Commentary Magazine

The Predicament of the Jewish Musician

In the last hundred and fifty years—that is, beginning with the emancipation of the Jew in Western Europe—Jews have risen to a remarkable prominence in the world of music; today one might say they virtually dominate it. Considerable discussion has been devoted to the question of what accounts for the peculiar Jewish affinity with music—an affinity which has come to be taken for granted by Jews and Gentiles alike. The standard explanations (for example, that Jewish culture is emotionally freer and more expressive than other cultures, or that music was almost the only profession with status open to European Jews) are hardly satisfactory, since they cannot take into account the special demands of gift or genius exacted by a musical career. Nor will the history and character of Jewish religious practice—another witness often called upon—suffice to explain this affinity. However crucial the role played by music in the ancient Temple service—later partly incorporated into a synagogue service that was entirely sung or chanted—the fact remains that all the centuries in the Diaspora had effectively cut the Jewish community off from both its own musical sources in the past and from the living, developing musical tradition of the peoples who surrounded it. The Jews who burst forth from their enclosed communities into the world of 19th-century Europe left behind them a tradition that had grown almost puritanically arid in its relation to music. Such musical predisposition as had somehow been kept alive in their tradition only came into flower in its belated encounter with European culture.

But whatever the explanation, come into flower it did, and with amazing rapidity. A list of the names of Jews who have established formidable reputations in all branches of music would fill volumes. Even in the briefest summary we find among the serious composers Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Mahler, Schoen-berg, Weill, Milhaud, Bloch, Dukas, Aaron Copland; composers of operettas and more recently musical comedies, Rudolf Friml, Emerich Kalman, Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Straus, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and of course Leonard Bernstein; among interpretive artists and conductors, Artur Schnabel, Wanda Landowska, Myra Hess, Rudolf Serkin, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Szigeti, Emanuel Feuermann, the members of the Budapest and Lener Quartets, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitsky. In criticism, in musicology, and in the related fields of teaching, publishing, collecting, broadcasting, and recording, much the same situation prevails.

Such a list, however, while it testifies to a disproportionate participation of Jews in this special world, at the same time points to another, perhaps more interesting and more significant question. For what becomes immediately apparent is the general disparity in achievement between those Jews who have composed music and those who have played or in some other way taught us about it. Jews may have come to dominate music, but they have not dominated, and still do not, all fields of it equally; nor do they bring to all the same capacity for creative contribution. Why this should be, is a question whose answer takes us beyond music itself to the larger problem of the role of the Jew as creator and interpreter within Western culture.



At the beginning of the Emancipation only about 15 per cent of world Jewry were living in Western Europe. Of these, only the more affluent were able to profit from the new social and political privileges. From this special class came the first Jewish composers to attain fame in the world at large—Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.

Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, the renowned Jewish philosopher and man of letters, whose circle of friends included Lessing and other important German intellectuals. Felix, the son of a prosperous banker, grew up in extremely pleasant surroundings, in a sophisticated milieu in Berlin whose superior cultural values, affluence, and ease were to be reflected in his gay and graceful music. His father had his children baptized, later converted, himself. Felix subsequently married the daughter of a Protestant minister. In the voluminous correspondence between Felix and his father, there are practically no allusions to the fact of their Jewish origin; rather, one senses an attitude which must have been charged with embarrassing emotions.

As a member of the prosperous and cultivated bourgeoisie of the Biedermeier period, Mendelssohn began to compose music that was clearly intended to meet its aspirations and conform to its religious pieties. After successfully accomplishing the revival of Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt,” he went on to attempt his own revival of the great tradition of German Protestant music, through his oratorios, “Elijah” and “St. Paul,” his organ compositions, and his “Reformation Symphony”—with its elaborate treatment of Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott.

This effort to resurrect the vigorous Protestant tradition in his own works—an extraordinary ambition, given not only Mendelssohn’s Jewish origin but also the fact that the music of his day was almost entirely secular in character—inevitably had to end in artistic failure. Mendelssohn had no profound sense of Christianity: his identification with Protestantism was social and cultural rather than religious. With an essentially unreal style—an archaic pastiche of Bach and Handel, and occasional suggestions of his own musical personality in the lighter and more graceful sections—he began to work upon texts that would have challenged even the resources of his great masters. Comparing his “Elijah” to Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” one immediately notices the weakness, gaudiness, and sentimentality of Mendelssohn’s efforts. There is not even a hint in Mendelssohn of the moral passion, the grave, brooding profundity of the biblical Jews that the Protestant Handel was able to envision and communicate, and there is none of the electrifying energy of his model. In writing Christian music, Mendelssohn could only feign a piety he did not possess and, in trying to force an emotion he did not feel, he ended by treating a subject of the highest seriousness in an essentially histrionic manner.

Moreover, in his oratorios Mendelssohn was seldom able to find opportunities to express the qualities that were uniquely and most authentically his own. Basically he was a fantasist—at his best in such youthful music as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Here all his strongest virtues appear—charm, whimsy, romance, a deft sense of scene and atmosphere that rises to the splendid theatrical pageantry of the “Wedding March.” This note of breathless excitement, of flight into a shimmering fairyland, was the natural center of his musical imagination, and it was for the most part lost in his oratorios, written as they were to satisfy the aspirations of his class.

There is, one feels, something typical of the Jewish genius in music about Mendelssohn’s life and work. With his uninterrupted musical and personal success, his aura of vivacity and charm, his theatricality and adaptiveness, as well as his perpetual enthusiasm for everything musical, he reminds us particularly of Leonard Bernstein, another clever mimic of greatness. Swept along by the pressures and rewards of cultural assimilation, Mendelssohn was led to abandon his native gifts and to score triumphs that now seem only a dreary waste of his creative spirit.



A somewhat different example of the type was Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jakob Liebmann Beer in Berlin in 1791), who was also the son of a wealthy and highly cultured banker, Herz Beer. Another Jewish child prodigy who was encouraged by his family and given the best instruction available, Meyerbeer was one of the best pianists in Berlin by the age of nine and wrote a successful German opera, “Jeptha’s Gelübde,” at the age of twenty.

Meyerbeer’s main talent lay in his mimicry, his ability to assimilate and reproduce a variety of styles. During the Venice Carnival of 1815, he heard Rossini’s “Tancredi”; enraptured by it, he immediately altered his own style and in practically no time produced a series of highly successful Italian operas. His friend and fellow pupil, Carl Maria von Weber, wrote to him, “My heart bleeds to see a German composer of creative power stoop to become an imitator in order to win favor with the crowd,” but the facile Meyerbeer was undeterred. Next, he moved to Paris where he devoted seven years to a thorough study of everything French and especially French opera from Lully on. A visitor to his library was surprised to find “hundreds of scores great and small, many of which were hardly known by name even to the most initiated.” His preparation complete, Meyerbeer launched his career in French opera and produced, with Scribe, “Robert le Diable” (1831), “Les Huguenots” (1836), “Le Prophète” (1849), “Dinorah” (1859), and “L’Africaine” (1864). Each one was a tremendous hit.

Like the oratorios of Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer’s operas were aimed at the pretentious bourgeois public of the time. They were gigantic celebrations of the materialistic spirit, performed on stages crammed with elaborate and costly objects. For “Robert le Diable,” according to William Crosten, “no effort was spared. . . . The English stage traps were introduced, gas illumination was used for the first time on the French opera stage and advantage was taken of the varied effects of perspective, illusion, and chiaroscuro which had been developed in the Boulevard theaters. . . . We are assured that the mise en scène . . . cost nearly 200,000 francs.”

Meyerbeer drove himself to win fame and prestige. (Heine quipped that he fulfilled the true Christian ideal, for he could not rest while there remained a single unconverted soul.) As we might expect from both his motives and methods of working, the music of his operas is incredibly, monumentally inane—a hodge-podge of nondescript themes and devices taken from other composers, garish orchestral brilliance, and dreary letter-perfect declamation. Meyerbeer was so passionless and empty a musician that Donald Francis Tovey once remarked that he could not “regard him as a real person at all,” and could not be bothered to argue with people who could. He is the extreme instance in the history of music of a talented composer devoting his energies to gratifying a dubious public taste.

Offenbach, the son of a cantor in Cologne, was the last of the three famous 19th-century Jewish composers of the “first generation.” He began as a cellist in the Paris Opera Orchestra and then went on to write his risquè operettas. Performed in a charming little band-box theater, they quickly caught the Parisian fancy and brought him immediate fame and success.

In Offenbach’s compositions we have a later and more popular version of the sensuous excitement and romantic sentiment that mark Mendelssohn’s best music. But Offenbach’s excitement, in contrast to Mendelssohn’s, contains an undercurrent of incipient hysteria clearly seen in his version of the can-can. His treatment of love has little depth or conviction, evoking mainly the pleasant, luxurious sensuality one finds in the “Barcarolle.” Offenbach, however, had none of Meyerbeer’s pretentiousness, which is perhaps why he was able to produce far more genuine work while being similarly motivated by the desire for popular esteem. Like Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer both, he had a histrionic flair, his output was prodigious, his style was adapted to the musical fashions of the day, and his success tremendous. He died after attending rehearsals for his only serious work, “Les Contes d’Hoffman.”

Of the many traits shared by these three principal composers of the first generation after the Emancipation, perhaps the most important was the flexibility which made them capable of rapidly assimilating the spirit of their society and of reproducing it with acceptable plausibility. This flexibility may seem surprising. Removed by only a single generation from a world with a sharply defined cultural identity of its own, these composers might have been expected to encounter serious difficulties in adopting, much less adapting to, the tone and attitudes of an alien culture. Assimilation, in the sense of conformity to manners and social values not naturally one’s own, is often easily achieved, but a much greater degree of assimilation is required of an artist who sets out to express the spirit of a culture in which he himself is not deeply rooted. And yet, all the famous Jewish composers of the 19th century seem perfectly representative of their age and nation: Mendelssohn’s work is as typical of the German Protestant strain of the Romantic period as Meyerbeer’s is of the popular operatic theater of the day, and as Offenbach’s is of the giddy Paris of the Second Empire.

However, when we compare these three composers to their non-Jewish contemporaries, we see that their assimilation—however extraordinary in its swiftness, thoroughness, and seeming naturalness—was at bottom merely an adaptation. For all their facility and brilliance, they did nothing to advance the musical culture of their time. They were distinguished for neither originality, creative form as opposed to the manipulation of convention, nor for emotional and spiritual depth. Other composers, less richly talented and less technically skilled but carried along by the assurance of the rooted personality, managed to write more important music. A case in point is Schumann, who lacked Mendelssohn’s sequacious fluency, whose developments are merely thematic transpositions, and who was far from being a master of orchestration. Yet his work is more interesting than Mendelssohn’s, deeper, more original, more passionate. A “progressive Romantic,” Schumann aimed at realizing a personal vision without falling back on the musical conventions of his day. Unlike the Jewish composers, he was not very much at home in the world, but he was able to go his own way in music, unhampered by a compulsion to provide what contemporary taste demanded.



In Germany the sudden prominence of Jews in music soon attracted attention, and in time a Jewish “question” arose. In 1850, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik published a discussion of “Hebrew Artistic Taste,” which included Richard Wagner’s famous, or infamous, piece, Das Judentum in der Musik (“The Jews in Music”), an essay which is still the primary document of its kind.

“The Jews in Music” is usually considered the work of a violent anti-Semite, but it is unwise to dismiss Wagner’s ideas simply on these grounds, for his basic argument contains as much truth on the subject as anyone could have seen during the 19th century. The strength of this argument lies in its perception that the newly assimilated Jewish composer, being alienated both from Jewish life and from the life of his adopted nation, lacked the prime requisite of the true artist: the deep cultural roots that provide an instinctive grasp of the unconscious aspirations and conflicts of his society and that enable an individual writing out of his own being to bring forth at the same time a true expression of the spirit of his nation. This, according to Wagner, the Jewish artist can never do. Where the Jew is equipped to excel is in intellectual activity, for his precarious social position requires, above all, that he understand the society in order to overcome his problems within it.



Wagner’s insight is not only applicable to the first generation of assimilated Jewish composers, but also helps to explain the ambiguous and frustrating position of the later ones. The career of Gustav Mahler presents the most tragic example. Born into a lower-middle-class family in Bohemia in 1864, Mahler in many respects resembled the composers of the first generation: his most striking qualities were brilliance, restlessness, and technical dexterity. Mahler, too, was a man of the theater and a man of the world, a highly successful opera conductor. Like his fellow-pupil, Hugo Wolf, and his one-time teacher, Anton Bruckner, he began his career by aligning himself with the progressive school of Wagner. But unlike Wolf and Bruckner, both of whom possessed great integrity of spirit, Mahler suffered from a devastating uncertainty about his own identity. His work shows that he was torn in every direction—toward the “Kolossal” (the “Symphony of a Thousand”) and toward the intimate (his lieder and the chamber music texture of some of his larger works); toward the heroic style of Beethoven and the pathos and nostalgia that we associate with Schubert; toward religious faith (the settings of Veni Creator Spiritus and the final scene of Faust) and toward pessimism and despair (“Das Lied von der Erde”); toward folk naiveté (the “Fourth Symphony” and the settings of Das Knaben Wunderhorn) and toward avant-garde experimentation (as in the scherzo of the “Second Symphony”).

Mahler was a highly intelligent, sophisticated, and responsive man pitting the force of his ego against an immensely rich and complicated culture that was beginning to go to pieces. His work gives the impression of an unremitting struggle to amass and synthesize this entire culture into a single, gigantic form. (“What I mean by a symphony,” he said, “is taking all the available technical resources and with them building myself a world.”) And one suspects that the reason he repeatedly fell short of his ambitions lay in his unwillingness to discipline his improvisatory gifts—an unwillingness which involved a fundamental lack of clarity about his real intentions.

Thus he never produced the musical counterpart to Faust, Part II or The Magic Mountain, but only a bizarre collection of disjointed fragments, fruits of a restless and neurotic temperament. His best work is that in which, whether consciously or not, he came momentarily to terms with this temperament and wrote phantasmagoric music: a spectral nightscape across which moves a great funeral cortege, numbering all the vanished dead—the tragic, the grotesque, and the sublime—forever advancing into an undiscerned but hopeless future. Otherwise, we have in Mahler’s music the most poignant instance of the Jewish cultural dilemma, and the best confirmation of Wagner’s theory. Trying to make an alien culture his own, he was capable of imitating everything and of imagining himself as everybody, but he remained to the end powerless to locate and express a world that might truly belong to him.

For a time Mahler had a protégé in Arnold Schoenberg, who in later years dedicated to him his epoch-making treatise, the Harmonielehre (“Theory of Harmony”). Both were products of fin de siècle Vienna, but the inventor of atonalism was in every important respect the anti-type of the 19th-century symphonist. In contrast to Mahler, who struggled constantly to sum up his own age on the model of Beethoven’s “Ninth,” Schoenberg, after his first derivative compositions, tried to find some way of capitalizing on his position of cultural alienation and struck out boldly into the new world of modern music. Pursuing his astonishingly original vision with unswerving logic and courage, Schoenberg became the first Jewish composer to lead rather than follow. He did not so much extend the development of European music (a role that can be more accurately assigned to Stravinsky) as smash the mold in which all previous music had been cast.

Perhaps the most revolutionary figure in the history of music, Schoenberg was yet not so much a great composer as a great thinker, less artist than intellectual. His compositions have never appealed to listeners, as have those of his disciples, Berg and Webern; they are best regarded as demonstrations of his theory, difficult and interesting experiments designed to test and promote radically new ideas. One might even say that Schoenberg’s works exist to be pondered as profound aphorisms of musical wisdom rather than to be played or heard. In short, he is more properly to be classed with Jewish intellectual giants like Freud and Einstein than with the major composers.



But if Schoenberg’s atonal system represents the greatest intellectual achievement of any Jewish composer, the greatest artistic achievement must be credited to a composer who belongs to the ranks of the entertainers and popular musicians—Kurt Weill. Weill’s cabaret operas, written in collaboration with Bertholt Brecht, are in the same vein as the poetry of Heine, one that might be termed the “sense of the uncomfortable.” Drawing upon the anger and frustration, the awkwardness and humiliation that had always been felt by Jews, this vein appeared as a type of sensibility in music only when such feelings became widespread in German culture generally.

In conception, the “Threepenny Opera” is itself reminiscent of the Jewish attitude toward schnorrers, poverty, and the plights and dodges of the downtrodden. And the melodies of Kurt Weill, yet another son of a cantor, have much of the quality of a Yiddish lament. But without the guidance of Brecht’s texts, it is doubtful that Weill would ever have discovered the rich creative source which lay buried in his divided and anxious soul. In his later years, after coming to America and being cut off from collaboration with Brecht, Weill immediately—and, it seems, deliberately—launched into a period of composing saccharine musicals that stand in the greatest possible contrast to the acid compositions of his Berlin period: “Knickerbocker Holiday,” “Lady in the Dark,” “Street Scene,” “Lost in the Stars,” and “Down in the Valley.” At the time of his death in 1950 he was working with his American collaborator, Maxwell Anderson, on a musical version of Huckleberry Finn.

Thus Weill, for all the strength and honesty of his early work, eventually fell into the pattern of the other Jewish composers we have been considering. Beginning as a wholly original writer who helped to establish a new art form, he ended as a victim of that fatal assimilative power which makes it easy for a composer to satisfy a popular audience but impossible for him to develop along the lines indicated by his natural gifts.

There is no echo in the works of American Jewish composers of the “sense of the uncomfortable,” for the “sense of the uncomfortable” seems to emerge out of a greater degree of cultural alienation than Jews have experienced in America. At the same time, however, the music of American Jewish composers has not yet shown any signs of the spiritual poise, the solid sense of self, that comes from thoroughgoing rootedness in a culture. Perhaps the best example of what can happen to musical talent under these conditions of non-alienation combined with imperfect assimilation is to be found in the career of Leonard Bernstein.

Compared to the early Weill, Bernstein is an unimpressive figure. His earliest compositions add up to little more than cleverly orchestrated echoes of Gershwin and Copland. His most famous serious work, the “Jeremiah Symphony,” owes its modest success to the lavishness of its orchestration, and perhaps also to the fact that it is both simple and “modernistic,” enabling the general public to feel that for once it is appreciating contemporary music. But despite a certain technical brilliance, the “Jeremiah Symphony” is a musically derivative and immature composition whose most memorable moments are projections of that clenching Weltschmerz which is the common condition of all sensitive young Americans.

Bernstein’s commercial ventures, with one exception, hardly stand up any better than his more serious compositions. “On the Town” sounds like any other musical of that period. The score of “Candide,” though far more sophisticated than that of the conventional musical, is ultimately trivial. The score of “West Side Story,” on the other hand, is on a par with the best of Menotti and Gershwin. It exhibits first-rate craftsmanship and an ability to redirect the power of the modern symphony orchestra to the pit of a Broadway theater. Still, for all his cleverness and even at his best, he seems vulgar and crude when compared to the Weill of “Threepenny Opera.” Musically, he is neither here nor there, operating on many different levels at once, capable of sporadic brilliance but not of sustained power or depth, easily shifting from the serious to the popular, and from composing to conducting, never at rest, never in a state either of poise on the one side or trenchant discontent on the other.



If, however, uncertainty of accomplishment is the mark of the Jewish composers who have appeared since the Enlightenment, indisputable greatness has marked the work of Jews as interpretive musicians. Not only have virtually all the major violinists of modern times been Jews, but also a remarkably large number of the leading conductors, pianists, and other performers. It is worth noting that the interpretive performer is a phenomenon that hardly existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the great performers (Liszt, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, and later, Sarasate, Busoni, and Rachmaninoff) wrote what they played. The virtuoso composer-performer has been superseded in our time by the interpretive performer whose talents combine those of the musical scholar and critic with those of the artist.

The career of Artur Schnabel is typical of that of the great Jewish performer, a musician who is often more creative than his counterpart, the composer. As a child prodigy in Vienna, Schnabel studied with the famous pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky, who immediately recognized the boy’s special gifts, prophesying, “You will never be a pianist—you will be a musician.” By the age of eighteen, Schnabel was already weary of Viennese “Schlamperei” and went to Berlin, where he first achieved fame less as a virtuoso than as an interpretive artist. Preferring study to performance, he devoted years to perfecting his interpretations of the finest works of the past, and steadfastly refused to play anything but them.

This relentless emphasis on musician-ship rather than performance was at the bottom of Schnabel’s greatness. He brought to his superb interpretations of Beethoven a keen critical and scholarly understanding, editing the works from manuscripts and early editions—a fact which supports the contention that he was at least equally interested in developing his own conception of the music as in playing it. Schnabel also introduced into the concert hall works which had previously been neglected, like the sonatas of Schubert, and presented such familiar but previously misunderstood music as the concertos of Mozart and the late compositions of Beethoven in a truer light.

In general, Schnabel did not identify himself with Jewish culture; nor, apparently, did he possess any marked feelings of Jewishness. He left Germany in protest against the Nazis, but he remained an almost totally assimilated European. What Schnabel did possess as a Jew, however, was the same acquisitive ability we have noted in the 19th-century composers. Since an interpretive artist must transport the audience backward, and the work forward, in time, the Jew’s predisposition toward scholarship (evident even in Meyerbeer) and his typical sensitivity to the conditions of the present moment can be said to aid him in interpreting music perhaps as much as they handicap him in composing it. Even though the cultural adaptation of the Jewish musician seldom transforms his own soul, it can provide an almost impeccable matching of surfaces that operates to the distinct advantage of his interpretations.



For the composer, a binding sensitivity to the present cultural moment can be advantageous only if he writes popular music. Popular songs are curiously impersonal, and therefore a successful composer of musical comedy mainly needs the ability to reflect the fugitive moods of the moment. If he is tempted to inject a note of uniquely personal feeling, he invariably finds the popularity of his work suffering. Most of the legion of Jewish song writers have avoided this temptation.

For the serious Jewish composer one relatively recent alternative to cultural adaptation and its dead ends of derivative-ness, fragmentation, and popular success has been to exploit “differentness” by producing determinedly Jewish music. In part, this alternative was opened up by the spread of Zionism, in part by the wave of nationalistic music which preceded it in Eastern Europe. (During the close of the 19th century, as many of the lesser European nationalities woke to cultural consciousness, there was a flood of music like “Moldau,” “Finlandia,” Hungarian and Rumanian dances and rhapsodies.) An added impetus to the rise of Jewish folk music was provided by the social conditions of East European Jewry, which were far less conducive to assimilatory tendencies than conditions in the West. Finally, once the East European Jews began moving to Israel, their indigenous music was further enriched by the ancient folk melodies of the Yemenites and other Semitic peoples, resulting in a new strain of Palestinian folk music.

However, if Jewish nationalism once seemed to hold out a promise for serious music, this promise has not been fulfilled. The Society for Jewish Folk Music (founded in 1900) collected, transcribed, and arranged folk material which was later used in light pieces and then in more ambitious works, but only one Jewish composer of international reputation was ever attracted to the nationalist vein: Ernest Bloch. Bloch was reared in Western Europe, and unlike the strictly nationalist composers, he did not limit himself to working exclusively with authentic folk or synagogue materials. His tonal language was basically the same as that of most modern composers, and was only occasionally colored by allusions to actual Jewish idiom. Yet Bloch’s music came closer to achieving genuine power in a self-consciously Jewish style than any of the works of the East European or Israeli composers. His best-known composition is, of course, “Schelomo,” a rhapsody for ‘cello and orchestra, inspired by his reading of Ecclesiastes. This piece is both somber and gorgeously oriental, deriving a special plangency from its suggestion of the eternal lamentations of the Jews. One can argue that this plangency is too bizarre, too lachrymose for serious music; nevertheless, “Schelomo” remains a composition of enormous power, one which promised much for the future of Jewish music.

That the promise has yet to be fulfilled is perhaps partly to be ascribed to Bloch’s own failure to continue in this vein. His last major effort to write a self-consciously Jewish work was “Sacred Service” (Avodath Hakodesh), a setting of the Sabbath morning service prescribed by the Union Prayer Book of the Reform Synagogue of the United States. The “Sacred Service” is as bland musically as the text for which it was written—a text that resembles a weak derivative of the King James Bible, and that offers no inspiration for the barbaric and opulent style that contributed so much to the impact of “Schelomo.”

Bloch has had no successors who have been able to make significant use of the emotional and imaginative ethos of the East European Jew. In Israeli music, as one might expect, the tendency is to break with the culture of European Jewry and to move in the direction of the ancient Semitic sources, as preserved, for example, in the folk music of Yemen. But the main result has been a music that appears culturally backward and somewhat shallow: the Israeli composers, after all, are merely doing today what the composers of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bohemia, and Rumania were doing fifty or eighty years ago. Moreover, nationalist music in general has rarely come to more than being picturesque. (The one great exception is the work of Bela Bartok, a fascinating example of the abstraction of folk essences and their free manipulation in more sophisticated musical forms.) In any event, Israel has failed so far to produce an impressive body of music, and is unlikely to do so as long as the nationalist vein remains dominant.



The alienation from gentile values which characterizes the nationalist movement is, of course, only one of the possibilities open to the Jewish composers whose marginal position in Western culture has created such serious problems of identity in the past. Alienation can have, and has had, many other uses for the Jewish artist—ranging from satire and parody, as in Heine or Weill, or (unconsciously) Mahler, to revolutionary innovation, as in Kafka or Schoenberg. However, such figures as Weill and Schoenberg, as well as Bloch and Schnabel, now belong to the past; their particular problems and opportunities as Jewish musicians were shaped by a world that ended in 1940. Because of the almost total destruction of Jewish life in Europe, and because of the special problems that beset music in a small and very young country like Israel, it seems probable that the future of the Jewish commitment to music will be largely a matter of what happens in America. Certain prospects are already fairly visible. For one thing, the generally prosperous state of American Jewry can provide strong financial support for the careers of its aspiring young musicians. In music, economic assistance is essential : the composer’s products have little commercial value, and the performing artist must spend years in training and in acquiring a reputation. There is no information available as to the number of young Jewish musicians in this country, but one has the impression of a continuing stream of new names. In general, Jewish participation in all the arts is steadily increasing, a development which clearly has resulted from the growing economic as well as social and cultural security of the Jew in American life.

On the other hand, the steady progress of assimilation is likely to have the effect of reducing the minority-group motivation, the drive for achievement and status, which has always been one of the greatest sources of Jewish energy, as well as failure, in music. Similarly, the ideals of cultural aspiration that the Jews acquired in Europe cannot be expected to survive as a matter of course in America. In fact, it is already evident that the final stages of cultural assimilation can involve a repudiation of these aspirations as being embarrassing vestiges of the ghetto.

One can envision, then, both enriched conditions for creative development in music and a simultaneous loss of interest in the years to come. But as always, the determining factor will be the attitude of the general community toward music. If, as seems likely, it should take an increasingly positive view of the arts as providing a last refuge for individuality and freedom of expression, then the loss of a specifically Jewish motivation may be compensated for by a more general American one. Such a development could conceivably be of particular benefit to American Jewish composers and help to close the historical gap we have been noting between the interpretive and creative achievements of the Jewish commitment to music.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.