Werner Egk, the so-called Komponist des Wiederaufbaus (Composer of the Reconstruction), is best remembered for the role he played in rebuilding the musical landscape of a physically devastated and culturally demoralized post-war Germany. Appointed Director of the Berlin Music Academy, President of the German Composers’ Association, and holder of numerous other positions of influence in musical associations in West Germany until his death in 1983, Egk’s career under the Nazis was largely ignored, regarded as a footnote to an otherwise great career. With the exception of a brief period of criticism during the leftist student revolts of the 1960s, it is only recently that this narrative has been challenged. This is hardly surprising, for even the Nazis were hard-pressed to find a political or ideological message in his music. In the eyes of many Nazi officials, Egk was a great German composer, but his link to Nazism was harder to pin down. Praise for him, though effusive, tended toward the abstract and idealistic. Like so many of his fellow German composers, Egk chose simply to disengage from his political surroundings. Neither actively resisting nor condoning the actions of the Nazi state, he accepted state honours and the admiration of Goebbels and Hitler without directly participating in the purges and denunciations that defined the lives of so many of his colleagues.
Werner Egk was born Werner Joseph Mayer in Auchsesheim in 1901. Musical from an early age, he entered a municipal conservatory at the age of 18, and later studied theory, composition and conducting with Carl Orff in Munich. He adopted the nom de plume Werner Egk, an acronym based on his wife’s name: ‘Elisabeth, geborene Karl’ (Elisabeth, née Karl). After supporting himself and his small family through private music teaching, Egk got a job in radio, which remained a lifetime interest. After several years in Munich, he relocated to Berlin, where he met important representatives of the artistic avant-garde including Arnold Schoenberg, Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.