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Post-Culloden cull of our ‘degenerate’ music


By Liza Mulholland


This week I’ve been listening to an excellent new music series on BBC Radio 4, Black music in Europe: A hidden history.

Although speech-based, Radio 4 produces regular strands of fascinating music documentaries, exploring the history of diverse genres, investigating instrument making, offering illuminating personal stories of what songs and pieces of music mean to individuals, sharing rare archive recordings and much more.

Singer and actor Clarke Peters presents one such well-researched series, exploring the little-known story of black music across Europe from the 1920s, through the war years and beyond.

What brought me up short was an aspect I had previously scant knowledge of, namely Nazi outlawing of jazz music in the 1930s, the justification of which was outlined in its exhibition of "Degenerate Music" in Dusseldorf in 1938.

Nazis regarded most music by non-Aryan races as barbarian, and jazz – a genre at the time performed predominantly by black musicians and often interpreted, arranged and promoted by Jewish people in the arts – epitomised music to be suppressed.

The exhibition was intended to convince people that the German government’s mass aesthetic cleansing was reasonable.

On the cover of the exhibition’s accompanying pamphlet was a gross caricature of an African American musician (an ape playing a saxophone in top hat and tails, wearing a Star of David) referencing and mocking a contemporary jazz-opera by Ernst Krenek, who had dared to include a black lead saxophonist in the hallowed Vienna opera house, no less.

Once inside the exhibition, the visitor was bombarded by paintings and slogans, would continue through listening booths where they could hear for themselves the savage sounds of jazz, and come out convinced of how lowly and unworthy it was.

At least that was the theory!

It was not the first time – and wouldn’t be the last – that an artform regarded as "inferior and ultimately dangerous" suffered banning orders. Despots throughout history have tried to quash the culture of others in order to assert their authority, beliefs and power; defacing and destroying art and icons, burning books, imprisoning writers, closing theatres as well as outlawing music.

I was not taught any of this at school but thankfully times have changed

I can’t help but be reminded, with Culloden commemorations approaching, of what happened on our own doorstep. The aftermath of the battle on April 16, 1746, saw the violent pacification of the Highlands, stemming from the view by British Government officialdom that Highlanders were "barbarous savages" and disloyal subjects who must be "civilised".

This included William Augustus, ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, son of King George II, conducting a rampaging crusade of brutality to crush the population that amounted to cold-blooded genocide.

Alongside this was the 1746 Act of Proscription, banning Highland dress, possession of arms and bagpipes, with widespread burning of fiddles and other traditional instruments, and through time, the systematic suppression of the Gaelic language.

Adding insult to injury, a Highland village renamed after the defeat of the 1715 Jacobite uprising still bears his name.

I was not taught any of this at school but thankfully times have changed. Today most local primary schools do outings to the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre. With excellent bookshops, superb city archives and library, and vast additional resources online, there is no reason nowadays for ignorance of our history.

Despite dictator plots to cleanse artforms, the heart-warming truth is that people have a pesky habit of hanging on to their culture no matter the opposition. Attempts to cull our own supposedly "degenerate music" didn’t work and, nearly 300 years after Culloden, we have a thriving traditional music scene, with youngsters across the Highlands eager to take the music and songs forward.

And so it was in Germany. The Nazi ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition sold out with long queues down the street, not because the general populace agreed with the government stance on jazz, but because the exhibition was the one place they could go to listen to the music they loved.

Some black jazz musicians managed to flee, others were arrested and interned in concentration camps (ironically chances of survival were increased due to ability to play orchestral music for camp officers) but all continued to play.

You just can’t put good music down!



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