How history can sound sweeter

A trio of new studies examine how Jews came from obscurity to prominence in music from the late 18th-century onwards

By Daniel Snowman, May 10, 2012
He’s really got rhythm: George Gershwin, ground-breaking American genius.

He’s really got rhythm: George Gershwin, ground-breaking American genius.

Jewry in Music: Entry to the profession from the enlightenment to Richard WagnerBy David Conway
Cambridge University Press, £60

The Music Libel against the Jews
By Ruth HaCohen
Yale University Press, £40

Music wars 1937-45
By Patrick Bade
East& West Publishing, £25

Why were there so many prominent Jewish musicians in Europe from around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries? Previously, Jews had tended to eschew painting or sculpture (conscious perhaps of the biblical injunction against graven images), while musical and literary aspirations would have been directed towards the needs of community and synagogue. Not for them the commissions from court or church given to a Michelangelo or a Monteverdi. Exceptions (such as the composer Salamone Rossi, who flourished in the same Mantua court as Monteverdi) were rare.

In addressing the issue of why things changed in the late 18th century, David Conway and Ruth HaCohen provide background to a story that went on to embrace many great 20th-century musical figures, including some who appear in Patrick Bade's book about the political importance of music during the Second World War.

1910 Midland Railway poster for performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ oratorio at Crystal Palace

1910 Midland Railway poster for performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ oratorio at Crystal Palace

HaCohen is a musicologist at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and Conway specialises in Jewish Studies at the University of London; both are impressively able to make intellectual links across traditional academic boundaries. Historically, Conway reminds us, "Jewish" music was essentially related to prayer and sung (by males only) without instruments. Jewish life seems nevertheless to have nurtured talents that could prove useful when transferred to the world of mainstream music.

Talmudic study, for example, called upon skills of memory, routine and analysis, while the barmitzvah entailed an extended musical performance. Furthermore, Jews in search of a better life often travelled widely, which helped them to escape from the localism (and nationalism) of their non-Jewish counterparts and adapt to new cultural demands.

By the early 19th century, an age that increasingly valued the "romanticism" of individual artistic expression, the Jew's "otherness" could be an asset. In the German-speaking world in particular, with music almost a quasi-religion, musical expertise provided for some a conduit towards the achievement of money, social status and the possibility of an international reputation.

HaCohen's ambitious study starts much earlier and explores the centuries-old dichotomy between what the Christian community in western Europe long regarded as the harmonious nature of music as opposed to the disruptive, discordant "noise" supposedly made by Jews. Like Conway, she shows how it was only with the 18th-century Enlightenment that things began to change, as an emerging, universalist philosophy started to mould a new, all-embracing aesthetic, an agreed language of music - and a legal groundwork for the establishment of individual rights and shared citizenship.

Both authors include absorbing material about the lives of major Jewish musicians. In a chapter on England, for example, Conway writes of the tenor, John Braham; the composer (and one-time collaborator with Byron) Isaac Nathan; and such influential visitors from the German-speaking world as the composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles and his one-time pupil, Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn appears prominently in both studies, as do Meyerbeer and the composer of the opera, La Juive: Fromental Halévy.

Both Conway and HaCohen explore Wagner's notorious essay Das Judentum in der Musik, which, far from being merely a rant, derived from much that was current at the time and was not so much about Jews in music but about Jewishness - or "Jewry" (hence Conway's title). HaCohen takes the story through the 20th century, situating the Nazi condemnation of Jewish music within her overall thesis.

Conway and HaCohen both bring together three strands of research all too often kept separate: music history; Jewish history; and the wider religious, social, political and economic context. Bade's study is less ambitious but equally interesting. Essentially, he outlines details of musical life in many of the countries drawn into the war.

Much of his narration is drawn through a moral filter as we read how various figures collaborated with, succumbed to, resisted or fled Nazi oppression, how their music reflected the political atmosphere of the times and how Allied morale was boosted by the likes of Vera Lynn and the Hollywood movie industry.

There is no revelatory new thesis about the relationship between music and war. But readers will find heartwarming much of what he has to say, including his reassurance that "so much of the art and music produced under the Third Reich (was) so feeble".

Daniel Snowman's books include a study of the cultural impact of the 'Hitler Émigrés' and 'The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera'

Last updated: 7:23pm, May 10 2012