The Last Romantics?

Mahlerman celebrates the Jewish contribution to the classical canon…

What is the world’s shortest book? Answer: The Book of Gentile Violinists. And it is quite true that if you made a list of the major fiddlers of the last 100 years, a very high proportion, perhaps more than 90%, would be Jews. This also holds for pianists, and by about the same ratio. Why is this, and why, if this ethnoreligious group are as ‘musical’ as they seem to be, have they not produced more great composers than the fingers of one hand can count? Are they better at recreating than creating? Even the two best known 19th Century Jewish composers – Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler – were not strongly linked with the Hebrew faith. Mendelssohn’s family converted to Lutheranism when he was a child, and Mahler, when it became clear that the anti-semitic feeling in Vienna would keep him out of the top job at the Court Opera, simply converted to Catholicism.

It was generally considered that when Eleonore von Clossmann, a member of the Catholic aristocracy of eastern Styria, married Ignaz Schreckeris, a Jewish photographer, she was entering a union well below her station in life but, as many of us (and Turgenev) know, the human heart is a dark forest. The oldest of the four children that survived was Franz Schreker, who was 10 when his father died in 1888, leaving the family in virtual poverty in Vienna. A few years later, with the help of a scholarship, he found a place at the Conservatory, and in 1897 graduated in violin and in 1900, in composition. A number of marvellous operas appeared over the next twenty years, matching in popularity those of Richard Strauss, and Schreker’s fame expanded in Europe and around the globe. It is something of a mystery that his music is now heard so rarely in the theatre and the concert hall, but for lovers of late-romantic lush, I can think of nobody more appetizing. Here, from 1900, the Intermezzo for String Orchestra, Op 8. The painting is Acqua Mossa by Gustav Klimt.

Fin-de-siecle Vienna in Schreker’s time was dominated by the fiery autocrat Gustav Mahler. This tyrannical Bohemian Jew was a sworn enemy of the easy, of the primrose path, and he was not above expressing his ruthless perfectionism in the appointments he undertook, as a conductor, in a spectacular rise from provincial Bad Hall near Linz when he was 20, to Ljubljana, Olomouc, Kassel, Prague and Leipzig. In 1888 he was head of the Royal Opera in Budapest, and three years later Hamburg, Germany’s second city, came calling. From there it was but a short step to the very top in Vienna and, as Neville Cardus put it “dictator of music of Central Europe in the Imperial Opera of Vienna at the high noon of its splendour”. He was 38, and would be dead in 12 years. And somehow along the way, he managed to compose various songs and song-cycles, and (almost) 10 symphonies that in length, size and scope, dwarfed anything that had gone before. Here is part of one of them, the 2nd in C minor, a real monster lasting about 90 minutes. The slight 4th movement (of five) is the wonderful Urlicht (‘Primeval Light’) from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. The sound on this 1957 recording is poor; the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould directs the orchestra looking as nutty as ever – but the real treat is the extraordinary contralto voice of another Canadian, Maureen Forrester, who sadly died in 2010. This majestic voice, seemingly produced without effort, made her a national treasure in her own country, and admired around the world. On her marriage to a Jewish musician this product of Scottish and Irish parents converted to Judaism.

Mahler’s influence, and music, fell heavily upon a number of composers: our own Benjamin Britten, the Russian Shostakovitch and, later in his life, the Brooklyn born Lithuanian Jew Aaron Copland. Beginning his musical studies in New York with Rubin Goldmark (a nephew of composer Karl Goldmark), Copland had the good fortune to find himself in Paris in 1921 at the knee of the great teacher Nadia Boulanger, who immediately recognised his talent. He stayed for three years, mixing with the hothouse intellectuals and artists that made Paris in the twenties the artistic centre of the universe. On his return to America he began composing in earnest and, though he was a gay man with communist leanings, he was not overly troubled by government interference. A couple of decades later, it might have been a different story. Today he stands as the so-called ‘Dean of American Music’ because of his God-given ability to express, in sound, the wide open spaces of his native land, and the pungent optimism and vigor of its inhabitants. He created, I suppose, an American style. Here, in part of the ballet suite Billy The Kid we can enjoy the pastoral sections, with their blowy, over-the-hills-and-far-away effects, and the evocative, dreamy bugles, so important in this composer’s soundpictures.

I remember quite clearly the day I first heard the wonderful Octet for Strings by Felix Mendelssohn. I was probably the same age as he was when he wrote it – sixteen. At sixteen I think I could tie my own shoelaces, and cross the road unaided – but what was this? A work of symphonic dimensions, scaled down to a chamber group of eight players, and bursting with a youthful genius that seemed to me then, and now, perfection; a miracle. And so it stands, his opus 20. A little later came opus 21, the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, and who has not heard this magical soundworld without mentally dropping their jaw? These few short teenage years were perhaps the apogee in the short life-span (38) of this exquisite (Thackeray: “His is the most beautiful face I ever saw”) German Jew, as the enervating blandness of his later music was to prove exasperating to those who saw reflected in it all they most disliked in mid-Victorian England. But then, we will always have the Octet, and here are the last two staggering movements. The beautiful sepia snap is of the American dance pioneer Loie Fuller taken, probably in the early 20’s, by the Londoner Samuel Joshua Beckett.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

10 thoughts on “The Last Romantics?

  1. Worm
    September 2, 2012 at 08:22

    Gosh MM we are spoiled to have your words and this music delivered to us of a weekend! I have often also discussed with my father the question of why there are so many Jewish musicians and conductors, but relatively few composers – obviously this then changes when you get to musicals and pop music when Jewish composers and arrangers seem to have produced much of the good stuff.

    Similar mystery as to how Germans once produced the worlds greatest music, and these days can’t seem to do any better than James Last…

    September 2, 2012 at 11:39

    Yes Worm, it is quite a puzzle – and if you accept that the great German line of classicists ended with Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms (and of course Wagner) at the end of the 19th Century, perhaps we have to accept that this music had nowhere else to go. Mahler was starting to break the mould in his unfinished 10th Symphony and Schoenberg completed the job a little later. Perhaps there is a dabbler out there somewhere (JH or Malty?) who may be able to add something to this?

    John Halliwell
    September 2, 2012 at 22:15

    I’m not sure I can add anything worthwhile to this, MM; not surprising bearing in mind that at the age of sixteen, when your sensibilities were so finely tuned that you could discern the astonishing achievement that is Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, I was contemplating whether to put aside childish things such as my trusty catapult and move up to something capable of shooting pellets at empty Tizer bottles. In other words, MM, if you’re baffled, I’m bewildered. But as you state, perhaps the music had nowhere else to go; massive German industrialisation and rapidly growing militarism is a far cry from the inspiration provided to composers by resurrection, calm seas, prosperous voyages, cowbells and babbling brooks.

    September 3, 2012 at 09:43

    Ok – my own late night ruminations led me to the following hypothesis –

    perhaps Jews didn’t often become composers because to become a composer in these days one had to be an independently wealthy gentleman with unlimited funds and unlimited free time, and for various reasons not many Jews existed in this milieu

    what do you reckon

    September 3, 2012 at 13:55

    Back in the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven there were various ways for composers to make money from their work – by writing music that they performed themselves (like Mozart’s and Beethoven’s piano concertos) or by finding an aristocratic patron (as Haydn did) or by working for the church (like J S Bach). Composer-performers like Beethoven also picked up commissions from aristocrats or others to write pieces for them, too. Later, composers like Schumann supplemented their income from writing (music criticism) or conducting (Mahler) or continuing instrumentalist tradition (Liszt – and a host of other 19th-century pianist-composers – on the piano and, I suppose, Bruckner on the organ). Wagner found an adoring patron. Brahms was a pianist but also an editor of music. And so on. I’m not sure why gentiles seem to have found it easier to survive in this way than Jews.

    But what I want to know is this. There were composers who played the piano, the violin, the cello, and evne one or two who played nothing much at all. But why were there no singer-composers in the classical tradition? Or were there? Mahlerman – are you there?

    September 3, 2012 at 17:44

    Yes Philip, I am here (in Spain, which has a long Jewish history as I’m sure you know). My only further thoughts on this knotty subject (at the moment, I’m still thinking!) concern the obvious link between the human voice and, say, the violin/viola family. The most natural human communication (after speech) is to open your mouth and sing. However, a violin/viola is probably the closest facsimile, and is also portable – and was therefore ideal for the ‘wandering people’ of folklore, and the Jewish diaspora in particular.
    I think you are on shaky ground Worm if you promote the idea that affluence is useful in the creative process. The evidence, if anything, supports an opposing view, of the traditional artist starving in a grubby garret, but somehow turning out a stream of masterworks. Beethoven was never poor (just disorganized), but it is one of the great mysteries of this master, that the more profound his deafness became, and the layers of illness that he also had to cope with became more numerous, including debilitating diarrhoea (sorry), the greater his music became, to the point, near the end of his life, when he reached a kind-of cosmic utterance.

    September 4, 2012 at 12:34

    Leaving aside the question of who does what and why, could we have Mendelsohn’s String Quartet No. 6 one Sunday afternoon (even if it’s already been included earlier – I think it could quite justifiably be part of every listing forever).

    September 4, 2012 at 14:32

    Good to hear from you (again) Z – and yes, giving the lie to a lot of his turgid later works, this sublime, late piece should be heard by all dabblers without delay. Perhaps I could do a piece on last compositions, and work it in that way?

    Philip Wilkinson
    September 4, 2012 at 19:40

    Yes! I was just going to mention that last quartet, the one he wrote after his sister died. It’s a terrific, piece – moving, memorable, and with an extraordinary sense of urgency about it, as if he only just had enough time to get it down.

    September 4, 2012 at 20:02

    Isn’t this blogging in a nutshell? Nine comments (and counting?) and yes, three of them mine, but the original subject gets twisted and turned, and we finish-up (?) considering the last work in Mendelssohn’s short life, written in the shadow of the death of his beloved sister Fanny, a work that anybody reading these ramblings would surely try to hear at the earliest opportunity, no? Well, if just one dabbler is excited enough to seek it out, how good will that be?

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