Gustave Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity
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The crisis of Jewish identity that will concern us here has two somewhat distinct frames of reference, involving musical enactments and rationales on the one hand, and a set of issues revolving around reception and interpretation on the other.

  1. The case of Gustav Mahler has always held great interest for those seeking to delineate the troubled relationships between Jews and the anti-Semitic cultures—particularly Germanic cultures—within which they have lived and worked; this interest has, if anything, become more intense in recent years. The turn of the century in Vienna—Mahler’s Vienna—was especially fraught, marked by the precipitous decline of Austrian liberalism and the emergence of many Jews to cultural prominence against an anti-Semitic background that was becoming increasingly virulent. Among the most important of these was Mahler’s contemporary Freud, who became prominent in Vienna around the same time and, like Mahler, made substantial and lasting contributions to Austro-Germanic culture; the many striking parallels between the two go to the heart of the issues involved with Jewish representation within that culture more broadly. Like Freud, Mahler tended to extrapolate from his own complex experiences—of self, of family, of society—to project a vision of what it means to be human that has sometimes seemed to be more idiosyncratic than universal, offering an easy target to anyone who wanted to argue for his essential foreignness. And, like Freud, in contributing so forcefully to Germanic culture, Mahler became in turn a significant part of what that culture offered the world at large, attaining a position sufficiently eminent that attack was virtually inevitable.1

  2. Mahler famously articulated his own position in the world as “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world—always an intruder, never welcomed” (Alma Mahler, Memories and Letters 109; original; see map). We might suppose this statement to be somewhat exaggerated, since it functions both as a complaint and as a claim of authenticity for someone aspiring to be a Romantic Artist, but when we consider the reality of Mahler’s historical situation, it seems almost mild. Mahler was throughout his adult life indeed regarded as an intruding outsider, and precisely along the lines he indicates. Within Germanic culture, he was but an Austrian, and being an Austrian in Germany was not exactly an honor in the decades following their humiliating defeat by the Prussians in 1866.2 And if that weren’t bad enough, he was actually not quite even an Austrian, since he was from the Bohemian provinces. And if that weren’t bad enough, he was a Jew, and it would have been hard to top that as a disadvantage in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, for this was an historical moment when putting together the words “homeless,” “Jew,” and “never welcomed” could never have seemed more appropriate.

  3. As a boy in Iglau, Moravia, Mahler had enjoyed a social environment that tended to disregard his specific ethnic background—in part, to be sure, because Mahler’s family belonged to a partially assimilated German community ascendant within Iglau. His move to Vienna in 1875, however, placed him in a strikingly different environment, which he would never really escape. The cultural climate of capitalist liberalism that had once allowed Jews and middle-class Austrians a powerful position in society was in the process of crumbling away, and new social groups—urban artisans and workers, Slavs, and anti-Semitic Christian Socialists—were quickly rising to power.3 Viennese Jews found themselves in a society that was quickly and forcefully turning against them. Nationalist groups (the pan-Germanist faction and Christian Socialist Party), university circles, and especially the Catholic Church began to distribute anti-Semitic literature, some of it written by Catholic priests, including the pamphlets “The Talmudic Jew” (1871) and “A Ritual Murder Proven” (1893). By 1900, anti-Semitism in Vienna had become, as Jacques Le Rider claims, “a virtual obsession” (Rider, Modernity 195).4

  4. Events conspired to make Mahler's position as a cultural intruder particularly poignant. In 1897, he returned to Austria from Hamburg in what should have been triumph, ready to assume the most prestigious musical positions then available, as director of the Vienna State Opera and conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. But there was a price he had to pay: to “qualify” for such lofty positions in Imperial Vienna, Mahler had to be willing officially to renounce his Jewish heritage and become Catholic—which he did readily, without apparent qualms. In other circumstances, this might have meant little more than a kind of all-too-familiar political compromise, except that in that same year, Mahler’s act of renunciation was rendered more significant by two events. In Vienna itself—corresponding, perhaps, to the “never welcomed” part of Mahler’s remonstration—Karl Lueger, head of the Christian Socialist Party, became mayor after having allied himself with the anti-Semitic faction headed by Georg von Schönerer. To place that event in historical context, we may note that Lueger and Schönerer would serve for a time as Hitler’s role models when he, too, came to Vienna some years later; specifically, these two prominent anti-Semites provided the future Reichsführer with a powerful demonstration of how politically potent an outspoken anti-Semitism could be, a lesson Hitler absorbed as part of a decidedly informal course of instruction that would include as well Mahler’s inspiring performances of Wagner.5 Meanwhile, in Switzerland—and this is the “homeless” part—Theodor Herzl, Viennese correspondent and exact contemporary of Mahler, led the first Zionist World Congress. Established in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair in France, the Congress committed itself to establish a genuine Jewish homeland and thereby rescue the “never welcomed” Jew from being—in a quite literal sense—“homeless.”6 Yet, among the greater population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these historically significant events were overshadowed over the course of the next two years by an event even more newsworthy: the blood libel trial of the Bohemian Jew Leopold Hilsner, who was convicted in 1898 of the ritual murder of a nineteen-year-old Christian girl despite his manifest innocence and the strenuous legal efforts made on his behalf; in the wake of the initial verdict (which was confirmed a year later, although the sentence was commuted by Emperor Franz Joseph), there were widespread anti-Semitic riots throughout the eastern reaches of the empire, and Mahler himself was hissed at the podium and subjected to repeated attacks in the press.7

  5. Over the past century, Mahler’s contested cultural identity has shaped the reception of his music and his legacy more generally, intertwining issues of race, religious conviction and affiliation, and the meanings we ascribe to music and its creators; we need here cite only a few signal events of this extended narrative. Mahler, like many other prominent figures of Jewish heritage, was systematically purged from Germanic culture during the years of the Third Reich. In Freud’s and many another’s case, books were burned; in Mahler’s case, Mahlerstraße in Vienna was renamed and his music disappeared from the concert hall. As a victim of this kind of posthumous treatment, Mahler subsequently became a particular cause célèbre for many Jewish musicians—most prominently Leonard Bernstein, who made it his personal mission to restore Mahler to a prominent position in our concert halls, record shelves, and music-history texts (with the scarcely coincidental side effect that Bernstein himself acquired some of Mahler’s mystique, as a flamboyant, impossibly handsome, intellectual, Jewish conductor-composer—in effect, Bernstein built his own legitimacy as a serious conductor around his identification with Mahler).8 Clearly, the mission to rescue Mahler has succeeded; only Beethoven has more currency in today’s concert halls than Mahler, a circumstance utterly unimaginable fifty years ago.

  6. But Mahler would seem to be somewhat tainted as an icon of Jewishness. Even if we disregard the issue of his official conversion to Christianity, which was surely in some part a matter of political convenience,9 his music documents a process of religious assimilation that predated that event by at least a decade. Each of his first four symphonies, for example, centrally and overtly addresses a Christian theme, and it is significant that the first three of these, along with the most explicitly Christian movement in the Fourth, were already written before his conversion and return to Vienna. Specifically, the First Symphony ends with a triumphant “breakthrough” chorale based fairly obviously on Handel’s Messiah; (hear Ex. 1) the final two movements of his Second Symphony project the resurrection and absolution of a penitent; the Third Symphony miraculously marries, in the span of two song-movements just before the finale, the atheistic (and, according to some, anti-Semitic) Nietzsche with a setting of a folk poem celebrating the divinely forgiving grace of Jesus Christ; (hear Ex. 2)10 and the finale of the Fourth Symphony, if somewhat ambiguously,
    Ex. 2: Mahler, Symphony No. 3
    Opening from mvt. 5

    Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
    Sir Georg Solti
    ©1984 Decca 430 805-2
    presents a decidedly Christian child’s arrival in heaven. Even if some of us might insist that these works do not in themselves display specific religious affiliation and meaning—a claim that would surely have to ignore their texts, contexts, and musical referentiality, in order to hew closely to a view of music as intrinsically “absolute”—it is clear enough that Mahler meant them as overt affirmations.

  7. Nor can we quite squeeze Mahler into the controversial mold of a re-imagined Shostakovich, who is claimed to have hidden away private and sometimes not-so-private meanings within his music, meanings that flatly contradicted its outward and official celebration of the Soviet state and its leaders11—first because Mahler was under no apparent pressure to prove his Christianity in musical terms, that is, by composing overtly Christian music into his symphonies—and second because he so obviously means exactly what his music seems to be saying. However much they might have wanted to be, the anti-Semitic Lueger and Schönerer were not yet Stalin, and no Siberia loomed for Mahler, even if he did in effect resign himself to partial exile in New York City during his final years, an act that has been widely interpreted as a protest against his treatment in Vienna. No, this is a hook Mahler can’t be taken off of, for in countless ways, he simply turned his back on his Jewish heritage, however close some of his personal attachments might have remained and even if he didn’t seem to display the familiar profile of Jewish self-hatred. Thus, besides the apparent full-frontal embrace of Christianity that may be read in his first four symphonies, there were his unflagging devotion to Wagner and to the general cause of German nationalism, his gradual distancing from certain of his friends who seemed to his young wife Alma to be “too Jewish,” and his later specific denial when Alma confronted him with the ragged bustle of the Jewish quarter in New York City and asked him point blank, “Are these our brothers?” (Alma Mahler, Memories and Letters 162; original).12 To borrow the context of his adopted Christianity: even Simon Peter couldn’t have done better than that.

  8. So why is it that many Jews today so proudly claim Mahler as one of theirs? Partly, it is because he actually “made it” as a composer, and it is an enormous achievement for a Jew to have succeeded within such a hostile cultural environment. And then, of course, compromises like the ones he made were simply necessary, and it would be ungallant to look too closely at the particulars. It is easy enough to say, and even to believe, that without the intense pressure to convert that figures such as Mahler felt, they would not have done so. Nor should we ignore Leonard Bernstein’s efforts to universalize the theme of resurrection in Mahler’s Second Symphony, performing it in November 1948 in Israel to mark the first season of the renamed Israel Philharmonic, performing it in November 1963 to express a world’s mourning after the assassination of the Catholic John F. Kennedy, and performing its final, most Christian movement, even as land mines continued to explode nearby, to celebrate the reopening of Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967—although we may note that he was not without opposition in any of these three instances, particularly with his attempted musical alchemy of converting the base metal of Mahler’s conversion to Christianity into a shining symbol of Jewish renewal (Page, 78–84, 240–250, 309–315). (One particular awkwardness was the German language of the original; the solution for the Mt. Scopus performance was to sing it in Hebrew—which, given this text, produces an almost surreal effect.) But, above all else, it is surely because the self-appointed guardians of Germanic musical culture have so often insisted on Mahler’s essential Jewishness, just as they had Mendelssohn’s. In fact, the parallel is in some particulars remarkably close; just as Wagner viciously attacked Mendelssohn in the year following his death, so would the anti-Semitic Rudolph Louis condemn Mahler just after his departure from Vienna, in an essay that would reach its third printing the year following Mahler’s death:
    If Mahler’s music would speak Yiddish, it would be perhaps unintelligible to me. But it is repulsive to me because it acts Jewish. This is to say that it speaks musical German, but with an accent, with an inflection, and above all, with the gestures of an Eastern, all too Eastern Jew. So, even to those whom it does not offend directly, it cannot possibly communicate anything. One does not have to be repelled by Mahler’s artistic personality in order to realize the complete emptiness and vacuity of an art in which the spasm of an impotent mock-Titanism reduces itself to a frank gratification of common seamstress-like sentimentality. (188; original)13
    In the wake of rebukes like this and the Nazi cultural purge a few decades later, human decency seems to require that Mahler be reclaimed as a Jew so that he does not simply remain homeless; to borrow once again from Christian lore, Mahler is in this sense a bit like the Prodigal Son who is honored all the more for having once gone astray.

  9. But what if there is something to Louis’s claim that Mahler speaks musical German with a Jewish accent? Even if Louis meant that in the most negative way, couldn’t his claim, in the end, offer a sign that a part of Mahler resisted assimilation?—that however hard he worked at convincing himself he was a Christian and a German, he was in the end truly and fundamentally Jewish?—and that the kernel of his Jewishness that he could not or would not eradicate might serve as an emblem of sorts for the Jewish condition and struggle more broadly? That this might be true, or sensed to be true, may explain why Mahler is so readily accepted as, not just a Jew who made it as a composer, but also as, more specifically, a Jewish composer, a composer whose Jewishness mattered and continues to matter as a positive dimension of his musical personality. Bernstein certainly argued along these lines when he presented his view of Mahler as a “double-man,” and saw Mahler’s musical “neuroticism” as an expression of his Jewish temperament.14 But even if audiences ranging from the anti-Semitic Louis to today’s listeners can recognize or sense this element in Mahler’s music, it is no simple matter to identify it in a way that will seem satisfying, or that will pass muster within a musical culture that wants to believe that “serious” music should ideally aspire to a kind of universal language uninflected with cultural traces of this kind. The challenge, then, is not just to prove that Mahler’s music acts Jewish, but also to prove that its acting or being Jewish—or being anything in particular, for that matter, besides abstract patterns of sound—is not at odds with its being genuinely music.

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Ubiquitous Listening

Draughon and Knapp:
Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity

Photo Essay

Review Essay

Allen Forte