Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881, and for nearly 40 years made it an unparalleled success. Until, that is, the last year of his life when musical director Karl Muck became enveloped in a scandal that turned the symphony into a political flashpoint during World War I.
When America entered World War I in April of 1917, Higginson had reason to worry about his conductor. Muck, then 57, was born in Germany and had connections in government circles. Still, he was a musician, not a military man.
Higginson had been somewhat bold to engage Muck in the first place. He had conducted the orchestra from 1906 to 1908 as a guest, and Higginson brought him back in 1912 more permanently. The press praised the decision. The BSO had traditionally used unknowns in the role of conductor, rather than more famous, established conductors like Muck.
Higginson talked about the issues surrounding the war with Muck, and he agreed to stay apolitical. And for a time, it worked. The BSO continued its performances, and Muck kept quiet.
By 1917, orchestras were starting to add The Star Spangled Banner to their concert lineups and the BSO was slow to adopt the custom. After a November concert in Providence, Muck was accused of refusing to play the national anthem. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, correct. Muck didn’t like anyone telling him what he had to perform. Still, he had not refused. A request to perform the song did not reach him. Higginson had simply ignored it.
The issue simmered and rose up again as the end of 1917 approached. Muck and the BSO were scheduled to play three nights at New York’s Carnegie Hall the following year. The socialites of New York, led by Mrs. William Jay, began agitating against his performance, as well as German opera performances.
Their fight broke into the press. Higginson tried to calm the waters by spreading the story that Muck was Swiss. While he was born in Germany, his father had obtained a Swiss passport for him as a youngster and Higginson tried to pass the conductor off as a neutral party.
By the end of December, however, the controversy was growing. The City of Pittsburgh banned Muck from performing. Leaders in Springfield, Mass., said they would not rent space for a BSO concert.
And in New York, Mrs. Jay continued her protests and letter-writing. She did not want Muck performing at Carnegie Hall.
The press reported, “Her letters were without effect on Major Higginson, except to move him to inform Mrs. Jay that her letters were a distinct annoyance.”
Officials in Washington, D.C. forced cancellation of a BSO concert there. They declared Muck, along with 22 other members of the orchestra, was an enemy alien and not allowed to enter the city.
On March 14, 1918, Muck strode to the podium at Carnegie Hall. The press reported he received a 1-minute and 42-second standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, he struck up a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner that received another ovation.
The public controversy over Muck died, temporarily. Behind the scenes, however, pressure to remove Muck was growing. Higginson privately laid out his intentions. At the close of the season in May, he would announce Muck’s departure and he, himself, would also resign. He never got the chance to put his plans into action.
On March 25, police arrested Muck as a hostile alien. He resigned from the symphony at the end of March. Then at the start of April he was sent to a Georgia internment camp, with 4,000 others of German descent.
Muck and several others had to be taken to the camp under guard amid threats from people who said they would take him from the train and hang him. For his part, Muck said he was pleased with the change. He couldn’t smoke cigarettes at the Cambridge, Mass., jail, something he could do in the internment camp.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had promised to rein in the practices of the Justice Department, but it was no aid to Muck. The Justice Department wanted to question him about his friendship with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and his knowledge of the Kaiser’s plans for America.
As April progressed, Swiss officials dropped their defense of Muck. They no longer claimed he was a Swiss citizen. Higginson resigned from the orchestra, handing it over to a board of directors.
Since his first day at the camp, Muck and others were offered the option of being sent to Germany if they wished. At the urging of his wife, Muck finally agreed to deportation, and in August of 1919 he was boarded a ship to Europe.
He gave interviews in which he was bitter about his treatment. America was under mob rule, he said, though he said his life in the internment camp was largely comfortable. He noted that the BSO had 29 musicians in the internment camp, and he doubted the symphony could recover.
Back in Germany, he told reporters that his internment resulted from police and FBI looking at his shorthand notations for the music to Bach’s The Passion of St. Matthew. They mistook it, he said, for some sort of spy code. He would conduct the Berlin Philharmonic that fall.
In November 1919, just four days after the official end of World War I, Henry Higginson died at age 85 from complications of surgery earlier in the year. Boston mourned the successful banker and Civil War soldier. No one had questioned his loyalty during the Muck affair, or his decision to stand by Muck, though some thought it curious.
The public was about to hear the final piece of the story.
The Real Story
In December, the newspapers in Boston and New York published a “Now it can be told” account of Karl Muck’s internment and deportation. “Love and Intrigue Mingle in the Story of Karl Muck Deported Orchestra Leader,” read the headlines on a series of articles that began just before Christmas.
This account of the story revealed that when police investigated Muck they learned of his affair with Rosamond Young, a 20-year-old opera singer from a wealthy Boston-area family. He had met her years before when she visited Germany.
Police pressured him with a threat of a morals charge into accepting internment. Higginson had also realized the scandal would end any possibility of salvaging Muck’s job.
Following his arrest, Muck had asked the girl to burn his letters to her, but she did not, and police discovered them. The newspapers published excerpts revealing an odd mix of incriminating details that showed Muck to be both infatuated with the girl and still very much in love with Germany.
“Dream of me darling. Dream of the throbbing moments we spent together, and dream of the hours we will yet spend,” he wrote in one letter.
In another, he promised he would take the girl with him to Germany and marry her.
“It will be only a very short time when our gracious Kaiser will act upon my request and recall me to Berlin,” he wrote. Once there,”our Kaiser will be prevailed upon to see the benefit to the Fatherland in my obtaining a divorce and making you my own.”
Muck explained that he wanted to return to Germany sooner, but had agreed to stay in the United States at the request of Germany’s ambassador to America:
“He insisted I am the fatherland’s most valuable servant in this country. In the name of our gracious Kaiser he begged me to remain here.”
No evidence emerged that Muck provided any material aid to the Germans. The closest thing to an actual allegation against him was his loyalty to Germany and, in the event of an invasion, he belonged to a group of German Americans who would help the enemy.
Muck would have many more successful years as a conductor in Germany before he died in 1940.
Images: Boston Symphony Hall By mooogmonster – CIMG2733, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=955273. With thanks to Melissa D. Burrage, The Karl Muck Scandal; Classical Music and Xenophobia in World War I.
This story was updated in 2021.