November 8, 2017

Antisemites and Jews Agree: Gustav Mahler is a Jewish Composer

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 11/08/2017

There’s no such thing as Jewish music. So claims Neil Levin, music scholar and the Artistic Director of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. Levin argues that the music he studies and champions is “music of the Jewish experience”: music which takes its topic or text from a Jewish religious or historical source, music which engages with Jewish religious or folk music traditions, and music which uses text of a Jewish language such as Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, or Judeo-Arabic.

By this definition it’s a bit of a stretch to consider the music of composer Gustav Mahler Jewish. His music engages with a cultural tradition that is primarily German and the language of the texts of his songs is almost always German. Although many hear the influence of Jewish folk music, as in the third movements of his first and second symphonies (which I’m convinced were used as models for Fiddler on the Roof, but that’s another story), it’s difficult to argue that Jewish folk music was central for Mahler’s musical project. It certainly wasn’t in the way it was for his younger contemporaries in the East, such as Joseph Engel and Lazare Saminsky, who sought to use Jewish folk and liturgical music to create an explicitly Jewish style of Classical music.

Moreover, Mahler’s personal life calls into question his Jewishness as a point of contention: he converted to Catholicism in 1897. However, by most accounts this wasn’t a reflection of any religious conviction. Mahler’s conversion is widely believed to be because of a ban against appointing Jews as the director of the Vienna Hofoper – a job he got shortly after converting. As poet Heinrich Heine said, “The certificate of baptism is the ticket of admission to modern culture.” When Alfred Roller, one of Mahler’s closest non-Jewish friends, suggested he write a Mass to show that his conversion was heartfelt, Mahler responded he could never write the Credo – (the section of the Catholic Mass which declares belief in Jesus Christ).

In spite of his conversion, the antisemitic press lambasted Mahler’s work, asserting that his music “speaks German with a Yiddish accent.” In one feverish antisemitic review, Mahler is criticized for his bombastic “Jewish” orchestration:

“Aryan trombones are too weak for Herr Mahler. Perhaps he should find a way to utilize trombones from Israel for the opera, the same trombones that roar thunderously through the unified Jewish press for ‘Herr Direktor’, cracking the walls of Vienna!”

This colorful criticism references Joshua (6, 4-20). Though Mahler perhaps wasn’t actively engaged in the creation of explicitly Jewish music, there is no doubt he was thought of as a Jew by those around him, and that he was keenly aware of this fact. He famously said he was  “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.”

Though Mahler rarely discussed this publicly or privately, a close examination of his works lays bare a perspective of culture and life deeply shaped by his experience as a Jewish person. Take, for instance, the Jewish folk music that does occur in Mahler’s music. It is not a fantasy of a purely Jewish music he is after; rather, Jewish elements exist as a part of a utopian multicultural, transnational vision in which musical and cultural references collide, question each other, and together build a diverse, multi-faceted, and difficult-to-pin-down musical world. For example, the third movement of the first symphony: immediately preceding the melody that, to many listeners, sounds unmistakably Jewish, is a macabre minor key reimagining of the trans-European children’s song Frere Jacques as a funeral march. Here, Jewish sounds and sensibility take their place alongside the culture of their territorial co-inhabitants, simultaneously existing in their particularity and striving towards being a part of a universal human story. Perhaps this is what Mahler meant in his oft-quoted saying that a symphony should contain the whole world.

Even when there is no particular Jewish element in Mahler’s music, we can hear a similar heterogeneity, eclecticism, questioning, and tendency toward juxtaposition. Mahler’s choice of texts from the Wunderhorn poems and from Ruckert’s poetry focus on outsiders, wanderers, lost soldiers, people on the fringes of society. These songs at once celebrate the folk, but ring of complexity and contradiction, resisting being pinned down into a particular nationalist ideology. Theodor Adorno famously asserted that the embrace of an oriental other in Das Lied von der Erde is a “cover for Mahler’s Jewish element.” In Das Lied, Mahler explores Chinese poetry with curiosity and openness—an embrace of both difference and underlying similarity, not of alienation and distance as in the  “oriental” works of other contemporaries.

Carl Niekerk, in his book Reading Mahler, sees Mahler’s relationship to text throughout his works as a “counter reading of the German cultural tradition” and a “critique of Wagner’s idea of German national culture.” When Mahler takes up Christian religious imagery in his second and eighth symphonies we can also understand this as a counter reading of the culture he is immersed in—one in no doubt informed by his own religious background and sensibility. Niekerk explains that Mahler uses a religious framework not to embrace Christian ideas, but rather as a way to “communicate a philosophy of life that is in essence modern and postmetaphysical.”

In this sense Mahler’s story is a quintessential story of a Jew in diaspora. His work and the philosophies in it refract his background, his upbringing, the role he sees himself playing in society, the role he sees others seeing him play in society, and ultimately his grappling with the society of which he is part, as, among other things, a Jew. A close reading of Mahler’s music reveals the thoughtfulness with which he reimagines Austro-German musical culture, the passion with which he embraces unlikely musical and textual influences, and the complexity and ambiguity with which he incorporates so many varied elements into his musical world.