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.