Jews and the European Musical Tradition

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Jews and the European Musical Tradition, performed on Jan 26, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Tonight’s concert reverses the sequence of history. It opens with Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, written in 1938 on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry by Nazism. It closes with a throwback to the pre-modern European world before 1848, to an age before virulent nationalism and racial hatred, when notions of the inevitability of tolerance and rationality in the history of humankind still held sway. The concert’s closing work, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony, celebrates that faith in the triumph of reason and enlightenment over superstition and prejudice. It communicates the expectation that all sectarian religions ultimately will converge over time into one credo under the banner of a demystified and rational modern Protestantism. For Mendelssohn, the divine is not ineffable but capable of expression in human experience and language as light and reason. At the core of the Lobgesang is a vision of a world at peace, marked by neighborly love and the absence of violence.

Schoenberg was a German-speaking composer, born a Jew in Vienna who converted as a young man and then reconverted in 1933. His return to Judaism was motivated by the radical extremes of hate that soon were to be followed by an unimaginable torrent of physical and psychic violence and cruelty. Schoenberg refashioned a Jewish identity along his own philosophical lines and in his later years espoused an intense Zionism. In the 1920s, in part through a break with the painter Kandinsky, Schoenberg confronted the fact that anti-Semitism in Europe could not be eluded by a religious conversion. Being a Jew meant more than maintaining allegiance to a doctrine and a way of life. He not only returned to membership in the Jewish community, but in his unfinished masterpiece, Moses und Aron, he expressed his conviction that the notions held dear by Felix Mendelssohn were wrong. The divine could not be expressed adequately. Human language was unequal to the task. Humanity, like the Biblical nation that turned to the Golden Calf while waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, was condemned to doubt–to be seduced by surrogates and to debase reason and truth with inadequate speech and corrupt action.

It is ironic, then, that this concert closes with an expression of unimaginable harmony among humans and a vision of a faith expressed in music and language that seeks to bind humans one to another and not divide them. Mendelssohn did not convert from Judaism as an adult. Yet he grew up as a devout man of faith, although (unlike his grandfather) as a Protestant. He married a pastor’s daughter and produced the most significant church music in Germany of the nineteenth century. Yet, in contrast to his father, Felix never dropped the obvious and emblematic Jewish name Mendelssohn. He never forgot his origins as a Jew or lost his sense of solidarity with the people and religion of his forebears. Like Schoenberg, he knew that being a Jew transcended faith. In fact, Felix Mendelssohn believed that his embrace of Protestantism vindicated Judaism, the ideas of his grandfather, and the logic of history.

Felix Mendelssohn was, after all, the grandson of the eminent philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, contemporary of Immanuel Kant, and the greatest Jewish figure of the German Enlightenment. Born into a family of both material and spiritual wealth, Felix, despite enormous privileges and fame, experienced anti-Semitism, particularly around the so-called Hep Hep riots of 1819. Notwithstanding his forebodings about the rising tide of nationalist sentiment, particularly in the years immediately preceding his death in 1847, Felix still held fast to the hopes eloquently articulated by his grandfather. Moses Mendelssohn had called on his fellow Jews to modernize their religion and seize the opening up of the ghetto in the 1780s and the opportunities created by edicts of toleration to enter into a Christian world as equals. Moses’s son Abraham took the logic of emancipation to its logical extreme. He converted and assumed a new non-Jewish name, Bartholdy. Upon the death of Moses Mendelssohn’s widow, he had his children baptized. Another of Moses’ children, Felix’s aunt Dorothea, married the philosopher Schlegel and embraced Catholicism.

In the third work on the program, placed between Schoenberg and Mendelssohn, we encounter the nearly forgotten music of another German Jew, Berthold Goldschmidt. Unlike the works that surround it, it is a work of “absolute” music, devoid of overt ideology and reflective of the intense identification by German Jews with the traditions of European culture–their contributions to these traditions and their aspirations for them. Goldschmidt was born into the last generation of German Jews who would come of age primarily as Germans and not as Jews. In this concert we hear the voice of the generation of victims, of a distinguished representative of a cadre of artists and intellectuals born at the fin de siècle who descended from German Jewish families who prospered between 1848 and 1933. despite increasing political anti-Semitism, German Jews flourished as assimilated Jews in German society. Goldschmidt was lucky, in a comparative sense. He survived the war in England. But his career as a composer was destroyed, and he was forced to struggle as an outsider, displaced from a world to which he once believed he belonged, prejudice notwithstanding. Unlike some émigrés, he did not lose faith in his values. during the war he fought the mixture of appropriation and disfigurement of culture by the Nazis by broadcasting European concert music on the BBC directed to Europe as a propaganda measure against Nazism.

Today it is ironic that the history of Jews in Germany has become an object of genuine and intense interest on the part of a younger generation of Germans in Western Germany. Books, movies, and plays about the Jews are plentiful. Visual artifacts are carefully preserved. A non-Jewish readership eagerly reads Martin Buber and contemplates the wisdom of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry, including Hasidism, as mediated not only by contemporary scholars but by the romanticized accounts of Austrian and German Jewish writers of the 1920s–Joseph Roth, Arnold Zweig, and Alfred Doblin. The philo-Semitism of young Germans today is akin to the romance with the Native American in our own country. A society obliterates the living protagonists of a contrasting tradition only to see subsequent generations use the memory of that destroyed tradition as an object of exotic wonderment and a vehicle of social and cultural critique.

A German-speaking culture without Jews! Perhaps only the most virulent of nineteenth-century anti-Semites–possibly Richard Wagner–could have imagined such a possibility. Indeed, the sustained interaction between Jews and Christians in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany led to the fact that German Jewry–despite the context of unremitting anti-Semitism–made remarkable and crucial cultural, intellectual, social, and economic contributions to Germany. Assimilation and acculturation were profound and successful realities. It was as if the paranoia and irrationality of anti-Semitism in Germany only increased as the objects of hate ceased to be openly and visibly Jewish in some preconceived and preferably exotic manner.

Mendelssohn died before it had become clear that neither assimilation nor acculturation could be sustained for the very long term, before the brutal fact emerged that in German-speaking Europe the Jewish Diaspora, despite centuries of cohabitation, ultimately would not find itself secure and at home. The grand sweep of history as retold in textbooks and schools tends to mask the encouraging realities of individual experience and daily life framed by one or two generations of experience. In the end, although, with hindsight, we might think the catastrophe appeared inevitable, the Jews of Germany were shocked by the events of 1933 and 1934. When Hitler turned out not to be a brief nightmare, but was accepted, appeased, and even emulated in the rest of Europe, even after the violence of 1938, few were prepared for the subsequent slaughter. The image of Germany that the Jews of German origin held on to was the Germany of Moses and Felix Mendelssohn; a Germany of Kultur (culture) and Bildung (self-cultivation), of refinement and reason, the “good” Germany of classical Weimar and Goethe.

This concert is dedicated to the memory of the German-speaking Jewish community. Too often when we think of the European Jewry destroyed by Hitler and his allies our mental picture turns exclusively to the poor, pious, shtetl Yiddish-speaking Jew, untouched by Western modernity. But in Germany, and in all of Central and Eastern Europe as well, particularly in Budapest, Vienna, Warsaw, Lodz and Prague, modern European Jews–the Jewish Weitburgers–millions of cosmopolitan Jews–were also obliterated. Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, and Goldschmidt were descended from that line of European Jewry. So were a disproportionately high percentage of the European audience for music and culture before 1933.

We would do well to more than just marvel at the extent, variety and magnitude of the achievement of assimilated and acculturated European Jews. In the face of the power of the music on tonight’s program, we ought to recall and to rekindle a modern Jewish vision of a world of tolerance, freedom, reason, learning, and culture that, despite the Holocaust, survives as a complex set of aspirations for our own day, worthy of respect and emulation.