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Fascist Spain and the Axis: Music, Politics, Race and Canon

Eva Moreda Rodríguez


By the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) that set General Francisco Franco in power, most emerging Spanish composers (the so-called ‘Generation of the Republic’ 1) had gone into exile. Some would only return to Spain after several decades, some would never return. Even Manuel de Falla, the best internationally known Spanish composer of the time, left the country for Argentina eight months after the end of the war. He would die in Buenos Aires seven years later. The cultural and musical reconstruction and redefinition of Spain became thus one of the concerns of the new regime. “We do not wish to demand a hasty creative activity, but only to draw attention to the responsibility – the glorious responsibility – of those in whom all hopes are set”, wrote music critic Federico Sopeña in the newspaper Arriba on the last day of 1941, a year in which only few Spanish works (but very relevant, in his opinion) were premièred.2

In the reconstruction of musical life in post-Civil War Spain, an important role was played by the musical relations of the nation with the Axis powers – namely with Germany, which was seen by Spanish critics as the most significant nation in musical matters, as opposed to marginalized Spain. Exchanges with Germany and, to a lesser degree, Italy and Portugal not only helped in the recovery of cultural life after the devastation of the Civil War,3 they were also crucial in defining some aspects of musical aesthetics, such as the reception of the German or the Italian canon in Spain.

The nature and intensity of such relations were extremely dependant on the evolutions of the complex links among Spain and the Axis countries during the Second World War years. These links, although the Franco government remained officially neutral or at least ‘non-belligerent’ for the duration of the Second World War, were by no means uniform, and parallels can be drawn between their evolution and the struggles for power among the different factions that supported Franco. Spain’s foreign policy during the years 1939–45 was marked by opportunism, by the territorial pretensions of the regime in Africa and by the fact that, after almost three years of civil war, the country was not in the position of entering a new conflict immediately. A first phase of pro-Axis enthusiasm can be traced from the start of the Second World War, in September 1939, until the summer of 1942.4 During this period, the victorious position of Germany over France and even the United Kingdom encouraged Franco to seriously consider, on at least two occasions, the possibility of entering the war on the Axis side. Internally, this phase was marked by the political preeminence of the Falange – the fascist faction of the Franco regime – in the Spanish government over other groups such as Catholics, monarchists or the army. Falangistas guaranteed a corpus of theoretical elaborations (often based in primitive racial theory or distorted historical perspectives) aiming to justify a Spanish–German–Italian alliance.

Rather logically, the most important cultural and musical exchanges between Spain and the Axis countries took place during the years 1939–42, when pro-German and pro-Italian enthusiasm reached its peak among the ruling classes. The most promoted events were probably the three Hispanic–German music festivals held in the Saxonian village of Bad Elster (in July 1941 and July 1942) and in Madrid (in January 1942). Large selections of the best known composers and performers of each country were invited to attend, and the three events were also complemented by a number of political acts. The friendly relationship between Germany and Spain also instigated the return of the Berliner Philharmonie to Madrid in 1940 after an absence of ten years; its visit was repeated in 1941 and 1942, and Spanish composer and conductor Conrado del Campo was also invited to Berlin in January 1942 to conduct the Philharmonie. As for Italy, composer Alfredo Casella was the protagonist of one of the largest propagandistic efforts of Spanish musical press in April 1942, when he visited Madrid with his Trio Italiano to offer a series of concerts and talks.

After the summer of 1942, the increasingly difficult situation of Germany and the decline in influence of the Falange led to a more reserved policy towards the Axis powers. Finally, from approximately August 1944, the main aim of Spanish foreign policy was to convince the Allies that the Franco regime hardly bear any ideological affinities with Nazism and the Fascio. As for cultural and musical exchanges, both the Berliner Philharmonie and the Berliner Kammerorchester (a chamber ensemble conducted by Hans von Benda that specialized in pre-19th century repertory) visited Spain on a regular basis until 1944, but no further Hispanic–German festivals were organized. Portugal revealed itself too as a partner of musical exchange during these years, with frequent visits of Portuguese composers (Fernando Lopes-Graça, Rui Coelho) and conductors (Pedro Freitas Branco) to Madrid, as well as exchanges between the national orchestras of both countries. Indeed, the fact that musical relations with Germany and Italy were maintained until a rather late phase of the war (autumn 1944) suggests that their interruption was due to the critical military situation of the Axis rather than a desire on either side to end diplomatic and cultural relations .5

From the point of view of the music and propaganda hierarchies of the Franco regime, it is clear that such events were perceived to be extremely significant. Germany was often portrayed by critics as the musical nation par excellence – it is not unknown that several hierarchies of the Nazi and Fascio regimes, beginning with Hitler and Mussolini,6 openly admitted their love for music – so being able to sustain a proper exchange with the country on the musical level had a high symbolic content. The political importance of such events was made explicit by the heavy load of official content surrounding them. Ministers, members of the Commission of Music and other cultural authorities of the Franco regime received foreign performers in Madrid, and they were received on turn by Heinz Drewes and other representatives of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer. Even when no exchanges were involved, the presence of representatives of the embassies of Germany, Italy and Portugal became frequent at folk music events organized by the regime in Madrid. Sometimes visits of the combined delegations to places with a highly political and/or musical significance were organized. The three Hispanic–German music festivals offer important examples of that: a visit of the Spanish delegation to Bayreuth was organized during the first festival in Bad Elster, whereas in Madrid the German delegation had the opportunity to visit the tomb of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spanish fascism, whose figure had been the object of a particular personality cult encouraged by the regime after his death in the first months of the Civil War.

Foreign ensembles visiting Spain were also engaged in explicit propaganda activities organized by different subsets of the Franco regime. During its visit to Madrid in 1943, the Berliner Philharmonie, conducted by Hans Knapperbutsch, gave a concert to collect funds for the Spanish Blue Division,7 and several of its soloists offered as well a semi-private recital at the German Embassy. Most of these events were organized, understandably, by that group with the most affinities to the German and Italian governments – the Falange. The Falange was thus able use the visits of foreign artists to gain preeminence within the regime, against the other factions which supported Franco.

However enthusiastic were the comments on the quality of German orchestras, conductors and soloists and on the extraordinary degree of musical life within the country, the official rhetoric around the Hispanic–Germanic events was somewhat ambiguous and suggests a hardly assumed complex of inferiority on the side of Spain.8 Indeed, the perspective officially promoted by the Franco regime on the history of Spanish music largely implied that the 18th and most of the 19th century, crucial in the development and hegemony of the German canon, were in Spain hardly more than a long decadence in which the Spanish musical essence nearly succumbed to Italian influence.9 But from a rhetorical perspective both nations were usually presented as peers capable of exchanging musical experience and knowledge at the same level. This was particularly the case in the first years of the post-Civil War in Spain, when official rhetoric tried to exacerbate the pro-German feeling in the Spanish population. Thus, the musical exchanges between both nations were intrinsically linked to their equivalent political destiny, as expressed by Sopeña in typically enflamed style on the occasion of the first Hispanic–German music festival at Bad Elster (Arriba, 3/8/41):

The fact that the most musical of nations, Germany, organizes in the middle of the war a series of concerts dedicated to Spanish music is not only a proof of vitality – it bears as well the symbol of the special unity of these two nations, whose sons fight again against the universal enemy: Communism.

[…] Tomorrow, our shared triumph in the trenches which protect the highest essences of both nations will result in a new artistic communion.

Of course, a warm reception could only be assured by offering to Germany a selection of the best Spanish performers and works. To this regard, the regime did not limit itself to the election of the best soloists – it also intervened actively in the creation of supposedly world-class ensembles. For instance, the Commission of Music created in 1940 with Joaquín Turina as its first Commissar, was assigned in its foundational text rather vague objectives such as “the technical executions of the proposals of the Council of every musical matter which is assigned to it by the General Directions of Fine Arts”. The only concrete objective to be found is “everything related to the life, organization and development of the National Orchestra and the National Chamber Ensemble”. Both ensembles were repeatedly presented as ambassadors of Spanish music abroad, with their success being utterly magnified.

As for composition, although there is no evidence of works having been commissioned by the Franco regime to be premièred in Germany or other foreign countries, some reviews suggest that the regime or the Commission had a clear idea of which kind of compositions were acceptable for performance abroad, and that newly premièred works were carefully listened to with a view to convert them into an ‘export product’ whenever possible. On the occasion of the première of Guridi’s Diez melodías vascas in December 1941, Sopeña wrote for Arriba: “We now have two obligations: repeat it10 and let it be heard by European audiences” (Arriba, 23/12/43). The work was indeed presented in Bad Elster the following year, and on the occasion of a new performance in Madrid in January 1943 Sopeña labeled it as “a precious European divulgation of our regional colours”, recalling the pleasure and the surprise it caused in the German audience, for it did not match the commonplaces usually associated with Spanish music but at the same place was imbued with a “typically Spanish flair” (Arriba, 3/1/43).

It was precisely this unambiguous ‘Spanish’ essence that, in the eyes of Spanish critics and authorities of the time, made Spanish music more exportable. This was the view of Antonio de las Heras, who was both a music critic and the secretary of the Commission of Music. Thus, he praised Spanish music as being able to travel round the world without being mistaken for the product of any other country – as opposed to that which De las Heras labeled disdainfully as “international music” – and which required Spanish performers: a mediocre Spanish conductor, claimed De las Heras, would be finer in expressing the essence contained in a work by Mozart or Beethoven than a top foreign conductor in performing Falla or Turina. However, these particularities and differences granted that Spain was one of the countries “which raises the most interest in the world” in regard to musical matters (Arriba, 7/11/43).

If Spanish music abroad had to sound ‘Spanish’, German music was equally expected to sound ‘German’. This is highly symptomatic of the anachronic, ultranationalist way in which Spanish music critics of the Franco era conceived music – as a set of separate national schools with a distinct character, with works and composers being judged according to their ability to adapt themselves to the supposedly typical features of their national musical essence. A concrete example of influence can be traced in the Mozart festivals held in December 1941 in Vienna. On the occasion of the festival, two articles on Mozart written by leading German critics were published by Falange-run publications.11 Both Fritz Brust and Karl Holl highlighted the pan-Germanic origin of Mozart. They recognized international influences in Mozart’s music but they interpreted them as an expression “of the German emotional depth” (Brust) or as “an emphasis of his German essence” (Holl). This essentialist, nationalistic vision can also be located in the chronicles written on the occasion of the festival by two of the Spanish attendants – namely Sopeña and Rodrigo. Rodrigo, in discussing Mozart’s ‘Germanness’, as opposed to cosmopolitanism, states that “the greatest of Italian musicians, with evident French influences, appears to us in his true essence: the master of German Classicism. That is why I do not think it is right to call Mozart an international musician” (Pueblo, 26/12/41), while Sopeña traces a “decisive accent from the North” in Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor, Die Zauberflöte and some of his piano works (Arriba, 31/12/41). Sopeña even seemed to indulge racial theories of music, claiming that Mozart’s works based on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s texts showed an “aesthetic misbalance” which could be greatly improved if Mozart had used texts by German poets instead (Arriba, 18/4/42).

Other common traits in the discourse about Mozart, however, are absolutely not to be found in German music criticism of the time, and they can be attributed to the centrality of Catholicism in the Francoist ideology, a point in which it differed greatly from the Third Reich and which led it to attempts to appropriate illustrious names for its cause. In his chronicles about the Mozart festivals, for instance, Sopeña candidly thanked the Third Reich for having included a good amount of religious music in the program, and valued this music as expression of the “clear and simple religious feelings” that he attributed to Mozart (Arriba, 16/12/41). Similarly, J. Ignacio Prieto described the composer as “a true Christian and a devote Catholic” (Radio Nacional, 17/7/44). Although on a later date in which the musical relations with Germany were a great deal weakened, Haydn was also reported to have had strong religious feelings which were decisive in his work (Arriba, 21/7/44), and Mendelssohn, without a mention of his Jewish origin, was praised for “the rediscovery of Bach and religious music” (Arriba, 29/11/45).

Italian music posed a different ideological problem for Spanish music critics: how to justify its presence in Spain when the official history of music promoted by the Franco regime stated that Italianate influences had ruined the country’s musical tradition during the 19th century? Musical criticism was not free of these prejudices even when reviewing – albeit in very positive terms – concerts of Italian instrumental or vocal ensembles. For instance, the visit to Spain of the Orchestra of the Naples Conservatory in 1943 led Rodrigo to present a panorama of the Italian instrumental music of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose influence was so pervasive that “it had to be brushed off” (Pueblo, 14/5/43). On the occasion of the visit of a German opera troupe to Barcelona, Fernández-Cid explicitly opposed the quality of the singers’ performance of The Marriage of Figaro to “those vain Italian opera divos, insensitive to the beauty of the music” (Arriba, 11/2/44).

The visit of Casella to Madrid in April 1942 was, however, presented in the press following a different strategy.12 For Sopeña, Casella’s goal was “to demonstrate to the world that Italian music can be more than submission to melodrama”; Del Campo outlined Casella’s compositional “audacity”; Rodrigo alluded to the re-flourishing of symphonism in contemporary Italy thanks to the support of the government. Sopeña and Del Campo focused thus on innovation and modernity (El Alcázar, 24/4/42); Rodrigo emphasized the link of Casella with tradition (Pueblo, 24/4/42): a combined vision which is not contradictory but can be associated with the pretensions of Casella himself, those of his generation13 and with those of Italian fascism in regard to him. Sopeña portrayed Casella as a hero who had felt the “temptation” of atonalism, but – in a typical application of racial theories to music – was saved by “his desire, so Latin, of clear lines and strict forms” (Arriba, 24/4/42). The topic chosen by Casella for his conference at the Italian Institute was also meant to recall the Italian-Spanish musical relations of a time prior to the supremacy of Italian bel canto: he talked on Domenico Scarlatti who, having been born in Naples and spent a significant part of his career in Madrid, could rightly be claimed as a national composer by both Spain and Italy.

Musical relations with Spain’s neighbouring country, Portugal, were also supported by a racial, essentialist rhetoric that can be traced into the conception of the Spanish history officially promoted by the regime. Thus, Lorenzo Garza, wrote on the occasion of a visit of the Spanish National Orchestra to Portugal in 1944: “Our music is a constant vibration in the sensibility of the Portuguese people, for this art is able to go into the feelings deeper than the visual arts” (Pueblo, 15/3/44). Sopeña even claimed, in 1942, the existence of a “peninsular music” which integrated both Spanish and Portuguese composers and which searched inspiration in the music of Falla (Arriba, 15/4/42).

Unlike musical relations with Germany and Italy, cultural exchanges with Portugal (which, just like Spain, continued to be ruled by a totalitarian regime) and the essentialist rhetoric surrounding them survived after 1945. However, musical exchanges with Germany and Italy continued to be invoked by Spanish critics as a token as late as 1948, when it would seem unwise for Spain to recall her ties with the Axis if she desired to re-join the international scene.14 When Spain finally re-gained the consensus of the international community, at the beginning of the 1950s, their international musical program remained, however, essentially the same as it had been during the Second World War: to present music that was unequivocally Spanish in essence, but not too picturesque.15 Similarly essentialist views on the judgment of foreign repertory were maintained well after 1945. This lack of change in the direction of international music politics suggest that, although limited chronologically to a rather short period of the regime, the initial exchange with the Axis countries during the Second World War years contributed decisively to the way in which Spain presented itself abroad and received the foreign musical canon for the duration of the dictatorship.


1 Some of the members of the Generation of the Republic who exiled were Rodolfo Halffter, Salvador Bacarisse and Julián Bautista. Critic Adolfo Salazar, a crucial name in divulging modern music in Spain, exiled to Mexico as well, whereas Roberto Gerhard, one of the few Spanish composers to adopt the language of the Second Vienna School, settled in the United Kingdom. Back

2 All quotations from Spanish newspapers and periodicals have been translated into English by the author. Back

3 During the 1920s and 1930s Spain had managed to secure a certain position in international musical life: Stravinsky, for instance, visited Barcelona no less than 5 times between 1924 and 1936 to present his work (whereas after the Civil War he was only once in the city, and his visit was of a strictly private nature). In April 1936, only three months before the start of the Civil War, the International Society for Contemporary Music held its annual festival in Barcelona, where Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto was premièred and Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet was given its first European performance. Back

4 For an analysis of the relations of Franco’s Spain with the Axis, see Donald S. Detwiler, ‘Spain and the Axis during World War II’, The Review of Politics, xxxiii (1971), pp.36–53; Stanley G. Payne, Falange: A History of Spanish Fascism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961); Paul Preston, The Politics of Revenge: Fascism and the Military in Twentieth-Century Spain (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990), pp.51-84. Back

5 Indeed, cultural exchanges were by no means limited to music. In Madrid, the German Institute and the Italian Institute were two of the most active institutions, organizing a number of poetry readings, theatre plays and talks on a variety of subjects within the arts and the sciences. In Germany, performances of the Siglo de Oro dramatists (Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega and others) seem to have been particularly popular. Other leisure activities, such as sports competitions, were also used to reinforce the political and economical links between Spain and the Axis countries during the Second World War years. Back

6 The same was never true, however, of Francisco Franco. A soldier and ‘man of action’, General Franco hardly expressed during his regime any interest for the arts and humanities. Back

7 The Blue Division was a group of somewhat 20,000 Spanish men who fought with the German army on the Eastern front between summer 1941 and autumn 1943. As Franco’s Spain was officially neutral, the Spanish army could not take part in combat, so the Blue Division was formed by volunteers – almost half of them soldiers, but with a significant component of Falangistas and even men who, having been associated with the government of the Second Republic, wished to secure themselves and their families immunity within the Franco regime. Back

8 An interesting parallel can be drawn with the ‘politics of exhibition(ism)’ displayed by the Mussolini regime in regard to its international culture policy. See Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922–1945 (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2001). Back

9 This idea is not original to the Franco regime: it was first formulated by composer and musicologist Felipe Pedrell (1841–1922) in the second half of the 19th century. Back

10 Hard as it was to have a work premiered in the post-Civil War years, it was even more difficult to have it played a second time. Composer Joaquín Rodrigo notes it repeatedly in his reviews for Pueblo during these years. Back

11 Fritz Brust, ‘Mozart a los 150 años. Su vida y su obra. Gratitud de un gran país’, Arriba, 4 December 1941, p.3, and Karl Holl, ‘Mozart y el presente’, Escorial, no.16 (1942), pp.291–4. Back

12 For a complete analysis, see Gemma Pérez Zalduondo, ‘Alfredo Casella e La Musica Italiana in Spagna (1915–1945)’, Chigiana, xliv (2003), pp.379–97. Back

13 The Generazione dell’Ottanta, whose most prominent members apart from Casella were Ildebrando Pizzetti and Francesco Malipiero, wished to cast out the bel canto influences and create a new Italian music based on ancient Italian tradition. Back

14 For an analysis of the relations of Franco’s Spain with the international community after 1945, see Qasim Ahmad, ‘Britain and the Isolation of Franco, 1945–1950’, Spain in an International Context, 1936–1959, ed. Christian Leitz and David J. Dunthorn (New York: Berghahn Books, 1999), pp.219–43. Back

15 For a complete formulation of the program, see Federico Sopeña, ‘La música española en nuestras relaciones culturales’, Arbor, xvii (1951), pp.377–84. Back

© Eva Moreda Rodríguez, 2008

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