Commentary Magazine

Not So Subtle Anti-Semitism

To the Editor:

I think Terry Teachout is a bit off the mark in assigning so much importance to Richard Wagner in inspiring the virulent anti-Semitism of Germany and Austria in the latter 19th century [“How Hitler Destroyed German Music,” June]. At the time of Wagner’s notorious tract, “Das Jundenthum in der Musik,” Felix Mendelssohn was the most admired figure in German music, and Wagner was largely unknown. It is impossible to ignore Wagner’s numerous imitations of Mendelssohn in the music he wrote prior to this time. Wagner, who privately admired Mendelssohn all his life, wished to identify him as a Jewish composer, although his father had converted and his mother had no Jewish heritage. Felix himself was baptized at the age of seven.

Wagner was here exhibiting his lifelong predilection to destroy rivals, by whatever means were at hand. It is because of Wagner’s tract that we, even today, call Mendelssohn a Jew. Wagner himself had cordial relations with Jewish musicians so long as they were subservient to his genius.

James Currin
Stamford, Connecticut

To the Editor:

Terry Teachout is right to say there is a klezmer sound to the music of Gustav Mahler, and his identification of that sound in the second theme of the funeral-march movement of the “First Symphony” is certainly correct. I’ve often wondered what klezmer Mahler heard growing up.

Tom Putnam
Buffalo, New York

Terry Teachout writes:

I think that James Currin greatly underestimates both the specificity and the influence of Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings. That, however, is not a matter to be settled here.

As to Tom Putnam’s question, Gustav Mahler left behind no first-person account of having heard klezmer bands in his youth, and it appears unlikely that he actually encountered such groups. The influence of klezmer and related styles on his own music may well have been at second hand. A detailed discussion of this question can be found in Jens Malte Fischer’s Gustav Mahler, perhaps the best single-volume treatment of Mahler’s life.

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