Australian music lovers may be familiar with the Eugene Goossens scandal, which saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s first permanent conductor forced to leave the country in disgrace in 1956 after indecent photographs were discovered in his possession, but they may be less familiar with the ousting of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s feted conductor Karl Muck, who was targeted, interned as an enemy alien and ultimately deported from the USA amidst rising anti-German sentiment during the First World War.
Muck’s experiences in the USA are the subject of Melissa D. Burrage’s thoroughly researched book The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America. The toast of Bayreuth, mentioned in the same breath as Hans Richter and Felix Weingartner, Muck was brought out to America in 1906 as the result of diplomatic negotiations that extended all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt and Emperor Wilhelm II.
Using Muck’s plight to illustrate broader shifts in social and political sentiment in America, Burrage traces the way the German community in Boston was valued for its contributions to the culture and sophistication of the city before the government and the media began to foment anti-German hysteria during the war. At the centre of the public’s perception of Muck was his apparent refusal to conduct The Star-Spangled Banner at a concert in 1917 (Burrage reveals he was unaware of the request) but Burrage delves into how personal relationships (including an affair with a 20-year-old mezzo), grudges and even Boston-New York rivalry (fought here through the city’s orchestras) led to his eventual downfall in America.
Despite the injustices of Muck’s treatment, Burrage doesn’t paint the conductor as a hero. She reveals a man both arrogant and antisemitic, and indeed, there is a bitter irony to Muck’s being vilified and cast out of the USA, returning to Germany only to throw his support behind the toxic ideology that would soon see Jewish musicians fleeing in the other direction.
There are lighter moments – an entirely nude performance of Beethoven’s Eroica in an internment camp in Georgia, for instance – but it’s a chilling read that sheds light on how vulnerable communities are scapegoated in times of crisis that, unfortunately, still has plenty of resonance a century on.