Jewish Musical Identity and the Crisis of Exile: Part 1
For European Jewish musicians, there was no greater crisis of identity than the arrival of the “Third Reich”. Music had been an easy entry into wider German society and Jewish emancipation throughout the German Reich was only sixty-two years old. The days when Jews were not allowed to study, or teach in universities, live where they wished, or marry non-Jews were still in living memory. Individual states within the Reich had often liberalised earlier than the unification constitution of 1871, meaning many Jews had been integrated and assimilated even earlier, making their sudden exclusion by Hitler seem baffling and mediaeval. Many had reduced religious adherence to a traditionalist minimum and significant numbers of musicians born in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, were raised by parents who converted to Christianity. They would grow up and go on to marry non-Jewish spouses.
This phenomenon had already taken place in Austria with its December Constitution of 1867. Two very significant examples of this degree of integration and assimilation are found in the biographies of the composers Franz Schreker, an Austrian, and Walter Braunfels, a German: both were born to parents who converted; both became prominent composers; both married non-Jews and both became directors of prestigious music colleges: Schreker in Berlin and Braunfels in Cologne. Neither had set foot in a synagogue or participated in Jewish festivities. Their sudden dismissal and exclusion from musical life after 1933 did not bring about an inward evaluation of the religion of their forebears. The Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann was born under similar conditions. Unlike Schreker, who died in 1934, and Braunfels who effectively hid in the village of Überlingen, conveniently close to the Swiss border on Lake Constance, Ullmann was incarcerated at the Theresienstadt Ghetto. It was there in the company of Jews and others of “Jewish blood” he experienced a cultural, if not religious encounter with Judaism, resulting in the composition and arrangements of Jewish Songs and a-cappella choruses in Hebrew and Yiddish.
Between Braunfels, Schreker and Ullmann can be found a multitude of reactions to Judaism in music. This article attempts to provide a very general overview of reactions and works that grew out of the enforced and sudden exclusion of secular Jewish composers from a world they believed they not only belonged to, but also were helping to shape.
Part 1: “Hitler made us Jews”
The above quote has been heard so many times as to frustrate every attempt to attribute it to any single individual. It was a universal response by Jewish survivors from Germany and Austria who refused to view Judaism as anything other than a religious choice; a choice that many, perhaps most, had passively accepted or fundamentally rejected. This sense of bemused anguish is caught in Joseph Roth’s Juden auf Wanderschaft-Jews on a Journey.
The German Jew is absolutely not an Eastern European Jew. He’s forgotten how to suffer, pray and up-root himself. He’s only good at working – and even this is now denied him. . . . In any event, these émigré German Jews constitute a new nation: they’ve forgotten how to be Jews and must laboriously re-learn Jewishness. On the other hand, they’re equally incapable of forgetting that they’re German and cannot escape their fundamental Germanness. They’re like snails cursed to carry two shells on their backs. They can’t deny either their Germanness or their Jewishness since they can’t lie. Ghastly how the outside-world thinks in lazy worn-out pigeonholes and stereotypes! It demands to know where the traveller is moving from rather than where he’s moving to. However, for the traveller himself, the goal is far more important than the point of departure.
The arrival of Adolf Hitler meant where Jewish musicians from Germany and Austria were “moving to” had altered abruptly. Ambitions of German Jewish co-existence along the model of German Catholics and Protestants had been thwarted. An identity from their grandparents’ past had been imposed upon them, forcing a confrontation with a very new and stark reality.
This strong sense of German cultural identity extended to Austrian composers as well. According to his daughter, the composer Hans Gál, born in 1890 near Vienna, considered himself “first as Viennese, then culturally as German. Austria was nothing to him but an imposed nationality of no significance.” The day the Austrian First Republic was founded, Franz Schreker wrote the following cryptic inscription on the bottom of his just completed opera Der Schatzgräber – The Treasure Hunter, “The End of the Opera: November, 12. 1918. On the day of the declaration of the Republic of German-Austria and Annexation to the German Reich!”
To many Austrian German speaking Jews, being Austrian was not a cultural identity but merely a bureaucratic designation of citizenship. Austria pre-1918, with its heterogeneous mix of languages, cultures and religions was simply not a unifying identity. Austria, to its plurality of citizens, was more of a supra-administrative concept. Reduced to its core of German-speaking provinces after 1918, it seemed bewildering not to self-annex to the neighbouring German nation state. The treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1919 agreed to review the question of annexation in twenty years. For that reason, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 was met with little more than pro-form objection and a shoulder shrug. Austrian Jewish musicians were about to confront the same identity crisis as their German co-religionists had in 1933.
From 1933 to 1938, Jewish composers and musicians from Germany and Austria had different yet startlingly inter-connected reactions to Jewish identity. The “Jüdischer Kulturbund”, or the “Cultural League of Jews in Germany” was established in 1933 to provide employment and a paying public for the many Jews who had been thrown out of work in Germany’s orchestras and theatres following Hitler’s removal of all Jews from the public pay-roll. Access to the Kulturbund was restricted to an exclusively Jewish membership. It was here that Mahler, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Offenbach could continue to be performed while Hans Hinkel, the Nazi in charge of Germany’s network of Jewish Cultural Leagues decreed that new compositions must demonstrate “a specific Jewish characterisation”.
What was happening in Nazi Germany did not go unnoticed in neighbouring Austria. Jews, who had established careers in pre-Hitler Germany, could still perform in Austria and with conductors Carl Alwin and Bruno Walter along with singers such as Rosette Anday, Claire Born, Rose Pauly, Lotte Schöne, Irene Eissinger, Fritzi Jokl and countless others, the Salzburg Festival and Vienna State Opera became the lucky beneficiaries of Nazi race laws.
Beyond this windfall of talent, however, more specifically Jewish cultural initiatives, which were already in existence began to flourish. These included a “Society for the promotion of Jewish Music”, already established at the turn of the century following similar initiatives, such as the St Petersburg School started in Russia. Further societies followed such as the “Hakoah Orchestra” (“Hakoah” being the name of Austria’s Jewish sports’ clubs); “The Jewish Song Society” and an “Orchestra of Jewish Austrian Front Soldiers”. It is fascinating to compare programming of these societies with Germany’s Kulturbund, and by doing so, one notices a gradual development of a more focused sense of Jewish self-identification. The earliest concerts in all of the organisations generally consisted of standard repertoire with a mix of Mendelssohn and Offenbach. In both Austria and Germany, concert programming initially appeared to demonstrate the degree of Jewish assimilation. In Austria, concerts would occasionally consist of works by such stalwarts as Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss interspersed with readings from Gottfried Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan der Weise – Nathan the Wise. Other concerts and events hardly featured specific Jewish aspects at all. These developments were partially documented in Joachim Stutschewsky’s short collection of essays called Mein Weg zur jüdischen Musik – My Path to Jewish Music published in 1935.
As the situations grew more restrictive in Germany, Kulturbund and Austrian Jewish Music initiatives began to react to events in very different ways. The Nazi policy of new works demonstrating “a Jewish character” was embraced, with many composers, such as Karl Wiener, Jakob Schönberg, Arno Nadel, adding “oriental” modal flourishes. In contrast, the Karlsruhe architect turned composer, Richard Fuchs, dug himself into the rich Germanic musical language of Bruckner, Brahms and Richard Strauss with bolted on Jewish subjects and texts. Fuchs only became a significant composer within the confines of the Kulturbund. His massive oratorio Vom jüdischen Schicksal – Of Jewish Destiny, managed to win a composition held by Germany’s combined Cultural Leagues, the prize of which was to have been a performance of the work at Berlin’s Kulturbund. Perplexingly, the performance was abruptly cancelled, even though the audience would only have been made up of members of Jewish Kulturbund subscribers. No German non-Jew would have heard the performance, or even heard of the work or composer. Events in the Kulturbund were totally insulated from Germany’s non-Jewish population.
I’m grateful to the musician and scholar Jaleh Nili Perego for forwarding to me transcriptions of correspondence between Richard Fuchs and Kurt Singer, the Jewish head of the Jews Cultural league and intermediary to Hans Hinkel. According to the correspondence, Hans Hinkel objected to the text of the opening chorus, which was defiant and assertive, set to a poem by Karl Wolfskehl.
It’s easy to see why no Nazi would have welcomed Wolfkehl’s text:
Von je vertrieben, immer vom Sturm erfasst
war dem auf Erden schwerer lebenslast?
Hat je ein Joch Nacken schwieriger gebogen?
Dunkler Führung Pflug. Furchen tiefer, tiefer gezogen?
War irgend Tod und Grauen je so nah?
Und dennoch sind wir da!
Und dennoch hob die Stirn sich wieder und wieder
und dennoch stiegen Gebet, lobsang und Dankeslieder;
drang nur ein Spalt Luft, licht im stickigen Kerker, Licht!
A rough translation without the rhyme would be:
Ever banished, Caught always by storm,
has anyone ever had a heavier burden on Earth?
Was there ever a yoke that bent necks so low
with furrows drawn ever deeper and deeper?
Was death and horror ever so close?
And yet, we’re here!
And we stood up to them again and again,
and prayer, songs of praise and thanks,
pushed only a chink of air and Light in a suffocating cage, light!
In the correspondence, Fuchs appeals to Singer to speak with Hinkel, since it was clear that Singer himself thought the text too provocative even to put to Hinkel. The letter of rejection came from Singer and other members of the Kulturbund and not from Hinkel’s office, though they relay that the rejection came from Reich Cultural Ministry. Fuchs defends the opening chorus as offering the motific exposition from which all else follows. At a later point, he even wonders if Wolfskehl might change the text slightly, though it is clear this is not a viable option. Fuchs goes so far as to offer to dedicate his Second Symphony to Singer, a work he was still composing at the time, and suggest it as a “stand in” should the promised performance of the oratorio be cancelled. Everything was to no avail. Singer does not reply to the offer of a dedication, but offers support for a performance in Karlsruhe, assuming Fuchs can raise the funding. This is extraordinary, as the work had won a nation-wide competition with the prize being a performance at the Berlin Kulturbund with its much larger resources, orchestra and chorus.
…And yet, (to quote from above), I’m personally not entirely convinced the text, as provocative as it undoubtedly is, was the only reason for the cancellation. Singer was in an impossible position. To maintain any sense of achievement and keep standards high, he yielded to Nazi aesthetic guidelines that dictated newly commissioned works not reflect German sensibilities, but embrace a “Jewish character”. This was a policy openly pursued in the Kulturbund known as “Entdeutschung” – or “de-Germanisation”. Fuchs scholar Jaleh Nili Perego, however, has pointed out that this was due to the activism of a minority of Zionist intellectuals, such as Joachim Prinz, who argued that Germany’s Jews were not a European people. In addition, there were pre-existing views coming from various Zionistic corners, some in pursuit of identity via Palestinian folk music, others looking for connections to “Eastern” musical forms, modes and expressions. Singer was caught in the middle, and cognisant of the fact that the Kulturbund’s Nazi overlords promoted the Zionist minority in order to encourage Jewish emigration. Ms Perego also pointed out, that Fuchs’s orchestral song cycle Frühling was performed in Frankfurt’s Kulturbund under Wilhelm Steinberg without objection, though the musical language was the same as the Oratorio.
Singer was a sophisticated musician, a devotee and conductor of Handel’s Old Testament oratorios and caught in the middle of something he could not understand, with fatal consequences. It was for this reason he returned to Europe while lecturing in the United States after the so-called “Kristallnacht” pogroms in November 1938, in order to “rescue what was still salvageable” of the Kulturbund. His delusions cost him his life, dying in the Terezín Ghetto in January 1944. Yet under Singer’s leadership, new works performed in the Berlin Kulturbund were not just progressive musically, but tended to embrace the “de-Germanised” concept of “Jewish identity”. If Fuchs was defiant about anything, it was his reluctance to hand over his self-identity as a German and exchange it for something cooked up by Nazi racists. By the time we’ve arrived at Part III of the oratorio, also set to a Wolfskehl text called “Aufbruch! Aufbruch!”, or “Exodus! Exodus!”, Fuchs’s musical language turns most defiant as he writes in a style that recalls both Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Within the Fuchs family, Richard Fuchs was affectionately referred to as “the third Richard”.
The only documentation we have as to why this prize winning work was denied its performance in Berlin in 1937 is what Kurt Singer states in his correspondence: Wolfkehl’s text was unacceptable. It’s speculation as to whether the text would have been performed had the work sounded “oriental”. Possibly it was the combination of Fuchs’s defiant unwillingness to depart from his natural musical language AND a performance in Berlin with Hinkel close by that caused Singer, most likely, to recommend the cancellation of the performance. From what the correspondence offers, it can be assumed that he never showed the work to Hinkel and possibly never even discussed it with him, suggesting cancellation rather than risk his own position within the Kulturbund.
Singer was not just a published and respected neurologist, but a music scholar and talented conductor. He published on Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner, and was employed by Heinz Tietjen at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Opera. He was at heart a progressive and probably had limited patience with the contemporary Late-Romanticism of Richard Fuchs, this provincial architect turned composer, who unexpectedly swept the board with his oratorio. Perhaps he even saw it as uncomfortably close to the musical language of the Nazi oppressors, or merely as unoriginal Brucknarian epigone. We can’t know. But the work, as seen in retrospect, is the closest that I have encountered to musical resistance from within Nazi Germany. Eisler and countless others would compose their bold anti-Nazi agitprop from the relative safety of exile. Fuchs dared to provoke from inside Hitler’s Germany with a dialectic so clear and obvious, he needed to be silenced.
Jewish composers who fled Nazi Germany and Austria also began to re-examine the idea of the Jewish identity they had renounced in earlier years. Arnold Schönberg’s conversion in Paris is well documented. Following his unexpected exclusion as a Jew from the holiday resort at Mattsee in 1921, despite having converted to Protestantism decades earlier, he found himself drawn to Zionist ideals, which he initially expressed in his drama Der biblische Weg. These ideas were seeds that grew into his masterpiece, Moses und Aron, a work left unfinished at the point of his departure from Berlin to Paris in 1933. His reconversion to Judaism in Paris served as a catalyst for other exiled Jewish German and Austrian composers and writers, though paradoxically, Schönberg did not, would not, or possibly could not return to complete Moses und Aron. His priority was a call to community in an attempt to sober up a deluded German Jewry by telling them they needed to stop assuming the best of their German non-Jewish compatriots and defensively prepare themselves for the worst. His was a call for the formation of a “programme” and a “Jewish Party”. He expressed his idea of Jewish nationalism in a letter to a number of fellow émigrés, including Stutschewsky who latter printed and answered the call in Zurich’s Israelitisches Wochenblatt. In the typed copy of the letter he wrote to fellow Viennese composer Ernst Toch, he scrawled at the bottom: “It would be senseless to try and initiate some sort of penalising action against Germany. We should do what’s in our interests, not undertake actions against others: Everything for the Jews!”
Ernst Toch was also living as refugee in Paris and took exception to Schönberg’s efforts to galvanise Jewish self-identity in the wake of Nazi oppression: “Why should I let Hitler tell me that I’m a Jew? I am what I am!” Nevertheless, Toch’s own imperious scepticism would soon develop into a recognition of Jewish identity in exile. Spending the war years having to write film scores “by the yard” in order to earn enough to save family and friends was the catalyst required. We shall return to his vicarious placement of Jewish themes within his secular music in the next article.
For another Parisian exile-composer from Vienna, Erich Zeisl, (years later to become one of Schönberg’s in-laws), the process was less political. Zeisl had begun making a career in Austria as a composer of art song, and had even completed an opera on Georg Büchner’s, Leonce und Lena. Its Viennese premiere was cancelled following Austria’s Annexation in 1938. In Paris, he and the writer Hans Kafka embarked on turning Joseph Roth’s novel Hiob, an up-dated, re-telling of the biblical story of Job, into a stage play. As with Roth’s Juden auf Wanderschaft, his novel from 1930, Hiob, sets out to remind assimilated German Jews that their roots largely lay in the Shtetls of the eastern borders.
If Juden auf Wanderschaft was deliberately provocative, Hiob is highly emotive and was denounced by assimilated German Jews at the time as “sentimental”. In spite of its sniffy reception by secular Jewish refugees, it resonated with those who still recalled the religion of their youth. It was common for assimilated Jews from Berlin, Prague and Vienna to be openly antagonistic to Yiddish speaking Jews escaping poverty and pogroms. Zeisl and Kafka would spend the rest of their creative lives taking the incidental music from the play and expanding it into an opera, left incomplete at the time of Zeisl’s death in Los Angeles in 1959.
His recognition that Hitler had taken away his self-identity as a German-Austrian robbed him of what he believed to be his natural compositional language as well. Having already published Lieder at the age of sixteen, he felt incapable of continuing in the genre after 1938, reasoning that no matter how well he might speak English or French, they were not languages that resonated with him musically. The countless Lieder penned before 1938 would be balanced by a single “song” in American exile, called Prayer, composed in 1945.
His wife Gertrude, in an oral history relates the seeds of a Jewish sensibility planted by his grandfather Michael Feitler: “something of Jewish scholar. […], he introduced Eric at a very early age into the Bible and brought him to the synagogue and developed in him the religious feeling that his music expresses so often.” This suggests that Zeisl was distilling and synthesising his creative language into an aspirational national language in the manner of Paul Ben-Haim, Yehezkal Braun or Tvzi Avni, or as Gertrude calls it, “in the Hebrew style”. Nevertheless, his American output varies enormously from works with an obvious liturgical character such as the afore-mentioned Prayer to his ambiguously titled Requiem Ebraico (1944/45); “Four Songs for Wordless Female Chorus”: Songs for the Daughter of Jeptha, (1948), and his From the Book of Psalms for chorus (1952). The same could be applied to his ballets Naboth’s Vinyard, (1952) and Jacob and Rachel (1954). In contrast, the “Hebrew” character, while present, is less pronounced in chamber works such as his Viola Sonata (1950), Cello Sonata (1951); Sonata Barocca for piano (1948/49); the Brandeis Sonata for Violin and Piano (1949/50) or his Second String Quartet, (1953). These works offer a universalist style and sensibility, synthesised with the subtle echoes of Eastern European Jewry.
Though exile and persecution were undoubtedly a contributing factor in stylistic changes to composers’ musical output, it is worth adding the context of early twentieth century interest in folk music as reflected in the works of Béla Bartók or Ralph Vaughan-Williams. In this context, a return to the traditional music of Jewish communities, as suppressed memories of the ghetto was the likely incentive, as taken up by Zeisl and fellow Viennese composer Julius Chajes. As with Bartók, the intention was to distil the flavours of traditional folk music, much of it dating from antiquity, into the individual twentieth century voice of the composer. Both Zeisl and Chajes had grown up in observant, though not Orthodox Jewish households. Zeisl, like Toch and Schönberg was born and raised in Vienna’s Second District, the so-called “Matzos Island”. His father ran the Café Tegetthof across the street from Vienna’s North Train Station, where new influxes of Jews arrived on a regular basis from Polish Galicia. Zeisl remembered their songs and the music. As with many Viennese Jews who progressed out of the working class Second District, he initially suppressed these early memories. It would take exile in Paris and the work on the stage adaptation of Roth’s Hiob to change him and his musical language.
Though Schönberg sent the identical “call to action” letter to the stage director Max Reinhardt as sent to Ernst Toch, Stutschewsky and others, Reinhardt’s response would come four years later with a commission from the American theatre manager Meyer Weisgal, who wished to draw the world’s attention to the persecution of Jews in Germany.
Reinhardt, with the writer Franz Werfel and composer Kurt Weill concocted with Der Weg der Verheißung what would become the first of several Zionist pageants. It was eventually premiered in New York in 1937 as The Eternal Road. Other pageants followed, one of which, We Shall Never Die also involving Kurt Weill and the political journalist Ben Hecht, with whom Weill had collaborated on his first Broadway musical, Johnny Johnson.
All three collaborators on The Eternal Road had gone to great length to place distance between their lives as inter-war celebrities and their Jewish upbringing. Weill’s father had been a cantor, meaning Weill was steeped in the sound of the synagogue. The only liturgical work he would write, however, would be Kiddush, a commission we’ll look at in the follow up to this article. The music of Weg der Verheißung offers quasi-cantorial moments meant to galvanise Jews in danger of forgetting their heritage. The performances themselves were less than successful: Norman Belle-Geddes designed a five level set that flooded into the orchestra and required the removal of seats in the audience. The cast was enormous, involving hundreds of actors, dancers and singers. The orchestra was pre-recorded by Leopold Stokowski and piped back into the auditorium, augmented by an additional sixteen piece live orchestra required by the Musicians’ Union. The work ran for six hours and though the press response was positive, the sheer expense of putting on just over 150 performances bankrupted Weisgal. The Eternal Road wasn’t seen again until the conductor John Mauceri revived the original German version, Weg der Verheißung in Chemnitz in 1999.
Despite this apparent lack of success, the idea of large-scale pageants to alert secular Jews of what was happening in Europe proved more successful with Ben Hecht’s We Shall Never Die along with recycled music from The Eternal Road touring the United States. Erich Korngold’s wife Luzi attended a performance in Los Angeles and her letter to her husband, who was working in New York at the time, offers a contemporary reaction of exactly the assimilated Jews, Hecht and Weill were hoping to reach.
I went to the big jewish pageant at the Bowl armed with only a cheap seat in the best middle box, invited by a Greek actress named Paxaun [Katina Paxinou, (1900-1973)] whom I had met and got to know and liked back stage. She even studied music in Vienna. (The “cheap” seat cost $3.30!) The impression of the first part was truly overwhelming. 2 speakers sit right and left on the stage with a spot light on each. The stage is totally dark. They start to tell the story of the Jews and what Judaism had contributed to mankind. They then list the names of prominent and famous Jews starting with Moses. With the mention of each name a little light goes on (the person who holds it remains invisible – it’s a kind of torch with a long handle!) They go through ancient history, the Middle Ages up to the present in groups consisting of scientists, writers, composers. You get a mention as composer and Mr. Weill “un[named?] and “un[surpassed?”] [„ungenannt und ungeminnt“ – a quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde] had to write the music. Of today’s (serious music) composers, they only list Ravel [Ravel was often mistakenly listed as “Jewish” during the Nazi years], Schönberg, Bloch and you. Just after naming you, (symbolically) a mention is made of Offenbach. This march-through time, accompanied by the lights on the stage was truly shattering, until the entire stage was a single ocean of light. I found the entire thing – by Ben Hecht – extremely serious and dignified. The performance on stage was not quite up to scratch and wasn’t able to do true credit to the work itself. Nevertheless – it was a beautiful and noble beginning – just to get it written and performed. The music is in any case better than “Lady in the dark”. Still, I can’t help hearing snatches of [Berlin] street ballads at even the most sacred moments. Of course, it’s difficult to judge after a single hearing. In any case, it’s tuneful and very far from today’s modern music – it’s very simple, perhaps a bit too often deliberately simple. (You know what a plain girl I am at heart) […] Helene [Helene Thimig (1889 – 1974), wife of Max Reinhardt and close friend of the Korngolds] – I forgot to mention – was sensational in the few words she had to say in the Jewish spectacle. I found the following quite typical: during a prayer on stage, the entire Bowl stood up. Ms. Lotte Walter [Lotte Walter (1903-1970) Bruno Walter’s daughter] was also there and when asked if she had also stood, answered “Oh – only the Jews stood up. I only stand for the American flag” – What a dirty mean Jew she is!
Luzi Korngold’s parting sentence about Lotte Walter was typical of secular Jews vis-à-vis converted Jews who no longer saw themselves as Jewish, despite Nazi persecution. The music of Weg der Verheißung, as described by John Rockwell in his review of recorded extracts, sums up its character and explains its apparent lack of modal “orientalism”:
Curiouosly though, , the music doesn’t sound very Jewish, in the Eastern European-flavored modern American sense. The liturgical tradition Weill celebrated was that of German Jews, and the music sounds very German. This is almost a Jewish Passion, with the antecedents of Mendelssohn and Handel oratorios and especially Bach Passions everywhere present, from organ-accompanied recitatives like those of Bach’s Evangelists to large fugues and double choruses. It still sounds fascinatingly like Weill, either profitably suspended between ”The Threepenny Opera” and ”Lost in the Stars” or revealing the perhaps illusory nature of the gulf between the German and the American Weill.John Rockwell: New York Times 5. October, 2003 ‘The Eternal Road’ In Endless search of a Stage
To be continued: Part 2: The Return of the Prodigal Son