote articles for the Grove Dictionary and taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He then moved to the United States, where he was a visiting professor at Hamilton College, New York, in 1940-41 before becoming head of graduate studies in music at Boston University; he stayed there for 21 years. In 1962, he moved to California, where he developed the University of California at Santa Barbara's musicological studies. Several honors were conferred on Geiringer during his US years, including election, in 1959, as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 7 Among Geiringer's US students were H. C. Robbins Landon, who was to become the great Haydn scholar of his time, as well as Klaus G. Roy, who became the Cleveland Orchestra's program annotator under George Szell.

The most prominent example of a scholar who had professional fortune on his side is Alfred Einstein (1880-1952). In Germany, Einstein, who would have preferred a university position, had been confined to working as a music critic, editor and publisher for thirty-five years before he finally became professor of music at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1939. With a small teaching load and a decent salary, he was finally able to dedicate the greater part of his time to research, a luxury he had long wished for. Consequently, he felt deeply indebted to his new country, and he stated that he had been ‘driven into paradise'. In his idiosyncratic black humor, he even called Adolf Hitler his ”greatest benefactor”. 8 The path to paradise was a long and strenuous one, however. Having left Hitler's Germany in 1933, Einstein and his family spent time in England, Italy and Switzerland under difficult financial conditions until they eventually were permitted into the US with the help of the family's prominent friend (but not close relative) Albert Einstein.

As for women, their opportunities in the academic field were impeded in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich as well as in the US. Kathi Meyer-Baer (1892-1977), who had obtained her doctorate in 1916 as the first woman in musicology, was active as a librarian and music critic before the Nazis set up their dictatorship. Upon her immigration to America, she worked with the Schirmer publishing house and in the music section of the New York Public Library, and she continued to do research. It is not known, however, whether she did not want to pursue an academic career or whether she could not do so because she was discriminated against as a woman – at home as well as abroad. 9 Finally, to round out the list of German-speaking musical scholars whose immigration to the US influenced American musicology, one should add the names of Leo Schrade, Willi Apel, Manfred Bukofzer, Otto Johannes Gombosi, Edward Lowinsky and Paul Nettl.

Researchers dealing with the consequences of exile have coined the term ‘brain gain/brain drain phenomenon' to describe the intellectual impact on the respective societies. With regard to US musicology, Laura Fermi asserts that there was a profound brain-gain effect on the US: “European musicologists arriving in the thirties gave an enormous impetus to their discipline, greatly hastening the process of its growth and its acceptance in the academic world.” 10 But Pamela Potter does not fail to point out a negative side of the strong German influences on US musicology. She argues that American musicology adopted a too Germanocentric view of music history that can still be found today. She accuses her American colleagues of not having questioned the socio-historical context in which this approach had evolved and of not critically assessing its consequences. 11 Maybe, one can conjecture, American scholars in the post-war era would have turned faster and more whole-heartedly to Ives, Barber and Copland instead of mainly focusing on Bach, Mozart and Brahms, had they not predominantly been trained by German teachers. In addition, with regard to the German-speaking exiles' limited command of the English language (with rare exceptions such as in the case of the US-trained Leichtentritt), some US scholars have diagnosed a negative impact on the American language of musicology.

Given the large number of German-speaking musicologists who came to the United States upon their expulsion from Nazi Germany, was, after all, Europe's loss America's gain? As for Europe's loss, its scale could not be fully detected at the time. Since - as mentioned above - most German-speaking Jewish scholars had already been kept from university careers due to anti-Semitic discrimination in the Weimar Republic, their departure did not create serious gaps in the German university system. When, however, some German universities and publishing houses tried to win them back after the war, it was not uncommon for émigré scholars to refuse any type of cooperation. Alfred Einstein, for instance, would never go back to Germany, let alone publish or teach in his former country. With respect to America's gain, and notwithstanding the Germanocentric hegemony that resulted from the exiles' involvement, it is clear that US musicology blossomed considerably through the contribution of German-speaking exiles, who added new methods and perspectives to a discipline that was still evolving in the New World as well as in the Old. 12

Melina Gehring is the author of Alfred Einstein. Ein Musikwissenschaftler im Exil (Hamburg: von Bockel, 2007). She has published articles in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Österreichische Musikzeitschrift, and in the online-encyclopedia LexM, as well as in the field of American Literary Studies.

  • 1. Albrecht Schneider, „Musikwissenschaft in der Emigration. Zur Vertreibung von Gelehrten und zu den Auswirkungen auf das Fach“, in Musik im Exil. Folgen des Nazismus für die internationale Musikkultur, eds. Hanns-Werner Heister, Claudia Maurer Zenck, Peter Petersen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, 1993), 192.
  • 2. Pamela M. Potter, „Die Lage der jüdischen Musikwissenschaftler an den Universitäten der Weimarer Zeit”, in Musik in der Emigration 1933-1945: Verfolgung – Vertreibung – Rückwirkung, Symposium Essen, 10. bis 13. Juni 1992, ed. Horst Weber (Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler 1994), 56-57; Pamela M. Potter, „Deutsche Musikwissenschaft im Nationalsozialismus aus amerikanischer Sicht”,Musikforschung / Faschismus / Nationalsozialismus, Referate der Tagung der Gesellschaft für Musikforschung Schloss Engers (8. bis 11. März 2000), eds. Isolde von Foerster et al. (Mainz: Are 2001), 96.
  • 3. Potter „Die Lage”, 66; Pamela M. Potter, “From Jewish Exile in Germany to German Scholar in America. Alfred Einstein’s Emigration”, in Driven into Paradise. The Musical Migration from Nazi Germany to the United States, eds. Reinhold Brinkmann, Christoph Wolff (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press 1999), 300.
  • 4. Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in Paradise. German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the Present (New York: The Viking Press 1983), 79.
  • 5. Lewis A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences (New Haven: Yale University Press 1984), 2-7.
  • 6. Sophie Fetthauer, „Hugo Leichtentritt“,; Rodney H. Mill, Michael von der Linn, “Leichtentritt, Hugo”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 14 (New York: Mcmillan 2001, 502-503.
  • 7. Cecil Hill, Paula Morgan, “Geiringer, Karl (Johannes)”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 9, 628-629.
  • 8. Pamela M. Potter, “From Jewish Exile in Germany to German Scholar in America”, 313; Melina Gehring, „Alfred Einstein“,
  • 9. Potter, „Die Lage“, 65-66.
  • 10. Laura Fermi, Illustrious Immigrants. The Intellectual Migration from Europe 1930-41 (Chicago und London: The University of Chicago Press 1968), 229.
  • 11. Pamela M. Potter, Die deutscheste der Künste. Musikwissenschaft und Gesellschaft von der Weimarer Republik bis zum Ende des Dritten Reichs (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2000), translated by Wolfram Ette. American Original: Pamela M. Potter, Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler’s Reich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 320-321.
  • 12. Hans-Werner Heister, Claudia Maurer Zenck, Peter Petersen: „Vorwort“, in Musik im Exil, 20; Albrecht Schneider, „Musikwissenschaft in der Emigration. Zur Vertreibung von Gelehrten und zu den Auswirkungen auf das Fach“, in Musik im Exil, 207.
  • Posted January 01, 2010