A Conversation with David Monod

A Conversation with David Monod

David Monod
Photo by Bob Housser
Courtesy University of North Carolina Press

  • READ an excerpt from Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and The Americans, 1945-1953 by David Monod.


    FRANK J. OTERI: The denazification of German musicians at the end of World War II is a rather unexpected topic for a musicologist to pursue. What initially got you interested in this, and how long have you been researching this history?

    DAVID MONOD: Even though I am a historian, not a musicologist, I thought the same when I first stumbled on the topic fifteen years ago. I was doing research on an unrelated subject at the National Archives in Washington and happened on a finding aid listing Herbert von Karajan’s denazification file. I was hooked! What I quickly discovered, however, was that there is a large and lively interest in studying the place of the musical arts in Nazi Germany and that some of the finest German historians and musicologists are working in this field. My focus on the post-war American occupation and the process of denazifying artists is more singular, though even here, much fine work preceded mine.

    FJO: What’s probably most fascinating about your narrative concerning the American government’s involvement in the rebuilding and transformation of Germany’s musical culture at the end of the Second World War is that this is information equally unfamiliar to musicologists and political historians alike. It seems like a singular moment in our history. Was there ever a time when the U.S. government was as involved in culture?

    DM: At the heart of Settling Scores is the story of the relationship between artists and administrators—Germans and Americans—in the decade following WWII. In 1945 the victorious allies divided Germany into zones and placed them under the authority of military administrators. One of the goals of the military government in the American zone was to purge German society of its Nazi influences, which at the time was conceived very broadly to include German nationalism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism. Because of the central place of music in German cultural history, it was placed on the list of areas for control. In some ways, the focus on music culture was dictated by German traditions and by American perceptions of Germany as the preeminent exemplar of European high-culture (albeit a culture that had been distorted by nationalism, racism, and chauvinism). But post-war interest in the arts also drew on the inheritance of the New Deal and war. In the later 1930s, branches of the American government experimented with direct state patronage of the literary, visual, and musical arts. During the war, Allied radio broadcast music into occupied territories and artists were employed in the propaganda agencies. These experiences predisposed American planners to look at the arts as an area that could be regulated and mobilized for the reeducation efforts. Growing political conservatism and a return to prosperity after WWII moved America away from this kind of involvement in the arts and eventually produced the “arms length” National Endowment compromise. But the idea that the state could use art to educate other people survived in cultural exchange initiatives, in the Fulbright program, and in various information agencies.

    FJO: This is also an interesting time for such a book to appear given that we have been in Afghanistan and Iraq now for as long as we were at war during World War II. What lessons from history should/could we learn from your book?

    DM: In a nutshell: reeducation is an idea fraught with difficulties and contradictions. It costs enormous sums of money, takes an awfully long time and produces mixed results. A radical and all out assault on the institutions and culture of a conquered country, of the kind instituted during the denazification drive of 1945-46 or Paul Bremer’s de-Ba’athisization campaign, could in the long run work, but only if the occupying power has the manpower on site to replace all those removed from office, the cash and honesty to restore disrupted services and maintain order, and the will to stick to the radical course for years on end. The lesson of Germany is that the American public measures its willingness to exercise this kind of imperial rule in months, not years, and that it will want to reduce costs and commitments as quickly as possible. This has also been the case in Iraq. In Germany, the rapid return to “self-government” led to the restoration of a tarnished elite to cultural authority; in Iraq, the reestablishment of civil authority appears to have produced a power vacuum, a collapse in legitimacy for the collaborationist government, civil strife, and widespread corruption. Germany did develop a functioning democracy, but it did so by suppressing the memory of its Nazi past. Democracy stuck in Germany because the people and elites, who saw themselves on the front line in the cold war, needed to cement their ties to the West. Iraq is surrounded by states hostile to American purposes, it has a divided and fractious population, and many people there regard the West as the enemy; in this context, the German “evolutionary” model is staggeringly inappropriate.

    FJO: It seems in some ways that any attempt by a government to involve itself in culture is problematic and sometimes quite harmful. The campaign against formalism in Stalinist Russia, the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, and the Nazi cultural policies whose lingering effects you describe our government trying to eradicate all come to mind. What should the government’s role be in the encouragement of music and the rest of the arts?

    DM: The role of government in the arts is not a constant, and the experience has not been the same in all countries. The relationship is certainly not always negative and, even where it has been, great art has continued to be produced. Strauss and Shostakovich wrote fine music under oppressive conditions and, uncomfortable though we may find it, many wonderful artists gave their wholehearted support to very evil regimes and despite those circumstances produced some important and lasting art. If, however, we limit our discussion to North America today, I believe that state support for the arts does need to be greatly expanded and secured. Art should be accessible to all and that means that the social whole, through the instrumentality of government, should lend its resources to subsidizing art for those who cannot afford it. A box office and private donor-based approach to the arts is self-destructive as it favors the prominent and the spectacular, both of which tend to be the most expensive. The constant inflation in spectacle, produced by the competition for limited donor and audience dollars, is ultimately harmful to creativity. As you point out, however, the danger with state funding is that it can lead to censorship and a narrowing vision of art. True arms-length public funding is therefore the best solution to this problem, even though independent funding agencies often themselves fall under the control of cliques and special interests.

    FJO: So, in your opinion, can music ultimately transform a society?

    DM: Idealists certainly thought so in the 1940s. To my mind, art serves to manifest the essential values of a society while challenging its conventions and pushing the boundaries of those same values. This is why art should be both appealing and provocative. More conservative art tends to reaffirm more than it provokes; more radical works to provoke more than they reaffirm. But art which does not provoke us is uninteresting, and art that does not speak to our values cannot be understood. So while I wouldn’t argue that art can transform society, it is certainly one of the primary instruments of normal social change and intellectual development.

    FJO: The part of the U.S. cultural campaign in Germany involving the promotion of American symphonic music is the one that I personally found most compelling. To this day, exporting new music in the classical tradition from one country to another is difficult given the continuing dominance of the standard repertoire of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the obligation to perform the music of one’s own composers when an opportunity to perform a new work arises. And this fuels audience expectations as well. I was rather disheartened to read about the reaction of German audiences to music by a composer of the stature of Walter Piston, for example. What lessons might orchestra managers touring American orchestras abroad glean from those late-1940s German concerts?

    DM: Today the problems are somewhat different because of the decline in specifically national elements in musical language. Nowadays orchestras are made up of musicians from all around the world, and composers and audiences have access to a larger vocabulary than they did in the 1940s. Reports from immediately after the war reveal that German orchestras had difficulty rendering American music which employed folk or jazz idioms. This probably remains the case in some places, but fewer and fewer all the time. Still, the repertoire problem for the orchestra manager has not changed: should one program music that new audiences may not appreciate. The answer, surely, depends on what the orchestra is trying to achieve and the image it is endeavoring to present. As much good will and cultural capital may flow from an American orchestra bringing coals to Newcastle—by successfully playing a piece written by a well-known composer from the country visited—as from exposing audiences to a new American work. But I think your point is that one should not exaggerate the influence of simple cultural exposure. My argument in the book is that post-war German audiences tended to read American music through the lens of their pre-existing (and somewhat negative) attitudes to America. Maybe over the long haul cultural exports can change pre-existing attitudes, but it takes a long time. There is no quick-fix in this business, and those who think they’ve found one are generally misunderstanding the situation.

    FJO: The danger of course with any program involving artists, given the eternal paucity of resources, is that artists involved with a program will promote their own work and the work of their friends. You describe this happening here with the composers being performed for the Germans. What can be done to remedy this? Harrison Kerr is someone you singled out in this regard. In the book, he comes across as something of an operator. You describe Kerr’s first symphony, which he arranged a performance for in Germany, as “forgettable.” I’ve never heard this piece. The only major work I heard of his is a violin concerto which was on a long out-of-print CRI LP which I rather like. (By the way, the American Music Library you mention Kerr running was actually the American Music Center, the same organization that publishes this web magazine.) Did any of this music have a lasting presence on German concert programs?

    DM: Sadly, little of the music imported to Germany by the Americans “stuck.” Most of it was performed once, on military government insistence or because of military government financial assistance, and quickly forgotten. There were only a few exceptions, like Barber’s Adagio and Menotti’s Old Maid and the Thief. Contemporary newspaper reviews of American works in the German press generally damned them with faint praise as “workmanlike.” Several works by Harrison Kerr, who was a senior administrator in military government at the time, were performed in Germany, and they were politely and unenthusiastically received. I agree with the view of his critics that it was not proper for officials to use their position to promote their own work (Kerr was not alone in doing this) but, as I point out in the book, on the scale of possible abuses of power by America’s officials, this was a pretty modest one. The military government hierarchy was however right when it told administrators like Kerr that they must either stop promoting themselves or they would lose their jobs. What makes Kerr more significant to me, however, is that, like many Americans after WWII, he believed in imposing a harsh rule on Germany. He thought that the German public should be force-fed music by American composers and performers, and he believed that this would help transform their flawed and xenophobic culture. When the local administrators protested that the music he was advocating was unpopular, Kerr denounced them for betraying their country. He was not well liked by his subordinates in the field, and he never developed much appreciation of German realities. As you know, Kerr had a long and respectable career in arts and university administration in the U.S., and he was a tireless promoter of modern American music. I do not blame him for his opinion of Germany—many after WWII, in the wake of recognition of the Holocaust, and in remembrance of the loss of life caused by Nazism—shared his vision. But his punitive and rather rigid approach to reeducation was ultimately counterproductive.

    FJO: You made the astute observation that the new music promulgated by the Americans was either too new or not new enough to satisfy audiences. The same holds true today: it’s a real tightrope act. What is the right balance?

    DM: I think the problem is that too many people narrow their musical tastes because time and cost prohibit experimentation. Music that gives a hard push to the sensibilities is difficult to sell to audience members who get out once a month and spent a lot on their concert tickets. The tried and true approach of tucking one new work on a program of known pieces is not a bad one in this context, but it does have the great drawback that repeat performances are vital if people are going to get to appreciate a new piece. Were music more affordable and accessible, I think the audience for new music would grow. In tandem with this, it seems to me a shame that so much attention is directed towards educating established concert goers and senior music students in new music and relatively little on attracting tomorrow’s audiences. Given the competition among entertainment sources, more pro-active marketing would be sensible. An ear for new sounds should be promoted in the schools, not just as one-off activities but as regular programs of new music concerts and activities for young listeners. It may well also do modern composers good to think in terms of writing music that could excite and involve a younger generation.

    FJO: An area I wish you would have dug deeper into is the flowering of serial music, both in Germany and in the United States, subsequent to the war. Schoenberg’s music was deemed degenerate by the Nazis, and his music was suppressed during their regime. So twelve-tone music from its inception is decidedly anti-Nazi. How involved were Americans in establishing twelve-tone music in places like Darmstadt?

    DM: This is an important question which has received considerable scholarly attention. The general consensus has been that the American administrators were instrumental in returning the serial music approach to Germany after the war. One of the reasons I don’t dig deeper into this is because I believe these assertions to be exaggerated. The post-war administrators had little interest in or knowledge of Schoenberg. They saw Hindemith, not Schoenberg, as the émigré artist whose music should be promoted in Germany. The music they advocated tended to employ traditional tonalities. Although the High Commission which succeeded Military Government in 1949 did contribute vital funds to the Darmstadt festival, it did not shape its artistic direction. Schoenberg’s influence grew after the war, but largely because of the interest of local musicians who were, in many ways, rejecting both Nazi and official American models of “modernity” in music. In the mid-1950s, American artists would exert an enormous influence over young composers, but that development lay outside the period covered in Settling Scores.

    FJO: What has been the reception of this book? What project is next for you?

    DM: I’ve been very gratified by the book’s reception among scholars in the field. Unfortunately, as a university-based writer, I have fewer contacts with less specialized readers, and I would enjoy receiving their feedback. My current research has carried me a fair distance from the denazification and reorientation of German musical life after the war. I am presently working on the phenomenon of the “coon shout” in Vaudeville in the first decade of the 20th century and the birth of the urban blues style. I am interested at present in learning more about the history of ragtime, blackface minstrelsy, and early blues and jazz. I am not certain yet how all the pieces are going to fit together, which is what makes the research so tremendously exciting. Hopefully, we can talk more about it in a few years time!

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