Commentary Magazine


Morton Feldman’s Yiddishkeit

Although I’m not in a position to judge, many believe that Morton Feldman was one of great American composers of the 20th century.  At the very least, the seemingly ordinary guy from Queens, who worked in the schmatte business until the age of 44, was a great talker. While Alex Ross has previously written in The New Yorker about Feldman’s gift with language, the music critic recently posted an audio excerpt from an interview of the composer, which originally aired on the radio in 1989.  Listen how Feldman’s Woody Allen-esque voice floats over the haunting music from his Rothko Chapel. If, however, your computer has no audio output, here’s a partial transcript, though really it deserves a phonetic transcription:

Remember that I’m a New Yorker and a New Yorker doesn’t think about Yiddishkeit [Jewishness]. You think about Yiddishkeit if you live with only 5,000 other Jews in Frankfurt. . . .  I don’t think of myself as Jewish in New York, but I do in a sense mourn something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me. Also, I really don’t feel that it’s all necessary anymore. . . .

The only thing that applies to me, as you talk about Yiddishkeit, is the fact that, because I’m Jewish, I do not identify with, say, Western Civilization music. In other words, when Bach gives us a diminished fourth—you see, I cannot respond—when a diminished fourth means “O God,” you see, I cannot respond to that diminished fourth as a symbol. . . .

But what my music is mourning, I just don’t know what to to say. . . . I must you say you did bring up something that I particularly don’t want to talk about publicly, but I do talk about privately. To some degree, I do believe with George Steiner that after Hitler, perhaps there should no longer be art. . . . because those values proved to me nothing. They have no longer any moral basis. And what are our morals in music? The morals of music are 19th-century German music, isn’t it? I do think about that.

And I do think about that fact that I want to be the first great composer that is Jewish.