Jews and Vienna, City of Music

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Today’s program represents a collaboration with two exhibits, one in Vienna organized by the Jewish Museum of Vienna that opened in May 2003 as part of the Vienna Festival, and its English-language counterpart that has just opened at Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in New York. These exhibits chronicle the relationship between the Jews and the musical culture of the city of Vienna from the early nineteenth century through the period of emigration, deportation and murder that began in 1938 and ended in 1945. One of the most striking aspects of these exhibits is their demonstration of the diversity and multiplicity of identities that fall legitimately under the rubric “Jewish.” There were many responses among Jews over several generations to the challenges of integration, acculturation, and assimilation, and while this concert does not pretend to be comprehensive, all of the music you hear today bears a relation to the complex range of the Jewish experience in Vienna. Perhaps the most noticeable omission is in the massive arena of popular music and operetta. Viennese popular music, from the waltzes of Johann Strauss to the operettas of Emmerich Kálmán, was decisively influenced by the Jewish presence in the city. But assuming that many modern listeners are already familiar with the idealized vision of Vienna promoted by those genres, we have decided to concentrate on some of the more intriguing and complicated aspects of Jewish musical life on the banks of the Danube.

For instance, one Viennese Jew on this program did not consider himself a Jew at all. Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was a Catholic and perceived to be a Jew only by the Nazi definition. His case uncomfortably reminds us that sometimes our definition of who is a Jew bears the insidious influences of the views of anti-Semites. It is common to acknowledge that Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Franz Schreker were Jews when in fact from the vantage point of religious faith and communal membership they would be the last to so define themselves. Schreker, however, who had moved from Vienna to Berlin after World War I, was stripped of his position in 1933 and his work banned because of his Jewish origins, despite his perception of his own identity. Schreker had been perhaps the most successful composer of operas after Richard Strauss in central Europe, and he was a leading protagonist of a new modern music in the early twentieth century. Anti-Semitic critics of the early twentieth century and their Nazi successors, however, found something “Jewish” or exotic in Schreker’s music. Indeed, as Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern (neither of whom were Jewish) would discover, cosmopolitanism and modernism were already deemed “Jewish” phenomena in turn-of-the-century reactionary criticism—an ironic reversal of the logic proffered by Richard Wagner’s mid-nineteenth-century polemics concerning anti-Semitism and a music “of the future.”

The program opens with a Jewish composer and performer whose status as a Jew was beyond doubt: Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890), the chief cantor of Vienna and the leading figure in liturgical music. This robust declaration of Jewish identity is followed by a work by Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), representing a historical complication of the issue. Anton Rubinstein, one of two famed brothers, was a great pianist and popular composer of the late nineteenth century. He was in no sense an “official Jew.” He was adored by the Viennese public. Eventually his popularity led to his appointment as Director of the Concerts of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in the early 1870s, a position he would eventually turn over to Johannes Brahms upon deciding to devote more time to his international concert career. Rubinstein’s place on this program points to an important development in the demography and culture of Vienna from the late 1860s to the mid-1920s. When mobility and open access to residency was made possible by the constitutional reforms of 1867, the result was a steady influx of Jews from the eastern provinces of the Empire and from Russia. By 1900 the percentage of Jews in Vienna rose well above 10% of the total population. In terms of enrollment into the Conservatory and participation in music-making and concert attendance, by the time the most famous Jew in Viennese musical life, Gustav Mahler, took over the Court Opera in 1897 (an imperial appointment for which conversion was necessary), Jews made up arguably between one-third and one-half of the audience for concerts and opera. As the career of Rubinstein suggests, by the early decades of the twentieth century, the number of all Viennese, including the Jews who had actually been born in the city, constituted a minority. In this immigrant, polyglot, modern city, music thus became the crucial vehicle for creating an artificial cultural center, a common ground for the fashioning of a myth of a local tradition and authenticity. Membership in a shared culture bases on a myth that extended back to the era of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert was rendered plausible through music.

Karl Goldmark (1830-1915) represents the compromise between isolation and assimilation. He came from Hungary before the turmoils of 1848, but unlike Mahler or Schoenberg, he never converted. Furthermore, he maintained a synthesis in his music between the two warring aesthetic camps of Brahms and Wagner. Goldmark’s most famous work was in fact an opera of an essentially biblical, if not Jewish theme, The Queen of Sheba (1875), with a libretto by fellow Viennese Jew Salomon Mosenthal. Goldmark had a brilliant career and was highly respected throughout his long life. He was even sought out by the young Sibelius as a teacher.

The program concludes with a masterpiece by a great composer and conductor, the one-time lover of Alma Mahler, a friend, teacher, and brother-in-law of Schoenberg, the protagonist of a new generation of composition, and also a winner of the coveted Beethoven prize—a composer whose promise was acknowledged by the highly critical but decidedly philo-Semitic Johannes Brahms. Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) demonstrates a more obscure dimension of Vienna’s Jewish community. The dominant Jewish part of his family was Sephardic; he came of age in the large Turkish Sephardic synagogue in the second district on the Zirkusgasse. This was the same community in which the violinist Felix Galimir and his sisters were raised. Zemlinsky, however, became fully assimilated, and apart from some psalm settings, he made his name as a composer particularly of operas and vocal music. He enjoyed much of his career in Prague and Berlin but with the onset of fascism he was ultimately forced to emigrate, an elderly and nearly forgotten man. He died in obscurity and penury in Larchmont, NY in 1942, a few years after his arrival.

As the exhibits and this concert attempt to demonstrate, the idea of Vienna as a city of music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is unthinkable without acknowledging the participation of its Jewish citizens. The two figures most closely associated with this claim now certainly receive their share of performances in concert—Mahler and Schoenberg. It is only relatively recently that scholars and audiences have turned their attention to the effects of the destruction of the Viennese Jewish community and the persecution of many artists and composers, a process that began ominously with Austro-fascism after World War I and occurred decisively with the Anschluss of 1938. The record of Jewish contribution that was obliterated extended not only to composition, amateurism and audience participation, but also to music criticism, concert management, music education, and music publishing. In 1922, a famous book was published by a Viennese journalist Hugo Bettauer, who was born a Jew but like Schoenberg, converted to Protestantism as a young man. The book was entitled The City Without Jews: a Novel of the Day after Tomorrow. A kind of anti-utopian fantasy, the novel describes a Vienna without a Jewish population. Bettauer was assassinated in 1925, but his assassin was acquitted.

Bettauer’s prediction became a reality in the 1940s. In comparison to its previous history, postwar Vienna was a sterile, dreary place. Indeed for years after the war, the few surviving Jews who sought to return were not made to feel welcome. There was no decisive postwar engagement in Vienna with its and Austria’s enthusiastic participation in the activities of the Nazis against the Jews. The acceptance by Vienna’s conservative audience of Leonard Bernstein in the 1970s marked an awkward and ambivalent beginning to the opening up of the past. Today there has been some remarkable work done by Austrian scholars and institutions on behalf of those who were persecuted and forgotten. This concert and exhibits are dedicated to the achievements of the past as well as to the efforts of new generations who have fought during the past two decades, not only to recover the historical facts but to restore to the concert stage the works of composers whose careers were irreparably damaged and cut short. Their ambition is to make it impossible to sentimentalize Vienna as the city of “Wine, Women, and Song” without recognizing both the Jewish contribution and the fate of the Jews. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider that when the Nazis entered Vienna in 1938, one of their first actions was to falsify certain records of baptism and marriage in the city’s cathedral, St. Stephen’s. The Nazis knew very well that Johann Strauss, the composer of that quintessential emblem of Vienna, the “Blue Danube” Waltz (1867) by Nazi law had to be defined as a Jew. Is there a more compelling example of the vicious distortions of Nazi anti-Semitism than the altering of the Catholic Church’s records in order to preserve the Viennese spirit as an “Aryan” achievement? The joint project of the exhibits and performances in New York and in Vienna represents one step in a long overdue effort to reconstruct the historical debt Vienna owes to its Jewish population of the past.

Ivan the Terrible, musical picture after L.A. Mey, Op. 79 (1869)

By Yoel Greenberg

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Anton Rubinstein was one of the most influential musicians in nineteenth-century Russia. As a piano virtuoso he was considered the equal of Liszt, performing all over the world until his death in 1894. As a pedagogue, he was the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky was one of the first students. As a composer, Tchaikovsky considered him superior to Brahms, and his works were widely performed throughout the nineteenth century all over Europe and America. His second symphony, “The Ocean Symphony,” was the most frequently performed orchestral work in the second half of the century. Today, however, a work by Rubinstein is a rare sight on a concert program.

Rubinstein was born in 1829 to Jewish parents, who were baptized the following year. At the age of eleven, Rubinstein embarked on a tour of Europe, during which he made the acquaintance of Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. During this tour, Rubinstein first heard Italian opera, which was to have a major influence on his music. Rubinstein’s first and longest contact with Vienna was in 1846, shortly after his father’s death. He spent two years in the city of music, living in great poverty, later describing this period as “the most terrible time in my life.”

It was during this time in Vienna that the volatile lifelong relationship between Rubinstein and Liszt developed. Rubinstein’s manner of playing was highly influenced by Liszt—he even “pulled all the Liszt faces” — and in many cases, the form of his compositions, in particular the symphonic portrait Ivan the Terrible, is indebted to Liszt.

In 1848 Rubinstein returned to Russia, where he became an essential part of the country’s musical life. His two most important contributions were the founding of the Russian Music Society in 1859, and of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, which was to produce some of Russia’s finest musicians. This latter enterprise was greeted somewhat sourly by the members of “the five” (the nationalistic composers Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov), who rejected formal musical education as a “German” influence. They were also critical of the German influence evident in Rubinstein’s compositions. Rubinstein was later to modify these “foreign” influences in his work, and espouse, to a certain extent, the theories of “the five.” His later music, as is evident in Ivan the Terrible, makes increasing use of Russian folk music.

The symphonic portrait Ivan the Terrible, written in 1869 and arranged for piano duet by Tchaikovsky the same year, is based on the play bearing the same name by Lev Alexandrovich Mey. Mey’s play recounts the story of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s attack on Novgorod, leading to the deaths of Tucha and his beloved Olga, who turns out to be none other than the Tsar’s daughter. The work begins with a dark chorale-like theme, followed by a fugal one. Both themes show a clear Mendelssohnian influence. After a return to the chorale theme, a dramatic section begins, in which the two themes are developed. Next appears a new, turbulent, theme followed by a beautiful Russian-flavored tune on the bassoons, accompanied by plucked strings. The music builds up to a festive climax, after which the three new themes (turbulent, Russian and festive) are developed extensively. A new chorale-like theme is played by the low strings, and the development continues, until a tense and tragic return of the first two themes, which slowly die out. The turbulent theme makes its final appearance, bringing the work to a close.

Symphonic Interlude from Der Schatzgräber (1918)

By Christopher Hailey, Director, Franz Schreker Foundation

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In Franz Schreker’s fifth opera, Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Seeker), Elis, a wandering scholar and minstrel whose magic lute can unearth hidden treasure, is charged with recovering the Queen’s stolen jewels, which are said to impart eternal youth and beauty. He is led to Els, a beguiling creature of mysterious origins who has, piece for piece, acquired those jewels through a series of importunate suitors, whom she has then had murdered. Her love for Elis, however, induces Els to sacrifice her treasure, even at the risk of her life. This symphonic interlude, drawn from the opera’s third act, depicts their night of love, after which Els removes the jewels one by one, having exacted from Elis the promise that he will never ask how she acquired them.

Der Schatzgräber is the only work in which Schreker’s protagonists are allowed an on-stage consummation of their love. And though their happiness is short-lived, it is for that moment innocent and free of guilt. In the end, however, Els’s secret is revealed and, abandoned by Elis, she dies banished and disgraced (Schreker appended the final bars of the opera to the concert version of the interlude). Written during the enforced isolation of the First World War, Der Schatzgräber is a radiant work that would prove Schreker’s most successful opera (fifty productions followed its triumphant 1920 premiere in Frankfurt, and in recent years there have been notable stage revivals and concert performances in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Amsterdam).

Schreker recorded this symphonic interlude in 1923, and in 1927 Els’s third-act lullaby with his wife, Maria Schreker, a legendary interpreter of the role. For Germany’s leading critic, Paul Bekker, Der Schatzgräber confirmed his assessment that Schreker was the most significant music-dramatic talent since Wagner. Bekker was particularly taken with this third act interlude of which he wrote “…not since ‘Tristan’ has there been a musical work of such intoxicating sonic splendor, a melodic eloquence of such sweetness and tenderness, an expansive structure of such power….” Schreker understood all too well the danger of such comparisons (“now the pack will be after me,” he told his wife) and, predictably, conservative critics began a concerted, and often openly anti-Semitic campaign against his works. In 1922 for instance, Alfred Heuss called Schreker’s success “a crime against the German soul” perpetrated by a tyrannical publicity machine led by that “modern newspaper Alberich” Paul Bekker. But by the early twenties, Schreker and his Schatzgräber were also targets for progressive critics and composers, who had begun to embrace the sober aesthetic of “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity). Indeed, Schreker’s own later music adopts more astringent textures leaving Der Schatzgräber as the pinnacle of that sonic sensuality for which he his best known.

Today, Schreker’s works have taken on an aura of radical resistance both to the prudish asceticism of High Modernism as well as to the cozy nostalgia of late-Romanticism. His librettos have an acerbic bite, his scores a fragile incandescence that seems always perched on the edge an abyss. Els and Elis yearn for youth and beauty—these, too, metaphors of assimilation? —but their aspirations remain elusive, save in their dreams.

Psalm 21, v.5 (on music by F.J. Haydn) (1865)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Salomon Sulzer was born in 1804 in Hohenems and died in 1890 in Vienna. He was the chief cantor (Oberkantor) of the Viennese Jewish community for nearly three quarters of a century. His career bridged the pre-1848 culture of Vienna and the late nineteenth-century period that was marked not only by Brahms and Bruckner, but by a massive Jewish immigration to the city that began in the late 1860s. Hired by the elite and privileged Jewish community of the late 1820s, Sulzer radically reformed the Jewish liturgy and created the basis of the Viennese rite that in turn influenced synagogue cantors all over the world. When Sulzer came to Vienna, he found a city in which Jews and non-Jews, particularly in the area of music, shared common public and private spaces. Sulzer was highly respected as a singer outside of his cantorial role and also taught at the Vienna Conservatory. He commissioned Schubert to set a psalm in Hebrew. He befriended Lizst, Meyerbeer, Paganini and Schumann. Sulzer also wrote secular music, setting the texts of the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau. Sulzer’s son Joseph, who helped edit later editions of Sulzer’s monumental compilation and arrangement of Jewish liturgical music, Schir Zion (Song of Zion), became principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sulzer’s fame extended well beyond the confines of the Jewish community.

In order to understand this unusual and gifted man, it is important to note that the Habsburg monarchy, which in 1867 had become a dual monarchy because of the Austrian defeat by the Prussians, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, was until its dissolution, a dynastic enterprise. Its politics and culture were dominated by an Imperial presence and an aristocracy. The Emperor for most of Sulzer’s life was the venerable Franz Joseph, whose attitude toward Jews was benevolent. The Emperor (as the pro-monarchist and the nostalgic Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth never tired of reminding his readers), was distinctly resistant to anti-Semitism. He considered Jews to be his loyal subjects treated them like all the other cultural and national groups in his vast realm: all were equally subordinate. In return, the Jews of the monarchy revered the Emperor and Empire.

Loyalty to the Habsburgs, the imperial city, and pride in one’s Jewish faith were for Sulzer’s generation entirely compatible. This rare symbiosis is best exemplified in Sulzer’s music. The first work on the program is a bittersweet picture of the confidence his co-religionists felt as Habsburg subjects. It is sharp with irony for the modern listener. From Schir Zion, this is a setting of the Habsburg imperial anthem written by Franz Josef Haydn: “God Preserve the Emperor.” Sulzer intended it to be used in the Sabbath service, much in the same way as today in most reformed and conservative synagogues, there is a prayer for the United States of America and for the leaders of the government. Sulzer’s interpolation of a verse of a Hebrew psalm into his setting of the hymn resonates with the optimism and security of the integrated nineteenth-century Jews in Vienna. That this hymn was taken up in Nazi Germany does not delegitimize its prior history or its presence here. It is a grim reminder not of what might have been, but what should have been preserved.

The Hymn is followed by a setting of Psalm 111. The musical language is distinctly influenced by the style of early Romanticism of the generation of Schumann and of Schubert and Mendelssohn. The westernizing of what was at that time considered an “oriental” tradition, a Mediterranean if not Eastern religious faith transplanted into Europe, was pioneered by Sulzer and later in northern Germany by Lewandowski. It would of course come under fire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of radical anti-Semitism in German-speaking Europe. The synthesis of Judaism and western culture that Sulzer personified came up against two currents widespread in later generations. His form of modernization and accommodation was challenged on one hand by the embrace of an Eastern European tradition, including Hassidism, as the authentic and uncorrupted tradition of Jewish autonomy and spirituality, and on the other hand by Zionism, which sought a political future for European Jews outside of Europe. But for many, including the great theorist (and practicing Jew) Heinrich Schenker, a friend of Joseph Sulzer and like Eduard Hanslick an admirer of Salomon Sulzer, Salomon Sulzer’s musicality and aesthetic were not concessions, but instead compelling symbols of Jewish achievement.

Lyric Symphony, Op. 18 (1923)

By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“The one to whom I owe most of my knowledge of the technique and the problems of composing was Alexander von Zemlinsky. I have always thought and still believe that he was a great composer.” Arnold Schoenberg’s assessment of his lone composition teacher (and former brother-in-law) in his 1952 essay “My Evolution” acknowledges a personal debt and declares a critical judgment about a composer whose work was largely forgotten until recently. Zemlinsky had other illustrious students, among them Berg, Webern, and Korngold, as well as a vivacious teenager named Alma Schindler with whom he was romantically involved until she rejected him to marry Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky was also a prominent conductor, a forceful advocate of the music of Mahler and the Second Viennese School. But his greatest legacy is as a composer of songs, chamber and symphonic music, and operas.

The Lyric Symphony is Zemlinsky’s best-known composition. The work owes a clear debt to Mahler, as the composer himself acknowledged in a September 1922 letter to Emil Hertzka, the managing director of the prominent Viennese publishing firm Universal Edition: “I have written something this summer like Das Lied von der Erde. I do not have a title for it yet. It has seven related songs for baritone, soprano, and orchestra, performed without pause. I am now working on the orchestration.” Mahler had drawn from Chinese poetry for his six-movement song-symphony, and Zemlinsky likewise looked eastward, setting poems by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), winner of the Noble Prize for Literature in 1913 and a figure with a great following at the time. Zemlinsky used seven of the poems assembled in The Gardener, in Hans Effenberger’s German translation of Tagore’s own English translation from the original Bengali. (The appeal of this collection of poems is evident from settings by Janáček, Szymanowski, and others during the early 1920s.)

The baritone and soprano alternate with one another over the course of the seven movements in what is not so much a narrative as an exploration of various stages of love. The first two songs present views of yearning, the next two its achievement, and the final three love’s end. Zemlinsky gave advice about how to perform the work in Pult und Taktstock [Podium and Baton], a journal for conductors. He writes that the “internal organization” of the prelude and seven songs connected by interludes, “all have one and the same deeply sincere, passionate fundamental tone . . . In the prelude and the first song, the essential spirit of the entire symphony is given . . . the second song, which holds the position of a ‘scherzo’ in a symphony, should not be conceived as playfully fleeting and insecure; the third song—the adagio of the symphony—must under no circumstances become a weak, languishing love song.”

Zemlinsky hoped to premiere the Lyric Symphony at the 1923 Austrian Music Week in Berlin, but it was delayed a year, occurring in Prague on June 4 at the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. (At the same gathering Zemlinsky conducted the premiere of Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung.) Despite the many similarities with Das Lied (a work Zemlinsky also conducted in Prague), he sought not so much to merge symphony with song, as his great predecessor had done, but rather symphony with opera. The scoring is denser than Mahler’s and the vocal demands more operatic. Zemlinsky stated that he had in mind “voice types that are right for theater: a heroic baritone and a young, dramatic soprano.” The composer’s dramatic genius is evident throughout the motivically interrelated and continuous movements. While Mahler’s work explores a deep nostalgia that ends in visions of blissful eternity, the Lyric Symphony is a Tristanesque exploration of longing and desire. In this respect, perhaps the most trenchant commentary on the work is a musical one. Berg wrote to Zemlinsky after the Prague premiere (in a letter he may not have sent): “My deep, deep enthusiasm for your lyric symphony . . . must be acknowledged even though I now possess only a glimmer of the immeasurable beauties of the score. Yes, I would like to say, my decades-long love for your music has, in this work, received its fulfillment.” The next year Berg began his great Lyric Suite for string quartet, dedicated to Zemlinsky, which not only derives its name from the symphony, but also its fourth movement quotes the line from the third song: “You are my own, my own.”