While German music conductor Dr. Karl Muck was interned in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia during World War I, he committed an act of rebellion against U.S. federal authorities thereby leading the camp orchestra in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony entirely in the nude. One can imagine the musicians seated with their instruments before them, somewhat concealing their genitalia from view. Muck, as the conductor, however, stood directly before his ensemble, with arms outstretched and in full visual display.
For that hour, Muck and his orchestra took over their prison space, performing before machine gun turrets and guards. Within their barbed-wire cage, the men symbolically cast off the shackles of their imprisonment, giving themselves a level of autonomy not offered or allowed during their internment. Muck commented in a post-war interview to radical journalist and political commentator H. L. Mencken that the performance was “really magnificent though the heat was hard on the violin strings. Beethoven would have been proud of it.”
The story behind the creation of Eroica is interesting: Beethoven had watched with fascination as French citizens fought for “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” during the French Revolution, overthrowing the monarchy that had oppressed them. Beethoven had greatly admired French general Napoleon Bonaparte and had named his third symphony after him, but when Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven flew into a rage and reportedly tore up the third symphony’s dedication page, exclaiming, “Now, he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, [and] become a tyrant!” Beethoven’s Eroica became a powerful piece of music in response to the political climate of his time, with its tension and dissonance in the opening movement, its somber and painfully long funeral march representing the plight of the downtrodden, and its ten variations on a theme, including a lively dance melody, and a suggestion of freedom from dominant authority figures, concluding with eventual triumph. Beethoven’s music inspires people to this day toward collective action for common social goals.
In 1918, Muck and his internment camp orchestra performed Eroica to symbolize the plight of German-American musicians who were loved and admired in America before World War I, and who sought their freedom from captivity at the height of the conflict. Their nude performance was a “Fick Dich!” to a federal system that guarded and controlled them at the point of a gun. This single act was Muck’s way of standing up, quite literally, to his oppressors. As I listen now to Eroica, I too, feel empowered in this difficult political time, to take action with my words in response.
Melissa D. Burrage is a former writing consultant at Harvard University Extension School. Melissa holds a Master’s Degree in History from Harvard University and a PhD in American Studies from University of East Anglia.
If you want to learn more about the story of Karl Muck, read another blog post, written by Melissa D. Burrage on the political climate in America during World War I.
 Henry Louis Mencken, Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 113
 Anecdote told by Ferdinand Ries in Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977) 132.