The New Republic
December 21, 2012
The Music Libel Against the Jews By Ruth HaCohen
(Yale University Press, 507 pp., $55)
IN NOVEMBER 1934, Privy Councilor Wilhelm Furtwängler, vice president of the Third Reich’s Music Chamber and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, imprudently took to the pages of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung to defend the composer Paul Hindemith against the charge of “Jewishness” with which Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for propaganda and enlightenment of the people, had justified a prohibition on the performance of his work. Yes, Furtwängler admitted, Hindemith had played viola alongside Jewish musicians in the Amar Quartet, but whatever performances he might have given alongside Jews after the Nazis’ rise to power were purely the result of contractual obligation, not sympathy or affinity. And yes, he had on occasion produced works of questionable taste, such as music for the one-act play Murder, the Hope of Women , but these were un-representative juvenilia. “If one were to attempt a profile of the composer Hindemith on the basis of his works,” wrote the famed conductor, “one would have to characterize him as decidedly of the ‘German’ type. His genealogy is, after all, purely Germanic. And the solid craftsmanship and sterling native quality of his work are entirely German, as is the modesty and reserve manifest even in his infrequent emotional outbursts.”
Goebbels responded before a crowd of thousands in Berlin’s sports stadium. According to the account in the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger of December 7, 1934, the State Orchestra, conducted by Peter Raabe, opened the event with strains of Beethoven. These introduced an actor’s recitation of Hitler’s words from Mein Kampf on the subject of art and the Volk . Then more music, this time Hans Pfitzner’s “From the German Soul.” (Pfitzner would himself soon come under suspicion of “Jewishness,” for his collaboration with the Jewish conductor Bruno Walter, and for his unwillingness to provide a replacement for the “Jewish” Mendelssohn’s score to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ) And after this orchestrated preface Goebbels stepped up to the podium to thundering cries of “Germany Awake!” and rendered his verdict: Hindemith is an “atonal” noisemaker who, motivated by materialism, composed “lurid strains of dissonance ... with complete musical ineptitude.... We are vehemently opposed to seeing this type of artist identified as German. As far as we are concerned, the fact that his heritage is of pure Germanic blood is more dramatic evidence of the festering depths to which the Jewish-intellectual infection has already penetrated the body of our Volk .” Hindemith remained proscribed, and Furtwängler resigned (or was fired) from his post.
The Hindemith Affair is not mentioned in Ruth HaCohen’s remarkable book, perhaps because none of the principals involved were actually Jewish. But it does provide a striking confirmation, even an extension, of the book’s important thesis: that Western music, both Christian and Classical, developed in relation—often in negative relation—to ideas about Jews and their music. The idea that Jewish music (or noise) was un-harmonious, insincere, manipulative, materialistic, or in some other way morally and spiritually dangerous: this idea helped to produce (and was also produced by) the Western musical tradition.
My formulation of HaCohen’s argument is a simplification, even an impoverishment, of her thinking and erudition. When I refer to ideas about Jews and music, she would add that she is not talking only about ideas, but also about real Jews and real Jewish music. Indeed, one of the many virtues of her book is its demonstration of elements of “dialogue” and “reciprocity” between the music of Jews and non-Jews in Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Moreover, my speaking of “Western music” in the abstract overlooks the extraordinary sympathy with which this musicologist analyzes the individual subjectivity of her protagonists, who include composers such as Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, writers such as Heine and George Eliot, and even literary and musical characters, such as Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Schoenberg’s Moses.
But my simplified formulation does have this advantage: it stresses that although “the music libel against the Jews” is a way of thinking about both Jews and music, the one need not correspond to the other. The “Jewishness” of a musical work or a musician does not necessarily spring from the “real” Judaism of the piece or its creator, as the case of Hindemith reminds us. It stems rather from a Christian system of thought that understands certain kinds of human activity in the world as “Jewish.”
THAT SYSTEM OF thought has a very long history. It is evident already in one of the earliest Christian texts, Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. In that letter and in others that followed, the apostle to the gentiles taught Jesus’s followers to criticize circumcision and other attachments to what he called law, letter, and flesh as “Judaizing.” (That term, which gained world-historical significance, is from Galatians 2:14.) Early Christians applied this logic to many different kinds of activities, including music. This is not to say that they always agreed. For some Church Fathers, music was too sensual and carnal for the Christian, whereas others placed it at the center of Christian devotion. Precisely what was considered “Jewish” was open for debate, and changed with time, place, and the individual thinker. But what remained constant was the possibility of representing “incorrect” engagements with the world as “Jewish.” As the poet George Herbert put it in 1633, “He that doth love, and love amisse,/This worlds delights before true Christian joy,/Hath made a Jewish choice/... and is a Judas-Jew.”
One consequence of this way of thinking is that every Christian is potentially “Jewish.” Since no one in this world can do entirely without letters, laws, or things of the flesh, no one is entirely immune to the charge of Judaizing. This universal weakness had the effect of transforming “Judaizing” into a key term of Christian critique, a term that lost none of its power in the more secular languages of modernity. When Marx claimed in 1844 that so long as society continued to depend upon money and private property, it would “continue to produce Judaism from its own entrails,” he was exploiting the logic of “Judaizing.” Goebbels was exploiting the same potential a hundred years later, when he condemned Hindemith and Pfiztner as “Jewish” musicians, and Picasso and Otto Dix as “Jewish” painters. The vast majority of the capitalists Marx criticized as “Jewish,” like the vast majority of the artists the Nazis classified in those terms, were not Jewish, either religiously or “racially.”
Of course “Jew” and “Judaism” do correspond to a professed religion. There were composers who were Jews, but the classification of their music as “Jewish” did not derive simply from the facts of their biography, any more than the classification of a non-Jew’s music as “Jewish” did. “Jew” was an abstract ideological term, a critical category, a concept with which Christian society made sense of itself and its world. As such it was part of a language of power, and power structured the contents of the term just as much as—and even more than—“real” Judaism did. In the words of Horkheimer and Adorno, who were themselves forced from their university posts by the power of this language, “to call someone a Jew is a pretext to work him over until he resembles the image.” Or in the blunter formulation of Hermann Göring, “It is I who determine who is a Jew.”
This is not to say that the determination is infinitely flexible, or that “Judaism” is some floating signifier empty of meaning. The category of “Judaism” in musical thought has a history, just as it does in economic and social and theological thought; and this history shapes the work to which the charge of Judaism can be put in any given place and time. HaCohen’s book sets out to uncover this history of thought. But the book is not a history in the usual sense. “The search, in this case, is conducted through modes of experience that have survived—however transfigured—in essentially different historical phases.” The goal is to recover these modes of experience (or “Dasein planes,” to use HaCohen’s Heideggerian term), and to string from them a narrative held together not by historical causality, but by a theory—in this case, Freud’s theory of trauma and traumatic memory.
GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE of the book’s psychoanalytic orientation, it is both appropriate and moving that it opens with memories of the author’s German-Jewish parents, and of a Jerusalem childhood nourished by German-Jewish fairy tales about princesses who can hear the singing of the stars. Then HaCohen takes up her history, beginning with the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. She characterizes this period as one of largely separate musical identities, with “sonic encounters” producing little musical exchange between Jew and Christian, but in which ideas about the musicality of the other—and especially Christian ideas about Jewish hostility to music—took on important roles in the definition of “collective Self” and “collective Other.” Among the most important of these ideas was the Christian association of Jews with noise rather than music. The phrase “ ein Lärm wie in einer Judenschule ,” “a racket like that of a synagogue,” plays a central role in this book, and it is in the Middle Ages that HaCohen locates its birth.
The charge of noisiness was not only an aesthetic one. In HaCohen’s Middle Ages, Christian harmony and Jewish dis-harmony were posed in an intractable antithesis, one with extensive social and cultural consequences. Their mutual hostility was performed with heightened emphasis during the competing holy days of Easter and Passover, holidays whose rituals were punctuated by frequent outbreaks of Christian violence against Jews. Sometimes this violence was linked to accounts of ritual murder—the charge that Jews murdered Christian children—and sometimes music was presented as a specific motive for slaughter. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prioress tells a tale of a young boy who learned by heart the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater (“Mother of the Redeeming Spirit”) and sang it every day as he walked through the Jewish quarter, until one day an anti-antiphonal Jew, irritated by the music, slits his throat and throws his body in a privy. Then the Virgin makes the corpse sing so loudly from the pit that the Christians come running. Miraculously resuscitated, the boy tells his story, and all the Jews of the town are killed. It is this story that inspires the book’s powerful title.
And yet the “sonic spheres” of medieval Christians and Jews may not have been quite as separate as HaCohen suggests. It is certainly noteworthy that despite long centuries of co-habitation, medieval Jews never borrowed the musical notation of the surrounding Christian culture from which they borrowed language, art, architecture, ritual practices, dress, cuisine, and so much else. But some of the Jewish impermeability perceived by HaCohen is the result of her choice of sources, which are largely religious and liturgical, and from German speaking lands (known to Jews as Ashkenaz). In other genres and in other places we find much more exchange. Jews sang Christian troubadour songs in thirteenth-century Mediterranean towns. Jewish moralists such as Jacob Anatoli inveighed against “the songs of the uncircumcised,” which he claimed—sounding like a 1950s anti-Elvis preacher—led Jewish girls “into the path of harlotry.” In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Catalan courts, there were Jews teaching music and dance. And in the sixteenth century we find conversos providing musical pleasure to princes in Italian and English cities. ( Conversos were converts from Judaism or their descendants, who were often treated by Christians as if they remained essentially Jewish.) Even in Ashkenaz, a troubadour such as Susskind of Trimberg can suddenly appear, wearing his Jew’s hat in a medieval manuscript of German love songs.
In fact, in some places the soundscape of the medieval world was not so different from the one that HaCohen ascribes to contemporary Israel-Palestine, in the lyrical page with which her book concludes. As in today’s Jerusalem, church bells might mingle with shofars and Adhan calls in fourteenth-century Valencia. There, too, “sonic encounters” were sometimes conflictual, sometimes utopian, and often a blend of the two. Medieval Muslim communities routinely paid their Christian overlords for the privilege of projecting the muezzin’s call to prayer over a landscape conquered in Jesus’s name. When, in 1228, the Franciscan Friars of Mallorca charged that the chanting of the Jews in their synagogue offended Christ’s ears, harmony was restored by a payoff to the Friars: a sonic version of what we would call a shake-down or a licensing fee. Even Christians—such as the blacksmith in Barcelona whose hammer-strokes “disturbed the divine office”—could find themselves forced to pay off neighboring priests. And we should not forget that in medieval Iberia the three religions forged a music that—as any fan of Jordí Saval knows—provides basic repertoire for the modern “musical dialogue” that HaCohen celebrates in the last paragraphs of her book.
But even if the medieval musical world was not as sharply segregated as this book suggests, the examples of musical enmity that emerge are powerful. Lorenzo’s lines from The Merchant of Venice provide their climax: “The man that hath no music in himself,/Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,/Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;/The motions of his spirit are dull as night,/And his affections dark as Erebus:/Let no such man be trusted. Mark the Music.” Should we hear here an indictment of Shylock the Jew, who hates “the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,” and commanded his daughter Jessica to close the windows lest the “sound of shallow foppery/enter my sober house”? And where does this musical test leave Jessica, converted to Christianity by her love for Lorenzo? Does her last line in the play—“I am never merry when I hear sweet music”—suggest that Jews can never truly convert to Christian harmony? (The fact that the “Moor” Othello does not much care for music provides a non-Jewish example of a similar prejudice.)