Jewish Musicians in Vichy France

One of the Nazi policies most damaging to music and musicians was the Sonderstab Musik (Special task force for music). Set up in 1940 as part of Einstazstab Reichleiters Rosenberg (The Rosenberg Taskforce for the Empire – Nazi Alfred Rosenberg’s team of looters), it co-ordinated the confiscation of musical items belonging to Jews across Europe. 8,000 pianos were pillaged, including famous performer Wanda Landowska’s instruments. (Over 2,000 were found stored in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris after the liberation.) The Sonderstab Musik also fulfilled an ideological role in collecting and sending to Germany all manuscripts and correspondence concerning Jewish composers, banning traditional Jewish compositions, and conducting an offensive against ‘degenerate’ Jewish music.

This campaign was echoed by Vichy in the form of the Commissariat General aux Questions Juives (General Commission for Jewish Issues), which, among other things, spied on Jewish composers and actively prevented performances of their music. Jewish musicians were required to have a special authorisation in order to perform, and were not allowed to play in publicly subsidised halls or on the radio. They also received no royalties. From 1941, Jews were excluded from the Orchestra National (National Orchestra), and were even banned from listening to the radio.

To evade this, some Jews staged violent acts of resistance, such as the sabotage attempt of a Berlin Philharmonic concert on 19 May 1942 in Lyon. Some, such as Polish-French composer Norbert Glanzberg, found a way to circumvent the rules, selling songs directly to singers such as Edith Piaf. Others worked to preserve Jewish music through a network of clandestine underground  concerts. Concerts dedicated to the works of Darius Milhaud took place in occupied France and in Provence, hosted by Henri Dutilleux and Manuel Rosenthal, the Prince and Princess de Polignac, and the Comtesse Pastré, among others.

The last of these, Comtesse Pastré, undertook a number of projects to help Jewish musicians. She housed 40 musicians in her chateau during the war, and in 1940 founded the Association Pour Que l’Esprit Vive (The Association for Sharp Minds) where artists could find refuge and participate in concerts and conferences on the rebirth of culture. Among the musicians who frequented her house was Georges Auric, who was himself engaged in Resistance activities. Concerts included works by Martinu, Mihalovici, Honegger, and Mozart, for whom a festival was held in 1942; Comtesse Pastré wanted to honour the latter’s spirituality rather than the image of German genius emphasized by Nazi propaganda. In July 1942 she staged the production Songe d’une Nuit d’Été (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Jacques Ibert, who was considered a Jewish musician by the Vichy state, with the national orchestra directed by Jewish conductor Manuel Rosenthal. In the climate of limited supplies, costumes for all 52 actors were made out of curtains in the chateau. The Comtesse continued to play an important role after the war, setting up a festival in Aix-en-provence in 1948 in honour of Mozart.

Another important patron and guardian of Jewish musicians was Marguerite Fournier. She lodged artists such as Martinu and Charles Munch in her house in 1940 and also put on concerts of French works such as Tailleferre’s ‘Cantate du Narcisse’ (Cantata for Narcissus). Similarly, Cecile de Valmalète created Les heures musicales (The musical hours) to help refugees. She welcomed performers, artists, and speakers to discuss classical music, organised a concert in 1942 of songs by poet Jacques Prévert and the Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma, and also set up a private school in 1942. All of these remarkable individuals provided a controlled freedom for Jews and refugees during the Occupation, protecting and ensuring the survival of Jewish music despite its censorship by the Nazis.

By Daisy Fancourt


Alviset, Josette ‘La programmation musicale à Vichy: Les apparences de la continuité’ La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes, (Brussels, 2001)

Curtis, Michael Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime (London, 2002)

Krivopissko, Guy and Virieux, Daniel ‘Musiciens : une profession en résistance ?’ La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes, (Brussels, 2001)

Sprout, Leslie ‘Les commandes de Vichy, aube d’une èra nouvelle’ La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes, (Brussels, 2001)