Leo Kestenberg's influence on the shaping of music education policy during the Weimar Republic represents, taken as a whole, a great moment in the often difficult relations between the state, society and art.
As a pianist who became a politician, Kestenberg was visionary in his ability to formulate music education as a socio-political task and, moreover, to anchor that vision in concrete measures for actual political reform. In so doing he always maintained a balance - both practical and theoretical - between elite and popular culture, between professional standards of proficiency and quality and a ‘people's education' approach whose goal, in the broadest sense, was to make cultural opportunities available to all social classes. With what became known as the Kestenberg Reform of the 1920s, he created structures throughout the entire field of music school education and private music instruction in Germany that have continued to define the field until today.
In keeping with his central desire "to introduce the people as a whole to productive participation in the development of music", Kestenberg aimed from the start to establish a unified system of music education from kindergarten through secondary school to the music academy and university level. In fact, it was Kestenberg who was the very first to found the modern type of music school.
Kestenberg's influence on Berlin's musical life contributed greatly to the image often conjured up of the "golden" twenties: His courageous policy of appointments brought personalities such as Schreker, Pfitzner, Busoni, Schönberg, Hindemith, Erich Kleiber, Klemperer and many others to Berlin. With the famous but also controversial Kroll Opera project, he attempted to create an accord between Modern aesthetics and the idea of a ‘people's opera'.
Kestenberg's personal fate, his intellectual biography and his pedagogic vision can generate impulses for our time that are especially necessary and highly relevant today.
Born in 1882 as the son of a Jewish cantor in Rosenberg (Roszahegy, Ruzomberok), then in Hungary, now Slovakia, Kestenberg grew up in Prague and Reichenberg/Bohemia. In Berlin he met Ferruccio Busoni, whose pupil he became, and came under Liszt's sphere of influence. The turn of the century found Kestenberg earning his living as a pianist, teaching piano at various conservatories, and working as a music organizer and editor, primarily in Berlin. In 1918, he advanced to the post of music advisor in the Prussian Ministry of Education and the Arts. He used this important office with single-minded determination to promote wide-ranging efforts of reform. Upon his dismissal by the authoritarian right-wing regime, which succeeded in deposing the last free Prussian government in 1932, Kestenberg's political engagement on behalf of music in Germany came to an abrupt end. Slandered by the National Socialists and subjected to attacks, Kestenberg went to Prague in 1933, where he devoted himself primarily to organizing an international network for activities in the field of music education. In 1938 Kestenberg moved to Palestine, where he was the general manager of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra and contributed to building the field of music in Israel. Kestenberg died in 1962 in Tel Aviv.
Today, more than sixty years after the end of World War II, and soon after the entrance of the nations of Eastern Europe into the European Union, Kestenberg's contemporary relevance, as one who paved the way for a democratically based universal concept of musical education, is apparent.