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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Mendelssohn, Mahler and the Jewish Question (Is that a yes or a no?)

By Norman Lebrecht / July 17, 2009

Do we really need to know if a public figure is Jewish? Perhaps, if he or she is a politician who can affect the state of nations, or a billionaire who can be tapped by communal charities. In most other cases, the interest is either prurient or possessive.

In cultural affairs, music in particular, the search for Jews between the staves can be positively misleading It makes no sense, for instance, to categorise Aaron Copland as a ‘Jewish composer’ when only one of his works, an early trio called Vitebsk, contains any echo of heritage. Copland’s singular achievement was to invent a distinctive American sound. To call him a Jewish composer distorts his place in art.

Much the same can be said for George Gershwin, for the modernist Gyorgy Ligeti, the English pastoralist Gerald Finzi, the Provencal melodist Darius Milhaud and pretty much every other composer of consequence. Composers who call themselves Jewish tend to be the nearly-men, the ones who fall back on communal support when all else has failed. The term ‘Jewish composer’ is neither a compliment nor critically useful.

There are four notable exceptions to this rule. Two great composers became Jewish in response to the Nazi threat - Arnold Schoenberg, who said he was prepared to give up writing music in order to save the Jews, and Kurt Weill who, exiled to Broadway, wrote liturgical Judaica for his father, relocated to Palestine.

Two others became great composers by reason of being Jewish. Gustav Mahler, raised in a traditional Jewish family, converted to Christianity to become head of the Vienna Opera, married a non-Jewish wife and was buried by a Catholic priest. As a powerful man in the public eye and a composer of radical symphonies, he received a torrent of racial abuse. ‘Mahler doesn’t compose, he jewdles,’ wrote one Munich critic.

As a powerful man in the public eye and a composer of radical symphonies, he attracted torrents of racial abuse. ‘Mahler doesn’t compose, he jewdles,’ wrote one Munich critic. Mahler’s response was to continue pushing outward at symphonic form and tonality until it cracked. He broke the mould of the four-movement symphony, claimed the right for music to express social and political commentary and, by the application of ironic inflection, allowed a single passage to express two contradictory meanings. He was a path-breaker into the 20th century, a researcher who sought, like Freud and Einstein, to explain life on earth and his own peculiar identity. ‘I am three times homeless,’ said Mahler, ‘as a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew anywhere in the world.’

What makes his music unmistakable are its Jewish cliches, many of which have been shouted out by Leonard Bernstein - the klezmer theme in the first symphony, the possible shofar blast in the second, the sighs and whispers of the ninth. These tunes are so obvious, however, as to be misleading. The real meaning is somewhere between the lines. While writing a new study of Mahler, to be published next year, I arrived at the conclusion that the most Jewish aspect of his music is to be found in forms of expression that derive from the way the Yiddish language is spoken.

Yiddish is the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews, a dialect developed over ten centuries of oppression to a degree where the same phrase could express one thing to insiders and another to outsiders, depending on the way it was spoken. Yiddish was both evasive and precise, a warning of danger and a treasury of Jewish history, a rich, amiguous terrain that no composer had exploited before. Mahler, raised in a German environment, heard his parents and grandparents speak mameloshn at home, giving his unconscious mind the spark to create music with multiple meanings. Being Jewish is the source of Mahler’s invention.

The other composer who drew unconsciously on his Jewishness was a devout Lutheran who composed a wedding march for walking down church aisles and partnered Queen Victoria at the piano in Buckingham Palace. Felix Mendelssohn, baptised at birth, was not in the least bit Jewish by faith, association or expression, yet the active suppression of his Jewishness is inherent to his tragedy.

Felix, born 200 years ago, was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn who united Jews and Christians in ethical dialogue, only to find that many Jews – his sons included – embraced conversion. The Jew was washed out of baby Felix at the font. As a boy he was the most prodigious composer since Mozart. Then, in his 20s, the ideas dried up. Long passages of dull derivation flesh out his mature works.

To outer appearances Mendelssohn was the very model of musical success, a popular music director in Leipzig who provoked the young Richard Wagner to furies of anti-Semitic envy. But the inner Felix was a troubled man, insecure and unhealthily attached to his imposing sister Fanny. Six months after Fanny died in May 1847, Felix was carried off by a series of strokes, aged 38.

The Jew in Felix Mendelssohn was the elephant in his composing room, massive and unmentioned. In the last of his symphonies, the Reformation, Mendelssohn ventures a thematic fragment that is so overtly Jewish it is played (unwittingly) on every homebound El Al flight. Another of his tunes, from Elijah, is sung in Ashkenazi synagogues every Saturday; it may have been a ritual theme that he absorbed in his cradle. A third, from Songs Without Words, is quoted by Mahler as a symphonic opening. Being Jewish was something Felix Mendelssohn could not shake off. In the final works of his life, he becomes that elusive hybrid: a Jewish composer.

Norman Lebrecht’s new novel, The Game of Opposites, is published this month by Pantheon.

A version of this article appeared first on

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