Who is a – musical – Jew?

The two great claimants to the term ‘Jewish composer’ in fact claimed to be Christian

By Norman Lebrecht, July 16, 2009

Do we really need to know if a public figure is Jewish? Perhaps, in the case of a politician who can affect the state of nations, or a billionaire who can be tapped by communal charities. In other cases, the interest is either prurient or possessive, a kvell of collective pride signifying nothing.

In music, the search for Jews between the staves can be 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 Provençal melodist Darius Milhaud and pretty much every other composer of consequence. Those who call themselves Jewish tend to be the nearly-men, the ones who fall back on communal support when all else fails. The term “Jewish composer” is neither a compliment nor critically useful.

There are four notable exceptions. Two great composers became Jewish in response to Nazism — Arnold Schoenberg, who was prepared to give up music in order to save the Jews, and Kurt Weill who, exiled to Broadway, wrote liturgical Judaica for his father, a retired cantor. Two others became great composers precisely because they were Jewish. Gustav Mahler converted to Christianity to become head of the Vienna Opera, married a non-Jewish wife and was buried by a Catholic priest. Ambition drove him to discard the trappings of Jewishness.

As a powerful, public man and a composer of radical symphonies, he attracted torrents of racial abuse. “Mahler doesn’t compose, he jewdles,” wrote one critic. Mahler continued pushing at symphonic form, making it possible for music to express multiple shades of meaning. He was seeking the purpose of life and the centre of his own 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 at first impression are its Jewish clichés, many of which were 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 as to be misleading.

While currently working on a new study of Mahler, I am drawn to the conclusion that the uniqueness of his music lies in its ability to convey two opposing meanings at once, an ambiguity rooted in the classic evasions of Yiddish speech. Mahler could not have been the composer he was without a familiarity with mameloshen.

The other composer whose Jewishness is rooted in the music was a devout Lutheran who composed a ubiquitous wedding march and partnered Queen Victoria at the piano. Felix Mendelssohn, baptised at birth, was not 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 give many Jews, his sons included, an excuse for conversion. The Jew was washed out of baby Felix at the font. As a boy, he was the most prodigious composer since Mozart. In his 20s, the freshness gave way to long passages of dull derivation.

To outer appearances Mendelssohn was the very model of musical success, a popular conductor who provoked Richard Wagner to furies of antisemitic envy. But Felix was a troubled man, insecure and unhealthily attached to his sister Fanny. Six months after she died in May 1847, Felix was felled by a series of strokes, aged 38.

The Jew in Felix Mendelssohn was the elephant in his room — his unconscious, his secret signature. In the last of his symphonies, the Reformation, he furtively ventures a thematic fragment that is so Jewish it is played at Israeli airports. In the last weeks of his life, he flutters Jewish phrases in the Songs Without Words. In pain and distress, Mendelssohn searches for buried roots and dares to become that elusive hybrid: a Jewish composer.

Norman Lebrecht is an author and cultural commentator. His ‘Lebrecht Interview’ returns to BBC Radio 3 on Monday

Last updated: 5:05pm, July 17 2009