Modernism and Vienna’s Jewish salonnières

Berta Zuckerkandl

Berta Zuckerkandl

Berta Zuckerkandl (in the accompanying photo), Eugenie Schwarzwald, Josephine and Franziska von Wertheimstein were just four of Vienna’s Jewish salonnière who could justifiably be referred to as the engines of fin de siècle Modernism. To them could be added the more conventional salons at the Todesco or the Wittgenstein palaces. Indeed, the Jewish salon had established itself as a Viennese institution since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with Felix Mendelssohn’s aunt, Fanny von Arnheim and her daughter Henriette von Pereira-Arnstein. Though the Jewish salon was also part of the cultural landscape in Paris and Berlin, it was in Vienna that it had the greatest resonance. With even the best connected and most privileged Jewish families excluded from the courts of the aristocracy and a still tiny but emerging middle-class, it was only natural that wealthy and well-educated Jewish families would establish their own criteria for social inclusion – criteria that had less to do with wealth and position and more to do with creativity and talent. At Fanny von Arnheim’s salon, it was rumoured that everyone from Vienna’s local bohémiens to the Tsar of Russia were regulars. At Jewish salons, rank and title counted for little as Jews were not allowed to take part in the social-race that accorded everyone a position within a pre-established hierarchy. Until their ‘emancipation’ they were not even allowed to have titles unless they converted to Christianity – and even this was a very rare occurrence. To the outside world, a converted Jew was still a Jew. It was a world in which the differences between Germans and Jews were as self-evident as the differences between the Massai and Eskimos. With such boundaries in place, wealthy Jews simply took an interest in anything that was ignored by the aristocracy. Of course, the aristocracy patronised painters and composers, but they rarely patronised innovation and they had no interest in books at all. As quoted elsewhere on this page, the Neue Freie Presse attacked the anti-Semitic newspaper ‘Fatherland’ with the following observation: ‘without Jews, there would be no readers of any journals or papers, even those which are Christian and pan-German’.

Thus the Jewish salon became first and foremost, a literary institution with painters and musicians brought along as mixers: poets read their verses, actors recited soliloquies, a virtuoso would play while wine was poured, and perhaps a painter would present his latest canvas. If one was interesting, amusing and a good conversationalist, then one was a very welcome guest. At the Jewish salon, the ‘elite’ was made up of the wittiest and cleverest – regardless of gender or title.

By the turn of the century, Franziska von Wertheimstein, who had taken over the salon of her mother Josephine, had become home to an older generation of writers represented by the likes of Ferdinand von Saar. The Wertheimstein villa in Döbling drew artists and musicians from around the world, but also from the surrounding suburb of Döbling. One of these was the young composer Franz Schreker whose first opera ‘Flammen’ is set to a text by his fellow salon- regular, the poet Dora Leen, also known as Dora Pollak. With the death of Franziska in 1907, the centre of intellectual gravity had shifted up the hill to the villa of the newly wedded couple Berta Szeps and her husband Emil Zuckerkandl. Berta’s father Moritz ran Vienna’s other Liberal paper The ‘Neues Wiener Tagblatt’ which became the mouthpiece for the progressive views of Archduke Rudolf until his suicide. Berta was to be the intermediary between the paper and the Archduke, whose editorial views were published under a pseudonym. She came from a family of Francophiles and hosted on numerous occasions the Clemenceau brothers George and Paul. Her sister married Paul, while Berta turned down George’s proposal. Her personal life was to become as interesting as her ‘at homes’: it was in her salon that Klimt, Kolomann Moser and Carl Moll would found the Secessionist movement in 1897 just as 23 years later, Hofmannsthal, Strauss and Max Reinhardt would establish the Salzburg festival. She worked as a spy during the First World War, was one of Vienna’s most influential art journalists, and following the annexation of Austria, she fled first to Paris from where, at the age of 76, she walked by night to Marseilles before escaping to Algiers. She was mercilessly parodied by Karl Kraus as a busy-body and though Gustav Mahler would meet Alma at one of her gatherings, she was relatively untouched by music, though she had a fair grasp of the role it was starting to play within the early Modernist movement.

Her slightly younger salon competitor was Eugenie Schwarzwald, an ambitious and inquisitive woman who went to university in Switzerland in order to obtain a doctorate. Women at this time were not allowed to study in Austria, let along take on a doctorate. She became an early proponent of female education and ran a school that produced some of the city’s brightest young women – none of whom would have welcomed being referred to as ‘young lady’: Bertolt Brecht’s future wife, the actress Helene Wiegel along with the writers Vicky Baum and Hilde Spiel and the psychoanalysts Anna Freud and Else Pappenheim are just the names that still resonate amongst English readers. She had the school (and her home) designed by Adolf Loos, (he who demonised in 1908 the use of any non-practical ornament) and engaged Schoenberg and Wellesz as music teachers along with Oskar Kokoschka for art and even Adolf Loos to teach a course in architecture. Schoenberg’s composition classes were opened to the general public and it was here that Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Egon Wellesz were taught. But Schwarzwald, like Zuckerkandl was far more interested in writing and art than she appears to have been in music. She was, nevertheless, also more alert to music’s developing role within Vienna’s modernist movement than Zuckerkandl. It would never be enough to satisfy the serious but abrasive young men who were starting to demand equal space and felt themselves ignored within the conventional salon set-up. Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performances would be the outcome – but that’s the subject for another brief essay.