Degenerate music (German: Entartete Musik) was a label applied in the 1930s by the Nazi government in Germany to certain forms of music that it considered to be harmful or decadent. The Nazi government's concern for degenerate music was a part of its larger and more well-known campaign against degenerate art ('Entartete Kunst'). In both cases, the government attempted to isolate, discredit, discourage, or ban the works.
The Nazi government considered several types of music to be degenerate, for several different reasons. Any music that was opposed to the Nazi regime by virtue of its content or the political views of its composers and performers was considered degenerate. This included works by Jewish and Jewish-origin composers (such as Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker, Walter Braunfels, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Kurt Weill, Gustav Mahler, David Nowakowsky and Berthold Goldschmidt); works that featured Jewish or African characters (such as those by Ernst Krenek); or works by composers of Marxist persuasion (e.g., Hanns Eisler). It also applied to artists that had shown sympathy for opponents of the Nazi Regime (such as Anton Webern, who had maintained a friendship with Schoenberg during his exile from Germany). Modernist music, such as works by Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern, was also considered degenerate. Modernist music was judged to be inferior to previous classical music, and it therefore offended the Nazis' sense of progress and civilization in general--and in particular their loyalty to Germany's many great classical composers. In addition, one might speculate that Modernist music's abandonment of traditional structure and form presented a threat, albeit immaterial, to the culture of order and control that fascist regimes such as the Nazi party both developed and relied on. Finally, jazz music was considered degenerate because of its roots in and association with the African-American culture.
However, it promoted the works of German composers, especially those of Richard Wagner who was also much admired by Adolf Hitler as well as many others. Especial favourites were Rienzi and the Ring cycle with all its links to German mythology. Military marches were highly approved, and widely used as in the films of Leni Riefenstahl such as Triumph of the Will.
From the Nazi seizure of power onward, these composers found it increasingly difficult, and often impossible, to get work or have their music performed. Many went into exile (e.g., Schoenberg, Weill, Hindemith, Goldschmidt); or retreated into 'internal exile' (e.g., Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Boris Blacher); or ended up in the concentration camps (e.g., Viktor Ullmann, or Erwin Schulhoff).
Some works which were later enthusiastically adopted by the Nazi regime, such as the hugely popular Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1937), were initially described as degenerate by local music critics.
Like degenerate art, examples of degenerate music were displayed in public exhibits in Germany beginning in 1938. One of the first of these was organized in Düsseldorf by Hans Severus Ziegler, at the time superintendent of the Weimar National Theatre, who explained in an opening speech that the decay of music was "due to the influence of Judaism and capitalism". Ziegler's exhibit was organized into seven sections, devoted to (1) the influence of Judaism, (2) Schoenberg, (3) Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek, (4) "Minor Bolsheviks" (Schreker, Berg, Ernst Toch, etc.), (5) Leo Kestenberg, director of musical education before 1933, (6) Hindemith's operas and oratorios, and (7) Igor Stravinsky (anon. 1938, 629).
From the mid-1990s the Decca Record Company released a series of recordings under the title 'Entartete Musik: Music Suppressed by the Third Reich', covering lesser-known works by several of the above-named composers.