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above: Karl Muck c. 1889 (public domain)

Society & Culture

Alien Maestro

"I consider myself an American, but see what America has done to me."

If you ask historically literate lovers of classical music to identify the leading conductors from the 20th century’s early decades, they will supply a profusion of names: Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg, Otto Klemperer, Artur Nikisch, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Felix Weingartner, Serge Koussevitzky, Pierre Monteux, and Sir Thomas Beecham, for a start. Few such music-lovers, unless specifically prompted, will include Karl Muck on their lists. Yet Muck (1859-1940) demonstrated no less artistic significance than those other maestri

The pity is that nowadays the German-born Muck, if remembered at all, is usually recollected not for his musical aptitude but for having been interned by Uncle Sam as an enemy alien from March 1918 to August 1919, despite or because of having enjoyed eight years’ tenure as the conductor-in-chief of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). 

Few, even among musicologists, could write more than two accurate sentences concerning this internment’s details. However, Melissa Burrage’s 2019 account of his career in The Karl Muck Scandal: Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I America impressively expands our knowledge of the great conductor.

If we know of Muck at all, awareness of his achievements is likely to be lopsided. Unlike most of the conductors cited above he left few phonographic...

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