1. Perhaps the most obvious way to make a plausible case for the Jewishness of Mahler’s music would be to focus on a passage that actually sounds Jewish to many who hear it—not German with a Jewish accent, but frankly and openly Jewish. In the funeral march (third movement) of the First Symphony, after the canonic, minor-mode version of “Bruder Martin” that opens the movement, we hear music that has struck many listeners as klezmer-like. This passage was, indeed, not only “Exhibit A” in Bernstein’s presentation of Mahler as a “double man,”15 but also the most likely point of reference for Louis’s vitriolic dismissal of Mahler, situated as it is within his “Titan” symphony and indulging what might well be taken, unsympathetically, as “seamstress-like sentimentality.” Both Carl Schorske and Theodor Adorno take note of the passage’s disruptive quality, drawing attention to the ability of this “raucous tune” to strip the funeral march of its earnestness (Schorske, Gustav Mahler 12), and hearing the disruption as an “unmediated contrast to the point of ambivalence between mourning and mockery” (Adorno 52). Indeed, the interpolation not only conflicts with the tone of the preceding canon, but also projects an internal conflict, between an overt sentimentality (already undercut through its own schmaltzy exaggeration) and the dance-band rhythms that twice interrupt it. But even apart from its affective, gestural qualities, the passage disrupts through its colloquial or popular style; it is music spoken with dialect, as Adorno suggests, perhaps as far as one can travel from the “learned” style of the canon that preceded it (see and hear Ex. 3) (Adorno 23).

  2. But is this passage Jewish? Although it has been taken to be overtly and obviously Jewish, it has also been heard as Hungarian or Bohemian, and many hotly deny that it is Jewish, or at least specifically Jewish. And it is eminently possible in performance to downplay its ethnic profile to a large extent, which some have elected to do (hear Ex. 4). The issue is, after all, fraught with historical and emotional baggage. As Louis would have it, its Jewishness is involuntary, the result of Mahler’s attempt to pass himself off as German. And even if we find the Jewish quality deliberately contrived, we are—given the history of Mahler reception and the legacy of the Holocaust—understandably discomfited by its presence here as an intruding element, ostentatiously out of place. Perhaps, indeed, it is that we wish not or dare not to make sense of its Jewish character, for this line of inquiry is disturbingly tainted; we recoil from the pernicious essentialism of critics like Louis to the point that we hesitate to engage at all with the possibility of specifically Jewish elements in Mahler’s music. Nevertheless, a strong—if not definitive—case may be made for this music’s deliberately contrived Jewish profile, based solely on its technical features.

  3. Most immediately striking is the instrumentation of the passage: after the Bruder Martin canon concludes, the reed instruments emerge into prominence, beginning with the oboe, and continuing with the E-flat clarinet accompanied by bass drum and high-hat cymbal.16 The choice of the E-flat clarinet in particular recalls the sound of Jewish klezmer bands, as the clarinet was perhaps the most easily identifiable “voice” in the ensemble (after usurping prominence from the violin in the early nineteenth century).17 Although the oboe is not normally associated with the klezmer band tradition, it does have an affinity to Eastern-European Jewish music, as it convincingly imitates the “sweet” or nasal quality cherished in the voice of the hazzan, or cantor.18 And lastly, the alternation of bass drum and cymbal hits underneath the clarinet melody provide the characteristic rhythmic “boom-chick-boom-chick” accompaniment found frequently in klezmer dance tunes, replicating as well the most common klezmer percussion ensemble (“puk”/“baraban” and “tats” in Yiddish).

  4. The dotted march rhythm of the oboe melody replicates another characteristic trait of Eastern-European Jewish folk-music, a point emphasized by Max Brod when he argued that Mahler was indeed a composer of “Jewish melodies.”19 In fact, the predominance of this rhythm is well-illustrated by the only musical example given to illustrate Hassidic music in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Werner 642): this melody has the same rhythm as the one found in the oboe melody and, as in the oboe melody, it is repeated several times in succession (see and hear Ex. 5).

  5. What is finally striking about the oboe and E-flat clarinet melodies is the foregrounded interval of an augmented second, between B-flat and C-sharp. The resulting modal collection of these tunes, G–A–B-flat–C-sharp–D–E–F–G, has been variously identified as the “altered Dorian,” “Ukrainian Dorian,” and “Misheberakh” mode.20 Abraham Idelsohn has identified ways in which this mode functions in Eastern-European Jewish music traditions: melodies usually rise rather than fall, pivot around the third scale degree, emphasize the fourth and seventh scale degrees, and frequently feature an upward turn figure between the first and fifth scale degrees (1–2–3–4–5–4–3–2–1);21 Ex. 6, a Jewish tune carried across Eastern Europe in the early nineteenth-century by Polish synagogue singers, illustrates these traits (see and hear Ex. 6). As may be noted, parallels between these characteristics and the oboe and E-flat clarinet melodies in the funeral march are quite striking.

  6. To be sure, the altered Dorian mode also commonly occurs in folk songs of Romania and Hungary, which may explain why the oboe and clarinet melodies are frequently identified as having a “Hungarian” flavor.22 But the treatment of the mode in Hungarian and Romanian folk-music traditions is characterized by a modal wavering rarely found in Eastern-European Jewish music (Idelsohn, Jewish Music 191–2). A Romanian folk song from 1860 illustrates this wavering, as the fourth scale degree alternates between C-sharp and C-natural, and the third scale degree between B-flat and B-natural (see and hear Ex. 7).

  7. At the very least, then, this passage blends Jewish musical idioms with other Eastern European musics, and we may note that doing this much alone would seem to be a bold statement, an assertion that Jewish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Ukrainian musical styles (in rough descending order of the generally perceived “presence” of these elements) may plausibly join in the discourse of a symphony otherwise specifically grounded in the Austro-German tradition. But the statement the music makes is considerably more complex than this, and might well be read as an even stronger claim of musical and cultural viability.

  8. The movement in question begins with one of the most notorious examples of Mahler’s penchant for grotesquerie: a funereal, minor-mode presentation of a familiar children’s tune whose words and sentiments seem wholly inappropriate, thus implicitly asking, “steh’ schon auf?”—“Are you sleeping?” in the well-known English version—at a funeral (hear Ex. 8). Early audiences were puzzled, even shocked by this movement, with its juxtaposition of a school-yard song with the topic of death, a situation exacerbated by Mahler’s refusal to
    Ex. 8: Mahler, Symphony No. I, mvt. 3

    Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
    Sir Georg Solti
    © 1984 Decca 430 805-2
    provide extensive programmatic material for several early performances: Ferdinand Pfohl reported the music to be “strange, grotesque, and bizarre;” August Beer, after the Budapest premiere, characterized the funeral march as having “a note of parody that…produces a thoroughly strange impression;” and the audiences of the Weimar and Berlin premieres, having received almost no prior programmatic explanation, found the grotesque death march entirely absurd (Floros 39).

  9. In the rather sketchy programs that Mahler did provide early on, this movement was titled “Todtenmarsch in ‘Callots Manier’” (or some close variant) and paired with the finale (“Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso”) to form “Commedia humana,” the second half of a larger, two-part structure for the symphony as a whole.23 Mahler’s purported inspiration for the piece—a woodcut, Des Jägers Leichenbegängnis (“The Hunter’s Funeral Procession”), by Moritz von Schwind (See Figure 1)—introduces a mode of cultural critique that informs the movement’s narrative. As Mahler writes in later program notes:
    Funeral March “in the manner of Callot.” The following may serve as an explanation: The external stimulus for this piece of music came to the composer from the parodistic picture, known to all children in Austria, “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession,” from an old book of children’s fairy tales: the beasts of the forest accompany the dead woodsman’s coffin to the grave, with hares carrying a small banner, with a band of Bohemian musicians, in front, and the procession escorted by music-making cats, toads, crows, etc., with stags, roes, foxes, and other four-legged and feathered creatures of the forest in comic postures. At this point the piece is conceived as the expression of a mood now ironically merry, now weirdly brooding. (Mitchell 157–8; original)
    The woodcut to which Mahler refers comically inverts the structure of power normally operating in the forest. Animals lead the body of a hunter toward his grave: the hunter and the hunted, the powerful and the powerless, have switched positions. Such satirical inversions of domination—carnivals, as Mikhail Bakhtin calls them—enact mock reversals of social power structures, temporarily liberating marginalized social groups from the prevailing truth of an oppressive social hierarchy (Bakhtin 1-58). Mahler, too, presents a carnivalesque inversion; moreover, the blended Jewish/Eastern-European music clarifies that the allegory has, in this movement, specific applications. The third movement uses the carnival to address the oppression of Vienna’s Jewish minority by its Catholic majority—as well as, perhaps, the Eastern lands under her dominion—constructing an inversion fantasy in which the culturally oppressed Jew (or Gypsy, or Slav, etc.) surmounts the powers of the dominant group.25

    Funeral March
    Moritz von Schwind, “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession”

  10. Of course, such a narrative of confrontation and inversion requires the presence of both the oppressed and the oppressor; the latter, as it happens, has been hiding in plain sight all along, assuming the guise of a children’s round perversely transformed into a funeral march, against which Mahler has opposed the klezmer-like melody. “Bruder Martin (or Jakob), steh’ schon auf?;” “Frère Jacques, dormez vous?;” “Are you sleeping, Brother John?”—regardless of the language, the words of this song place it within a distinctly Catholic context, with the morning bells ringing (Matins), calling the Catholic faithful to prayer—even if a long familiarity with the song as an innocuous children’s round has today rendered its Catholic identity nearly invisible.26 Indeed, we may speculate that had this religious content been any more overt, Mahler could never have placed the movement before the public. And yet, despite the obliqueness of his presentation, we may also speculate that there may have been a sharper point to Mahler’s choice of this thematic basis for the funeral march; thus, the song most likely originated as a form of religious mockery (a legacy that Mahler might have either known or inferred), childishly taunting those left out of the Catholic service, be they Protestant (Bruder Martin Luther) or Jewish (Jakob).

  11. The opposition of this Catholic-song/funeral-march to the klezmer-like music is stated with particular force late in the movement, when an attempt to combine them results in musical chaos. But their opposing characters are already obvious during their separate presentations in the first part of the movement, when each is allowed to inhabit its own musical space, for, in Mahler’s treatment, the two themes occupy a shared structure of inverted power relations. This movement (like much of Mahler’s music) has been explained as an example of “low art” intruding upon the “high art” of the stylized “Bruder Martin” canon.27 In his reading of Salome, Sander Gilman argues that Richard Strauss constructs a tension between the vulgar, unintelligible “cacophony” of the Jews with the highly stylized world of Salome and the firm diatonicism of Jochanaan. The “Jewish” music here contrasts just as sharply, and even disrespectfully, with the established tone of the movement. Mahler’s movement, however, is better understood as turning this construction on its head. Although the “Bruder Martin” melody assumes priority by carrying the markers of high art (i.e., imitative counterpoint), it is systematically undermined. The canon and the Catholicism it represents are but caricatures and effigies to be mocked within the carnival space, where the relations of power are inverted, where—as Bakhtin points out—the inversion is both signified by and celebrated through the deriding laughter of the once-marginalized.28

  12. The movement begins with measured timpani strokes, establishing a funeral-march rhythm; even in this we may hear a kind of cheapening of the funeral topic, for the march rhythm has been reduced to a simplistic alternation, eschewing the more elevated rhythmic idiom of the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica (which Mahler would reproduce in later symphonies, specifically in the kleine Appell in the first movement of the Fourth and the use of this motive, on a grander scale, to open the Fifth; see and hear Ex. 9).29 After a muted double bass begins to play “Bruder Martin” in the minor mode, other instruments join in canonically in the lowest ends of their registers, at first at intervals of six measures, then at four, and eventually at two. The accelerated entry of instruments, along with the gradual increase in the number of instruments participating in the canon, implies an intensification, but a footnote at the beginning of the movement, “pianissimo ohne crescendo,” directs that the seemingly inevitable crescendo must not occur during the entire course of the canon. Rather, the restrained music must continue, impotent, along its monotonous course. Since, as noted, the canon aspires to the profundity of a serious funeral march from its incongruous origins in a children’s schoolyard song—well-known as one of the most banal canonic constructions on offer—the gross exaggeration of the funereal tone of the piece seems to reinforce the comic impossibility of this leap to expressive and emotive significance, evoked as it is through tediously low registers and dynamics (hear Ex. 8 again).

  13. After four instruments have joined the canon, an oboe enters with a sharp, punctuating counter-melody characterized by staccato notes and leaps of a fourth (mm. 19-23; see and hear Ex. 10). The more specifically Jewish melody has yet to be introduced; however, the entrance of the oboe, which will later play that music, here foreshadows the conflict. Within the atmosphere of formality created by the canon’s funeral march, the oboe transforms the dotted rhythms of the concluding phrase of the funeral march into a lilting dance step, thus turning from a gesture of apparent respect to open jeering, so that it seems to dance flippantly alongside the ongoing march. The incompatibility of these conflicting sensibilities becomes even more explicit when the descending scale that concludes the dance figure shadows the canonic melody in mockingly dissonant parallel seconds, a paradigm of musically rendered laughter that is only partly muted by the layered presentation. Unlike Mahler’s more characteristically vital counterpoint, the canon remains static, undramatic and unimaginative, consistently mocked by the counter-melody that registers as its only claim to a more engaging musical profile.

  14. The klezmer-like music, on the other hand, develops thematically and exhibits none of the tight constraints regarding tempo, rhythm, and affect that govern the opening march. This difference is especially marked when the two confront each other directly, later in the movement (hear Ex. 11): as the “Bruder Martin” canon continues to drone away as it has the entire movement, marked “still soft,” the klezmer-like melody
    Ex. 11: Mahler, Symphony I,
    mvt. 3

    Boston Symphony Orchestra,
    Seiji Ozawa
    © 1988 Philips Digital Classics 422-329-2
    transforms into a wild dance, marked “loud and extremely rhythmic” and, perhaps most telling, “with parody.” We have by this point in the movement long noted the irony of the funeral march, with its mock-serious mood. With this eruption, we may sense the exultation of the Jewish melody, moving from mockery to an overt trouncing of its oppressor.

  15. But this reversal of power does not last. Ultimately, the third movement conforms to the final convention of the carnival: the carnival must end, and in Mahler’s piece, the canon speaks the final word. The carnival atmosphere that dominates the movement does not resolve the cultural oppression that Jews felt in fin-de-siècle Vienna. As Bakhtin notes, the laughter of the carnival is always also rendered self-mocking by the realization that the carnival is never really an escape from social conditions (257–261). Moreover, the movement yields directly to the anguished tones of the finale, which lead eventually to Mahler’s version of the “Hallelujah Chorus;” however we construe the projection of cultural inversion in the funeral march, it takes place within a larger scenario of Christian salvation. Thus, while the funeral-march movement has much to tell us about how Mahler positioned himself within a Christian/Jewish cultural conflict—of which, more later—its carnivalesque inversions do not translate simply into a celebration of Jewishness.

    2    3    4    5    Works Cited   Endnotes   Next


Ubiquitous Listening

Draughon and Knapp:
Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity

Photo Essay

Review Essay

Allen Forte


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