More context about the incarceration of Conductor Karl Muck

My World War I novel, The End of Innocence, is set at Harvard during the “forgotten years” of free speech.

This essay is about the novel’s inciting incident: the forced interning of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor and 29 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in World War I. (In the novel, the real life incident is fictionalized as occurring in 1914, not 1918.) This essay is about Karl Muck playing Eroica at the camp just north of Atlanta. Note this performance is considered one of the best in U.S. music history up until that time.

While these forgotten histories surprise us given where Boston is now,  we must not be hypocrites. Many of our own communities have failed and continue to fail to live up to our ideals or laws. I wrote The End of Innocence to encourage myself and others to remember that all are human ultimately, identity politics can lead us into some dark places, and we can aspire to get out of those dark places if we use our imagination.

1914-1918: A Bad Time to be from Germany & in the Boston Symphony Orchestra

In March 1918 Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) conductor Karl Muck was interned in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia alongside 29 members of the BSO. They were suspected of being German sympathizers.

Why would citizens target symphony members? It went beyond artistic personal vendettas that we read in the press today. (For instance, recently one member of the Bolshoi ballet attacked an executive with acid.) The interning of Muck and a large portion of the BSO was intensified by individuals, but the act was aligned with popular sentiment (with notable, vocal exceptions).

During this era (early 20th century) in the U.S., community symphonies were an important part of the public entertainment. (Radio and television were not available to the public in 1914.) Musicians and conductors were important public figures who were to help cultivate the character and intellect of our populations in large and small towns across America.  (Thanks to Ryan Ellefsen, East Chapel Hill High School director for this insight.)

Karl Muck: A Swiss Genius, Born in Germany

Karl Muck was born in Germany and became a Swiss citizen at the age of 21. His abilities led to his notice by BSO founder and US Civil War veteran  Henry Lee Higginson. According to the BSO website:

“From a list of 25 candidates including Gustav Mahler, Willem Mengelberg, and Hans Richter, Higginson settled on Karl Muck to succeed Gericke as BSO conductor. At Higginson’s request, the German emperor released Muck from his duties as director of the Royal Opera House in Berlin. Among the landmarks of Muck’s second Boston tenure were the BSO’s first transcontinental tour (1915) and its first commercial recordings (1917). Higginson once referred to Dr. Muck as “the most industrious, painstaking and ablest conductor whom we have ever had.” (July 9, 1917 letter to Harvard President Charles Eliot)”

In 1917 the U.S. entered the Great War. Muck offered to resign, concerned both for his personal safety given the anti-German sentiments of the country, as well as for the BSO’s image.  Higginson refused his resignation.

Controversy found the conductor due to his German ties. The controversial John R. Ranthom of the Providence Journal published unsubstantiated anti-German stories, often provided by British intelligence agents, and then elaborated on by Ranthom.  One subject of focused and prolonged attack was Karl Muck.

Ranthom’s Set Up

On Oct. 30, 1917, the BSO was set to play in Rhode Island. Two requests from women’s associations in Rhode Island were made for the BSO to play the Star Spangled Banner. These requests were sent to Higginson, not Muck. Higgenson refused to change the program. Muck did not receive the notice and said if he had, he would have readily played it. (Muck did play the U.S. national anthem in subsequent performances, but by that time the popular and false story of his refusal to play the anthem was embedded in the public’s hearts . People criticized the arrangements and performances. )

Facts were irrelevant. Higginson publicly stated that it was he, not Muck who had made that decision to not change the program and that Muck was unaware of the request. Higginson went to Washington D.C. to even speak with government officials about the situation.

Side note: Stravinsky & Boston, same problem, different war

Muck was not the only foreign conductor who got into trouble in New England over the national anthem. In 1944, Igor Stravinsky was approached by Boston police because of his arrangement of the national anthem. Photos of Stravinsky’s arrest are mislabeled – they are passport photos: he was not arrested, only approached by police. The best description I found of the incident is here:

Stravinsky’s unconventional major-minor seventh chord in his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led to an incident with the Boston police on 15 January 1944, and he was warned that the authorities could impose a $100 fine upon any “rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part”.[45][46] The incident soon established itself as a myth, in which Stravinsky was supposedly arrested for playing the music.[47] (Source:

Karl Muck’s arrest

This March 26, 1918 error-filled headline from the  New York Times describes what happened. The truth was that Muck, an actual Swiss citizen, did play the National anthem.

Karl Muck NYT headline

Not just Muck

29 German members of the BSO were also arrested and interned at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. The internment camp was for German and German-American interns in the eastern U.S., a western camp was also established. According to theWikipedia entry on German-American internment:

Civilian internees

President Woodrow Wilson issued two sets of regulations on April 6, 1917, and November 16, 1917, imposing restrictions on German-born male residents of the United States over the age of 14. The rules were written to include natives of Germany who had become citizens of countries other than the U.S.[2] Some 250,000 people in that category were required to register at their local post office, to carry their registration card at all times, and to report any change of address or employment. The same regulations and registration requirements were imposed on females on April 18, 1918.[3] Some 6,300 such aliens were arrested. Thousands were interrogated and investigated. A total of 2,048 were incarcerated for the remainder of the war in two camps, Fort Douglas, Utah, for those west of the Mississippi and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, for those east of the Mississippi.[4]

The cases of these aliens, whether being considered for internment or under internment, were managed by the Enemy Alien Registration Section of the Department of Justice, headed beginning in December 1917 by J. Edgar Hoover, then not yet 23 years old.[5]

Among the notable internees were the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt and 29 players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.[6] Their music director, Karl Muck, spent more than a year at Fort Oglethorpe, as did the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony OrchestraErnst Kunwald.[7] One internee described a memorable concert in the mess hall packed with 2000 internees, with honored guests like their doctors and government censors on the front benches, facing 100 musicians. Under Muck’s baton, he wrote, “the Eroica rushed at us and carried us far away and above war and worry and barbed wire.”[8]

Most internees were paroled on the orders of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in June 1919.[9] Some remained in custody until as late as March and April 1920.[10]

Other discrediting information: Rumors of an affair

The Boston press reported Karl Muck allegedly had an affair with a young Boston woman. This revelation was prejudicial and  damaging.

Given how much reporting about this gentleman was not true, it’s hard to believe the reports’ credibility though it may be  accurate. (And remember that J.Edgar Hoover was working with internment camp issues!)

After the War

After the war Karl Muck returned to Germany. I was unable to find out about the lives of the 29 other BSO members.

In Germany, Muck conducted at the highest level. Once Hitler rose to power, the Nazi party pressured his symphony politically. He retired from conducting rather than take orders from the Nazi’s.

Karl Muck died March 4, 1940. The New York Times obituary described a gifted German-born conductor unfairly targeted in the U.S. by anti-German hysteria, who, in the end, quietly refused to participate in the world the Nazi’s were creating.

The Times reported:

“News of the death of Dr. Muck interrupted a rehearsal by the Boston Symphony Orchestra today.  For two minutes the musicians stood in silence, with heads bowed, after they were informed of their former leader’s death.”