The “Star-Spangled Banner” Controversy That Altered the Course of American Music
“The Star-Spangled Banner” has long been a focal point of political protest and recrimination. The National Football League shunned the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee during the singing of the national anthem at games. At the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos responded to the anthem by raising gloved fists in a Black Power salute. During the Vietnam War, Jimi Hendrix twisted the tune into a dissonant wail. Yet nothing in the tangled history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” quite compares to a 1917 incident involving Karl Muck, the music director of the Boston Symphony. As Melissa D. Burrage relates in her new book, “The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America,” a brouhaha over the anthem led to the public shaming and eventual arrest of one of the world’s leading conductors.
Muck, an elegant figure with a coolly disciplined podium style, had arrived in Boston in 1906, having long led the Berlin Court Opera. He was a mainstay of the Bayreuth Festival, presiding over summertime performances of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” His exalted status in German music matched prevalent tastes in Boston, a city with a considerable German-speaking community. But the atmosphere changed markedly after the United States declared war on Germany, in April, 1917. In October of that year, Muck and the Boston Symphony gave a concert in Providence, Rhode Island. Patriotic demonstrations at concerts had become routine, and Henry Lee Higginson, the patrician founder and chief executive of the Boston Symphony, was asked to include “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the program. For various reasons, Higginson declined to do so. An arrangement of the anthem was not immediately available, and Higginson felt that patriotic tunes had “no place in an art concert.”
The blame fell squarely on Muck, whose attachment to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Empire was well known. John Rathom, the editor of the Providence Journal, concocted a story that Muck had refused to play the anthem. (In fact, the conductor knew nothing of the request until after the concert, although he later echoed Higginson’s snobbish stance.) Rathom had made his name printing sensational and often fictitious tales of German espionage in the United States. Once the war began, such paranoid chatter was encouraged by George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, which whipped up a nationwide wave of anti-German hysteria. Rathom followed up his bogus Muck story with absurd accusations that the conductor was engaged in subversive activity.
Burrage describes an incendiary public meeting that took place in Baltimore, Maryland, in advance of a Muck concert that was scheduled for early November. Edwin Warfield, the former governor of Maryland, gave a speech saying that the conductor belonged in an internment camp; that he should not be allowed to insult the city where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written; that “mob violence would prevent it, if necessary”; and that he would lead the mob himself. A crowd of two thousand applauded wildly and shouted comments to the effect that “Muck should have been shot” and “A wooden box would be a better place.” There was a chant of “Kill Muck! Kill Muck!” Such threats were not idle. In April, 1918, the citizens of Collinsville, Illinois, forced a German-American coal miner to sing the anthem walking naked across broken glass. They then lynched him. Not surprisingly, Muck’s Baltimore concert was cancelled.
Most of this has been reported in previous accounts of the Muck affair, but Burrage adds a new wrinkle in detailing the bizarre role played by Lucie Jay, a member of the executive board of the New York Philharmonic. The Boston Symphony was widely considered to be America’s preëminent orchestra, and the Philharmonic hoped to equal or surpass its Northern rival. Burrage shows that Jay made it her mission to bring down Muck, and that as early as 1915 she was agitating against Muck’s proposed pro-German activity. She actually travelled to Boston in that year to demand that the orchestra stop playing German music, even though no such measure was deemed necessary for the Philharmonic. Whether she had anything to do with Rathom’s “Star-Spangled Banner” crusade is unclear, but she certainly capitalized on the outrage.
Matters came to a head in March, 1918, when the Boston Symphony gave several concerts at Carnegie Hall. Jay had tried mightily to prevent the concerts from happening. All manner of wild allegations circulated: that Muck had plotted to blow up munitions depots; that he had sabotaged American guns; that he had dispatched prostitutes to military bases to infect soldiers with venereal diseases; that he had radioed messages to U-boats from his vacation home in Seal Harbor, Maine. The conductor had been considered immune from an enemy-aliens arrest because he held Swiss citizenship. Jay and her allies proceeded to cast doubt on that claim, to the point that Higginson felt compelled to carry Muck’s citizenship papers onto the Carnegie stage and wave them at the audience.
A few days after the Carnegie appearances, Muck was arrested, in the middle of a rehearsal of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in Boston. The Massachusetts attorney general and the Bureau of Investigation had discovered that Muck was having an affair with a young mezzo-soprano named Rosamond Young. That relationship allowed investigators to paint Muck as both subversive and immoral—a one-two punch of xenophobia and puritanism. Muck’s home was raided and his assets were seized. Police pored over his score of the St. Matthew Passion, believing that its markings contained a secret code. Anti-American remarks in the letters with Young were deemed sufficient evidence of sedition. Muck spent the remainder of the war in an internment camps, where he conducted the camp orchestras. In a later interview with H. L. Mencken, Muck claimed that on one hot day he and his musicians performed Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in the nude.
Burrage’s book is commendably even-handed in its treatment of Muck, declining to make an innocent victim out of him. The conductor was fiercely anti-Semitic, and when he returned to Germany, in the early nineteen-twenties, he swung to the ultra-nationalist right, becoming an admirer of Hitler. Higginson, for his part, was prejudiced against Jews and supported measures to restrict immigration. Jay, on the other hand, campaigned against punitive immigration laws, not least because they were contrary to shipping and railroad interests in which she was invested. Muck’s relationships with young women were exploitative, although Burrage points out that he was one of very few male musicians of the period who supported female aspirations toward conducting and composing. One of his protégées, Antonia Brico, conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930—the first woman to do so.
The Muck scandal had significant consequences for musical culture in the United States. In 1914, classical music held an exalted position in American life, appealing not only to élite audiences but also to a broad public. The Muck affair helped to brand the European tradition as suspect and unpatriotic. The historian E. Douglas Bomberger, in his book “Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture,” argues that homegrown musical traditions, both classical and popular, benefitted from the wartime demonization of German music and musicians. The year 1917 saw the rapid rise of jazz, which had impeccable credentials as a hundred-percent-American enterprise. Bomberger writes, “The challenge to traditional musical authority may be seen as a symbol of the American military challenge to traditional European authority.” Jazz’s nationalist allure helps to explain why it became so popular in a white population that was otherwise pervaded by racism.
Bomberger’s book leaves one with the uneasy feeling that the First World War encouraged the rise of an American musical chauvinism, one that restricted the polyglot makeup of the nation’s culture at the turn of the last century. Governor Warfield, at the rabid anti-Muck rally in Baltimore, put this nativist attitude most succinctly: “The day is coming when ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ will be sung by every free nation on the globe, and the people will jump to their feet when they hear it, just as you have jumped to your feet today.”