Forbidden Music: Composers banned by the Third Reich

April 7, 2017 by Stevie Whitmont
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Continuing a series by Stevie Whitmont of music banned by the Nazis…this month features Adolf Busch (1891-1952). 

Adolf Busch

Between The Great War and World War II, Adolf Busch was perhaps the most celebrated, and certainly the busiest, concert violinist in Germany. He has carried many epithets, the most apt being “A righteous musician among the nations”.  Other epithets have been:  “an honest musician” and a “moral beacon”.

Busch was the second son of an impoverished itinerant luthier, Wilhelm Busch.  Adolf and two of his brothers were musically gifted children who read and played music before they were old enough to attend school.  Their talents won them an advanced musical education, with the older brother Fritz evolving into one of Germany’s most sought-after conductors, and the younger brother Herman established as a professional cellist.  However, it was Adolf who became the most celebrated.  In 1912 he founded the Vienna Konzertverein Quartet.  He subsequently (1918) initiated the Busch String Quartet (which later included his brother Herman as cellist), and eventually a larger ensemble:  the Busch Chamber Players in the 1930’s.  Adolf himself was an acknowledged interpreter of Beethoven and Brahms:  Even today, Toccata Classics writes:  “his recordings of Beethoven with the Busch Quartet have never been surpassed”.  With a reputation as the finest string quartet in Europe, the quartet played regularly in Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and later Britain.  Albert Einstein was a loyal fan, never missing a Busch Quartet concert staged in Berlin.  Busch also taught violin, Yehudi Menuhin being among his students.

The Busch Quartet was playing in Berlin on the night of April 1st, 1933.  This was the date Jewish-owned businesses were officially boycotted by the Nazis.  After the concert, Busch (and the Quartet) took a difficult but immediate moral decision.  Despite being Aryan, hugely celebrated and repeatedly requested by the Nazi regime, Busch thereafter openly refused to play in Germany.  Following the Anschluss in 1938, he also refused invitations from Austria and Italy.  Busch was outspoken in his fierce opposition to Nazism and is quoted as replying to Hitler’s emissaries, “I told them that if they hanged Goering on the left, Goebbels on the right and Hitler in the middle, I would return to Germany.” Not until 1951 was the Busch Quartet heard again in Germany, when they made an “emotional” final tour of twenty concerts.

Busch’s moral scruples had a personal edge:  his wife Frieda, daughter and son-in-law Rudolph Serkin were Jewish.  His brother Herman was also married to a Jewess. Busch had moved his family to Basel in 1927 as a safeguard, becoming a Swiss citizen in 1935.  In 1939, the entire family including Serkin (by then an international concert pianist, member of the Busch Chamber Players and accompanist to Adolf) and members of the Busch Quartet removed themselves from the European Continent.  Arriving in the West, Fritz spent professional time conducting in South America, while Adolf’s family settled in Vermont, USA.  The Busch musicians regrouped and performed in America, but never again achieved the acclaim enjoyed before the Third Reich rose to power in Germany.  Together with Serkin, Busch founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival.  He died in 1952 of a heart condition.  He was a man of principle who had “sacrificed his career …with his dignified refusal to perform or be performed in Nazi Germany”.  Rudolph Serkin recalls Busch’s intense sense of national guilt and shame at being a German during the Nazi era.

Though he was best known as a soloist and chamber musician, Adolf also composed:  lieder, instrumental and chamber works, a symphony and several concertante pieces (piano and orchestra; violin and orchestra). These were works influenced by Max Reger.  But he also wrote a body of charming, informal instrumental music (“Hausmusik”) to play at home with family and friends.  It is suggested the Hausmusik arose from his childhood experiences playing in dance halls and pubs with his father and brother Fritz, to make ends meet.  The Seven Bagatelles, Op 53a (1936) for clarinet, viola and cello were written expressly for his first wife Frieda, who played amateur clarinet.  The Bagatelles are considered “highly artful miniatures”, and three of them are included in the Woollahra Philharmonic’s June 2017 Forbidden Music Concert in Sydney.  Below is Bagatelle No. 2 Tema con variazioni:  Tempo di Menuetto performed by the Busch Kollegium Karlsruhe (Toccata Classics).


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