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Leichtentritt: From Nazi Germany to the Nation’s Capital

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The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.

“The Library of Congress was duly admired, and I viewed especially the Division of Music with professional interest. In wealth of its possessions it comes closest to the great European music collections of London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Bologna.”

– Hugo Leichtentritt[1]

Harold Spivacke in 1946
Harold Spivacke. 1946. Library of Congress Archives.

This was the observation recorded in 1938 by the avid diarist during his visit to Washington. By then, Hugo Leichtentritt had been in the country for half a decade and would obtain his American citizenship the following year. He was a music lecturer at Harvard University, an alma mater that offered him employment during his most desperate hour. It was 1933, the year Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor and his socialistic party initiated a boycott of Jewish businesses. Having already endured the forced entry to his residence by Nazis who interrogated him about his neighbors, Leichtentritt knew that his potential demise was at hand. Thus, to extricate himself, he sent his résumé to the presidents of several American academic institutions. In the end, Harvard was the only one to extend a lifeline. His time as a graduate student at the University in 1893 is chronicled in the lone portion of Leichtentritt’s journals that is known to exist. Currently, the German language document is housed in Box 21, Folder 6, in the Hugo Leichtentritt Papers.

Upon his 1933 arrival in America, Leichtentritt was greeted by a former student from the University of Berlin: Harold Spivacke. As a doctoral candidate in musicology at the institute, Spivacke received private theory and composition lessons from the Prussian-born educator during a fellowship program. Since 1900, Leichtentritt had taught legions of international students in the capital of Germany and would continue his music instruction at his Ivy League post. Twelve public lectures he gave while at Harvard constituted the nucleus of his book Music, History, and Ideas. The volume, published in 1938, would become a Harvard University Press bestseller. A draft of the book’s introduction is currently among the holdings of the Music Division where Spivacke was Chief from 1937 to 1972, the longest term held by anyone in the office.

Oscar Sonneck in 1914
Oscar Sonneck. 1914. Edward N. Waters, “Herbert Putnam: The Tallest Little Man in the World” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 33/2 (April 1976), 159. 

Leichtentritt was a member of various professional musical organizations throughout his career, including the American Musicological Society and the International Society of Music. His association with the latter enabled him to befriend Oscar Sonneck, a vanguard figure in library classification. Sonneck, who was the first to serve as Music Division Director in 1902, is credited for having developed the M schedule, a classification system for organizing the music holdings of the Library of Congress. This worldwide-adopted schema would eventually be employed to not only categorize the works of Sonneck himself, but also those of his contemporary Leichtentritt. During his lifetime, Leichtentritt composed nearly 100 songs. Some, like Esther and a cantata based on the Canticle of Solomon, paid homage to his Jewish heritage. Chamber works, such as his multiple string quartets, drew from his decades-long experience playing the violin. Manuscript sketches and print copies of the aforementioned, as well as other compositions, are available to researchers via the Hugo Leichtentritt Papers.

Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division, Library of Congress, c. 1923. Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs, Music Division, Library of Congress.

From the time he entered the workforce until his retirement at the age of 65, Leichtentritt vacillated between teaching and writing. In Germany, he and two colleagues ran a weekly magazine for four years, after which he joined the staff of Berlin’s oldest and most renowned newspaper, Vossische Zeitung. His 15-year stint with the publication halted when the country entered the First World War. When it concluded in 1918, Leichtentritt’s journalistic activities resumed, but only as dalliances. Periodicals across America and Europe, familiar with his musical and literary expertise, now only requested his critical contributions on occasion. One such invitation came from Carl Engel. The fellow musicologist held the post of Chief of the Music Division from 1919 to 1934. One year later, he was the editor of The Musical Quarterly, a scholarly music journal founded by Sonneck, and seeking an article to commemorate Handel. Leichtentritt obliged. Around that same time, the Boston Symphony Orchestra reprinted the first chapter of Leichtentritt’s book on Handel in a program. A draft of the book, as well as a cache of documents entitled “Essais et critiques,” can be found within the Leichtentritt Papers at the Library of Congress.

In his autobiography A Musical Life in Two Worlds, Leichtentritt called composer Nicolas Slonimsky one of his most valued friends. It was this companion and co-émigré who donated the Hugo Leichtentritt Papers to the Library of Congress circa 1952. Among the documents are fragments of his memoir and Music of the Nations, a text which Slonimsky published in 1956 as Music of the Western Nations. For additional material on Leichtentritt, researchers may consult the Serge Koussevitzky Archives and the Wanda Landowska and Denise Restout Papers.

[1] Leichtentritt, Hugo. A Musical Life in Two Worlds: the Autobiography of Hugo Leichtentritt. Harvard Musical Association, 2014, p. 493.


  1. Thanks for a compelling article on an important topic.

    One little correction, though:

    “Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor and his socialistic party initiated a boycott of Jewish businesses”

    Um, no.

    Despite some romantic anticapitalist claptrap denouncing big business and the charging of interest, here was nothing socialist about the Nazis, whose bitterest enemies were true socialists such as the Social Democrats and others on the left.

    They called themselves “National Socialists”:”Nazi” is slang for that–tellingly derived from the “national” part of their name. No one called them “Sozis.”

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