Classical Music : the Jewish Counterpoint

The playlist of a New York public radio station included a special holy day service on the eve of Yom Kippur 2010, featuring the Kol Nidrei of Max Bruch. This is unremarkable, except for the fact that Max Bruch is not even Jewish although many people mistakenly assume so.

In addition, Bruch’s  work is scored for solo cello and orchestra – which should immediately disqualify it as a truly Jewish Religious work according to musical purists and orthodox rabbinic authorities; traditionally, instrumental music has been banned from synagogues since the destruction of the second temple by the Romans around AD70 (the shofar or the ram’s horn, being the only survivor, but used only for ceremonial announcements). With the advent of the Reform Judaism movement, the rules have been relaxed a lot over the last two centuries, and nobody would today begrudge Bruch his success in popularizing a piece of Jewish music.

The counterpoint of Jewish and traditional classical music in fact goes back to the 15th-16th century Italian Renaissance when Salamone Rossi Hebrero flourished in the liberal spirit of the enlightened duchy of Mantua. Rossi composed both in the prevailing classical idiom as well as in the settings of the polyphonic synagogue liturgy – he was probably the first Jewish composer to do so. Rossi was also daring and  proud of his Jewish heritage (hence he appended to his name the word “Hebrero” – thus, Salamone Rossi the Jew!)

This spirit of enlightened counterpoint was somehow lost in the subsequent centuries, partly due to the assimilation and conformity prompted by the bigotry and anti-semitism of that time, and partly also because of the ideal of the Haskalah Reform  movement. Thus, Felix Mendelssohn (the grandson of the great Jewish scholar and Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn) wrote hardly any “jewish” work, apart from Elijah which, although based on Jewish theme is in the baroque tradition of Bach and Handel.  The highly popular Jacques Offenbach, whose father was a great Cantor as well as a  writer of several works including a well known  Haggadah, never bothered with Jewish music.

Ernest Bloch,  perhaps more than any other Jewish composer of the last century embodies the ideal of Rossi so admirably. His Schelomo is arguably as popular as Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, and his Avodath Hakodesh is regarded by many as a supreme achievement in this genre. Arnold Schoenberg also composed a Kol Nidrei as well as the unfinished opera Moses und Aaron. In our time, Leonard Bernstein has followed Rossi and composed many Jewish or Jewish-themed works (e.g. the Jeremiah and the Kaddish symphonies) along  with his Mass and other Catholic religious works.

This cultural osmosis in music works either way. Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev wrote Jewish music, the latter even having a popular success with his  Overture on Hebrew Themes.  And conversely, it was a Jewish composer who composed perhaps the most enduringly popular Christmas song : ‘I am dreaming of a white christmas’.

Yet the saddest irony for a Jewish composer must surely concern  Gustav Mahler,  whose Resurrection symphony is considered by many including yours truly to  be almost as sublime and moving  as  the St Matthew Passion or the Missa Solemnis. Yet he avoided music with overtly Jewish association. This, in view of the virulent anti-semitism of the musical establishment of Germany and Austria ruled by Cosima Wagner et al, is an understandable survival strategy, as was his conversion to Catholicism, although in reality he never forsook his Jewish psyche. Understandable but sad nonetheless.

As somebody once said, Nationalism in music is fine if you have a Nation but what if, like these classical Jewish musicians,  you don’t?

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