The Jewish Musician—I
To the Editor:
In his article “The Predicament of the Jewish Musician” [February], Albert Goldman is guilty of specious reasoning. His attempt to resurrect Wagner’s hoary old fraud Das Judentum in der Musik, might better have been entitled “The Predicament of Albert Goldman.”
Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and Offenbach are singled out for not composing like some of the great masters who preceded them, and Mr. Goldman attributes this to the then recent emancipation of German Jewry and the “fact” that they were not really rooted in German culture. Isn’t it possible that these composers wrote to the limits of their genius? Mendelssohn was better in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” than in his oratorios because the fantastic elements were more suited to that genre than the oratorio. Even so, “Elijah” is a most impressive work. What other composer of the 19th century is his peer in this medium? If Mendelssohn was not as creative or original as Schumann, what about Grieg, who did not labor under the burden of being Jewish, and had the further advantages of being firmly rooted in the fjords of Norway?
Meyerbeer is castigated as an imitator of Italian and French styles and for having worldly ambitions. But music history points up many examples of, say, French and Russian composers (not a Jew in the lot) who imitated Spanish styles.
Rossini and Verdi were true Italians, steeped in the soil and culture of land and church. The former’s “Stabat Mater” and the latter’s “Requiem” are operatic, worldly, and histrionic, albeit very beautiful. How come these gentlemen did not produce church music with the spiritual profundity of a Palestrina?. . . .
Mahler is compared unfavorably to Hugo Wolf and Bruckner for a variety of reasons, one of the tritest being that he composed in so many different styles and moods. So did Mozart and Beethoven. Hugo Wolf wrote surpassingly masterful songs but found himself limited in the larger forms and so goes down as a minor master. Why anyone would prefer Bruckner to Mahler is beyond me, but. . . Bruckner’s Catholicism and Mahler’s Jewishness must have something to do with it.
Ernest Bloch is taken to task because his “Sacred Service” is not as powerful as his cello Rhapsody “Schelomo” . . . because, among other reasons, the former was written to a bland text. I fail to see that the “Sh’ma” and the “Kodosh” for example, are bland, but in this none too subtle barb at Reform Judaism, Mr. Goldman is exercising his prerogative. As for me, “Schelomo” is a colossal bore and the “Sacred Service” is thrilling.
Race, nationality, and environment undoubtedly influence style, mood, and idiom, but none of these factors will influence to one iota the degree and quality of an artist’s genius. . . . Attempts to inject the mystique of blood and soil into the question lead only to a tragic blind alley.
Chicago Musical College
To the Editor:
. . . Albert Goldman’s intelligent but accusing article . . . seems to me an incomplete analysis of the problem faced by the Jewish musician in Western culture.
Mendelssohn wrote at least two major compositions which we have a right to consider serious besides the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music: . . . the “Violin Concerto” and the “Scotch Symphony.” I cannot believe, simply because the oratorios are not as great as the religious works of Bach, Handel, or Mozart, that he failed “as a Jew” in music. When I listen to the Concerto, I can hear a tinge of Jewish melancholy, in, for example, the first movement, that . . . convinces me that he has what I would call “human” value, aside from graciousness, clarity, and light. . . .
Mendelssohn’s Protestantism interests me very little. His “Scotch Symphony” suggests a cultured Jew emotionally involved with the Scottish landscape but not letting it interfere with his sense of absolute music. This stormy work is one of the finest of Romantic symphonies. . . .
Can we take Wagner’s word for it that Jews don’t have roots in Western civilization? . . . What about Milhaud? His family has been in France longer than the French. The French assimilate to Milhaud. Does Mr. Goldman consider him unmentionable? Cosmopolitan? Rootless?
I grew up singing Meyerbeer’s “O Paradiso,” a sweet aria which one rarely hears now. . . . It blended very nicely with my tortured Brooklyn Jewish childhood.
I have heard that Bizet and Saint-Saëns were both Jewish. Both are respectable composers, and Bizet wrote some music that most critics would term “great.” French music would have an even lesser claim without these two and Ravel, whom Mr. Goldman hasn’t dared to mention.
Bloch’s “Schelomo” is a gorgeous piece by any standards. It is true to itself, and the “Concerto Grosso” is a delicious blend of Hebraic and Swiss and international elements, the effect of which is to give a poignant sense of the world that produced him. . . .
Mr. Goldman wants. . . Jews to write a “Jewish” music (something he doesn’t really define) . . . [and he points yearningly] to non-Jewish composers who have written passionately and from the heart. . . . [But he] will let us off if we . . . write truly American music. When musicians sign loyalty oaths, that will be the day for Chopin’s “Funeral March” to be played in every Jewish home. . . .
Brooklyn, New York
(Further correspondence on this article, together with Mr. Goldman’s reply, will be published in our next issue.—Ed.)