If you ask historically literate lovers of classical music to identify the leading conductors from the 20th century’s early decades, they will supply a profusion of names: Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg, Otto Klemperer, Artur Nikisch, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Felix Weingartner, Serge Koussevitzky, Pierre Monteux, and Sir Thomas Beecham, for a start. Few such music-lovers, unless specifically prompted, will include Karl Muck on their lists. Yet Muck (1859-1940) demonstrated no less artistic significance than those other maestri.
The pity is that nowadays the German-born Muck, if remembered at all, is usually recollected not for his musical aptitude but for having been interned by Uncle Sam as an enemy alien from March 1918 to August 1919, despite or because of having enjoyed eight years’ tenure as the conductor-in-chief of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
Few, even among musicologists, could write more than two accurate sentences concerning this internment’s details. However, Melissa Burrage’s 2019 account of his career in The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America impressively expands our knowledge of the great conductor.
If we know of Muck at all, awareness of his achievements is likely to be lopsided. Unlike most of the conductors cited above he left few phonographic recordings behind, and those came mostly from late in his life; moreover, the internment itself occurred only after he had climbed the greatest heights of the conducting profession. The recordings, about which more in a moment, demonstrate a fierce discipline that transcends the shortcomings of 1920s technology. Still, they are best regarded as a pendant to a career which would have been illustrious even if they had never been made.
Muck, talented enough to have been put in charge of Prague’s Deutsche Landestheater while in his twenties (following lesser posts in Zürich, Salzburg, Brno, and Graz), subsequently dominated the Berlin Court Opera for two decades. He combined that responsibility with frequent conducting appearances at Bayreuth, London, Vienna, Paris, Brussels, and Madrid. He became the BSO’s chief conductor in 1906.
Regrettably, Burrage somewhat slights Muck’s pre-Boston successes, which show both where Muck resembled his chief rivals and where he conspicuously differed from them. Muck’s lack of interest in composition clearly aligned him with Toscanini’s directorial modernism—modernism of a stripped-down kind, wittily described by one journalist as “just the notes, ma’am.” Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Weingartner all composed in abundance, and resented the inroads which performances of other men’s compositions made on their energies.
Muck himself, by contrast, felt even less enthusiasm than Toscanini for composing, almost as little as Herbert von Karajan would feel, two generations later. Yet nothing could have been less like the predominantly autodidactic Toscanini—or like Karajan’s youthful apathy concerning any subject except musical performance—than Muck’s recondite intellectual background. Before his 22nd birthday, Muck already possessed a doctorate in philology from the University of Leipzig.
Such scholarly rigor accentuated a temperament already aristocratic. The Hohenzollern fealty that Muck’s taste in ornaments proclaimed—he wore diamond-studded cuff-links bearing the letter “W” for Wilhelm, and a stickpin adorned with the letters “AV” to honor Kaiserin Augusta Victoria—bespoke one who had grown up in a patrician environment and never desired to leave it. He tolerated Boston residence precisely because of the local Brahmins. Any place where “the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God” had blue-blooded potential. We might be tempted to say that the irresistible force of Muck’s amour-propre was fated to meet the immovable object of the American demos. But the meeting, when it spectacularly and disastrously occurred, astounded no one more than Muck himself.
Prior to that disaster, Muck had brought about something of a revolution. He transformed the BSO (founded a mere 25 years earlier) from an efficient regional ensemble into the country’s most musically enterprising one. Even Weingartner, seldom over-generous when describing contemporaries, acknowledged Muck’s exceptional diligence in preparation of repertoire.
Bostonians owed to Muck their first exposure to Mahler, Sibelius, and Debussy, not to mention Schoenberg’s alarming Five Orchestral Pieces, which drew from Muck, at its conclusion, one of his most memorable sarcasms. He assured frightened listeners that, “I can’t tell you whether we’ve played music, but I can assure you we’ve played every one of Schoenberg’s notes, just as they were written.”
Nor did Muck ignore America’s own composers, among whom he preferred those of conservative bent with solid Germanic training, such as George Whitefield Chadwick, Henry K. Hadley, Amy Beach, and Horatio Parker. It is impossible to imagine Muck ever championing Parker’s most refractory and cantankerous pupil, Charles Ives, even if Ives had let Muck champion him, a fantastical hypothesis in itself. Dr. Burrage quotes Ives’s diatribe against one Boston concert, which he called “[a] whole evening of mellifluous sounds, perfect cadences, perfect ladies, perfect programs, and not a dissonant cuss word to stop the anemia and beauty during the whole evening.”
But no conductor is obligated to perform material which he finds irksome, and Muck’s industriously intelligent programming remains praiseworthy. Koussevitzky’s record, presiding over the same orchestra, of support for distinguished living composers on both sides of the Atlantic would have been impossible without Muck’s earlier exertions.
Then, in 1917, the roof fell in. At first, when America entered the Great War, Muck appeared safe. He even suggested to the BSO’s chief backer, Major Henry Lee Higginson, that he abandon his conductorship rather than face accusations of pro-German loyalty. Higginson refused to let Muck resign; moreover, he renewed Muck’s contract for a further five years. Maybe Higginson hoped that Muck’s Swiss citizenship (acquired in 1880) would suffice to protect the conductor from Washington interference.
It did nothing of the sort: What counted, to the Justice Department, was Muck’s birth in pre-imperial Germany. But the immediate pretext for the fiercest anti-Muck propaganda concerned “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Would he and the BSO perform it at their October 1917 evening concert in Providence, Rhode Island, or would they not?
Answering this question to everyone’s satisfaction would have taxed Solomon himself. Other orchestras in other cities had no firm policy on the issue. Burrage points out that “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was not yet the national anthem and was not the familiar piece we know today.” Higginson favored omitting it from the Providence program, despite the demands of local women’s organizations that Muck conduct it. He failed to inform Muck, until after the concert had finished, that such demands had been made. By then, the damage had been done.
As it happens, Muck’s chief enemy, Providence Journal editor John R. Rathom, had been born in Australia. This proto-Rupert-Murdoch (who abided by the credo “Raise hell and sell newspapers”) accused Muck of being a traitor and the Kaiser’s stooge. It remains uncertain whether Rathom acted in league with another and earlier opponent of Muck: Mrs. Lucie Jay, who had already been urging the BSO to cease playing works by Teutons, and who to this end had established an Anti-German Music League. The German blood in Mrs. Jay’s own veins (her maiden name had been Oelrichs and her grandfather hailed from Bremen) doubtless sharpened her boosterism.
At any rate, the two campaigns eventually affected Higginson himself. He grew less inclined to defend Muck, and increasingly fond of assigning the BSO’s French-born players to spy upon their German-born colleagues. Muck—who during November had conducted “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a BSO concert in New York—repeated his offer of resignation. This time, Higginson accepted it.
In March 1918, a Bureau of Investigation agent, along with Boston police officers, interrupted an orchestral rehearsal and placed Muck under arrest. Muck, for all his devotion to his wife, Anita, had adopted a somewhat loose interpretation of marital fidelity. Mrs. Jay had discovered, and the Bureau soon learned about, Muck’s sexual relations with violinist Margaret Herter and (more lastingly) soprano Rosamond Young. These relations made Muck blackmailable. He acceded tamely enough to internment—as a “dangerous enemy alien” —at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where he remained until the first August after the Armistice.
At that point, the Justice Department, never having brought any formal charges against him or Anita, deported them both. Muck’s own complaint onboard the SS Frederik VIII as it sailed for Copenhagen (“I consider myself an American, but see what America has done to me”), hardly mollified Massachusetts sensibilities. Nor did the subsequent revelation by the Boston Post that Muck had described his stateside audiences as “crowds of dogs and swine.”
Anita did not long survive the return to Europe, and her husband delivered a poignant elegy: “I have been a tenacious energetic man, who could hardly be affected by anything. Now I know that it was all Anita’s work.”
Back in Germany, Muck became conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra (1922-1933) and returned to Bayreuth each year to conduct at the Wagner festival. Muck’s small but admirable discography indicates how impressive his leadership remained as late as 1927. In that year, the Columbia recording company spared neither financial nor technical effort to capture on recordings as many Muck-conducted extracts from Wagner’s Parsifal as it could.
The outcome inspired British critic Christopher Dyment, writing in the August 1977 issue of Gramophone, to a descriptive eloquence not readily improved on. Muck’s “implacable rhythmic tread,” he wrote, and his “perfect control of the widest-spanned musical paragraphs…were on both musical and technical grounds among the most astonishing achievements of the early electric era.”
At the time, Muck’s Wagner acquired a reputation for slow tempi. It is hard to see how. Compared with several later conductors —above all Hans Knappertsbuch, Reginald Goodall, and James Levine— Muck’s Parsifal sounds positively swift.
Singularly unfortunate—and implying specifically racial rather than broadly cultural animus—was Muck’s decision, as early as 1924, to ban from Bayreuth’s orchestra two string players, whose sole “crime” consisted of being Jews. (Both players would eventually perish in Auschwitz.)
As an undergraduate, Muck had already voiced anti-Jewish nastiness, probably deriving more from Teutonic social rituals than from impassioned sentiment. He permitted himself similar talk in Boston, though again seeming to take his cues from his surroundings, notably from Chadwick’s animadversions on the subject.
Nevertheless, while Hitler esteemed Muck’s Wagner recordings, he had no intention of letting Muck continue to interfere with Bayreuth’s management when younger and more pliant musical directors, free from Muck’s Wilhelmine emotional baggage, could be found. The Führer’s easily inflamed scorn for upper-crust right-wingers in general (he derided them as “the Vons”) goes unmentioned by Burrage but could well have reinforced his views on Muck.
As Hitler’s political fortunes rose, Muck’s executant gifts appear to have declined. In 1930 Muck and Toscanini shared Bayreuth conducting duties at the memorial service for Siegfried Wagner; listeners found Muck’s enfeebled direction “old, like a piece of parchment,” whereas they considered the contribution by Toscanini —only eight years Muck’s junior—to be “incredibly beautiful.” Three years later the septuagenarian Muck, weakened by his five-packs-a-day smoking habit, renounced the podium.
Nazi bosses indulged Muck with such consolatory trivia as renaming a Hamburg square Karl Muck Platz, and awarding him an Eagle Shield medal on his 80th birthday. But they did so as one might propitiate a tedious relic. True musical power by then reposed in other hands than his. That he died well before Hitlerism’s own Götterdämmerung was probably providential.
The galling end to Muck’s American residence proved time-specific in some ways, premonitory in others. Today, no amount of adultery would get an artist interned—unless, perhaps, said artist had demonstrated pedophile leanings. Besides, the constellation of international conducting geniuses which shone during the early 20th century was unique, unprecedented and, in our time, unimaginable.
Far from desiring to imitate Muck’s artistic despotism, present-day conductors (with a handful of exceptions: a Daniel Barenboim here, a Christian Thielemann there) tend to fear the very hint of being thought despotic. They are far likelier to appease the zeitgeist with minds as devitalized by consensus as those of Silicon Valley middle managers.
And yet certain aspects of Muck’s disgrace are all too modern. In 2020, thanks to social media, the Western world’s loudest bellyachers have attained the condition of a Rathom on steroids. To inspire their ululating rage, we no longer need to reveal Muck-style “elitist” disdain for ordinary Americans, let alone a Muck-style roving eye. Make just one insensitive public remark suggesting disrespect toward modish pieties, and the resultant global Twitter-storm will destroy your prospects, your livelihood, and your family ties. Muck, one suspects, would not have been even remotely astonished by such ebullitions of the Yahoo triumphant.
above: Karl Muck c. 1889 (public domain)