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This country has nothing to boast about in the matter of how UK residents of Germanic origin were treated during the Great War – musicians included. The renaming of the Bechstein Hall as Wigmore Hall is but a gentle hint as to the broader, darker picture of wartime xenophobia on these shores. Melissa Burrage’s exceptional study offers the parallel United States story witnessed through the prism of the treatment meted out to Karl Muck – legendary music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (from 1906-08 and 1912-18) and one of the great conductors of his day.

After a vicious, highly personalised campaign from various quarters and following investigation by the US authorities, Muck was arrested in the act of rehearsing his orchestra (in Bach’s St Matthew Passion) in March 1918. The German born-and-bred conductor (though by this time a Swiss national) was dubbed a ‘dangerous enemy alien’ and interned.

The reason why this volume emphatically will score for many readers is nonetheless also the reason why others may steer clear of it. Burrage’s strategy, rooted in a decade’s research, is to provide detailed, meticulous context in a way that builds inexorably to Muck’s arrest. Not everyone may exercise patience with this, but those who do will reap a rich reward.

Burrage provides ample background on the extent to which the USA’s large pre-Great War Germanic population had become embedded in society, not least in Boston and not least in terms of its contribution to musical culture. Austro- German classical repertoire was at the heart of the Boston Symphony’s concert- giving: the orchestra’s founder, Henry Lee Higginson, was an ardent Germanophile. Muck’s appointment set a seal on things.

The entry of the USA into the Great War in 1917 (after Germany lifted its embargo on submarine attacks against neutral shipping) unleashed an intense anti-German hysteria across the States. Thousands were interned, including a string of musicians of Austro-German background. Muck was investigated by the authorities, egged on by the likes of the odious socialite Mrs William Jay, who made it her mission to see him removed from his Boston podium. It was (wrongly) alleged that he had declined to conduct The Star-Spangled Banner. He was (wrongly) suspected of spying. His (harmless) contacts with others of Germanic origin in the USA were traced. Extra-marital relationships were scrutinised as a test of character. On Muck’s arrest, his place of residence was turned upside down and his substantial assets confiscated.

Burrage outlines Muck’s internment with other Austro-Germans at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, including the musical performances that were staged. At the end of the war Muck was deported, penniless, back to Europe where he had to re-start his conducting career from something approaching scratch. Sadly, the rest of his life (he died in 1940) was besmirched by his virulent antisemitism and support for Adolf Hitler, whom he came to know personally. One can only guess how far an anti-American mindset engendered by his appalling treatment in 1918 played into this – if such brutality could be dished out in the Land of the Free, what price democracy?

A marvellously compelling tale, Burrage employing a literary style that makes light of the detail. The additional glory is the staggeringly wide-ranging treasure trove of images scattered liberally around the text, generously supporting the narrative.

The Karl Muck Scandal is a worthy memorial to the book’s dedicatee, Burrage’s son Zachary, victim of a car accident in 2015 and significant contributor to his mother’s research.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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