in: News & Features

July 22, 2010

Journeys from Judaism and Persecution in Mendelssohn and Mahler


Gustav Mahler, born into a Jewish family, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1896 in order to preserve his career as a conductor, at a time when anti-Semitism became the norm of Germanic cultural identity and law. (1)

Felix Mendelssohn’s father Abraham, son of the Enlightment philosopher and Jewish sage, Moses Mendelssohn, converted to Lutheranism and added the hyphenation of Bartholdy, the name of a piece of land purchased by his brother-in-law to buffer his Jewish surname.  He angrily rebuked his son for calling himself “Felix Mendelssohn” in concert programs in the 1820s:

A name is like a garment; it has to be appropriate for the time, the use, and the rank, if it is not to become a hindrance and a laughing-stock. … There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius.  If Mendelssohn is your name, you are ipso facto a Jew.

Felix Mendelssohn, who had been baptized a Christian in 1816, did not cease to call himself such, because he admired the legacy of his grandfather, but out of respect to his father had his calling cards printed with the Bartholdy hyphenation. (2)

In the recently-translated, fourth volume of his magnum opus on Mahler, the magnificent Gustav Mahler:  A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911), Henry-Louis de La Grange sheds light on both Felix Mendelssohn’s respect for the legacy of Moses Mendelssohn and the influence of his grandfather, both on Mahler’s own father and the life of the village of Iglau in Moravia, near the Czech border, where Mahler grew up.  The author notes that “The Czech provinces were the place of origin of many of the more sophisticated Jewish immigrants in Vienna, just as they had also been the home of a ‘Reform Catholicism’.  Here ‘Jews could experience at first hand a tolerant, human, humanist attitude, even from the Catholic church.’” (p. 471) (2, 3) “Iglau’s Jewish community .   . . witnessed the birth and rise of a new trend in Judaism, the Haskalah, which in the 1760s and 1770s was one of the many consequences of the ‘Enlightenment’ movement and its philosophy of religious tolerance.  The main leader and inspirer of the Haskalah was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was admired throughout Germany as a ‘wise man’, a ‘sage’, and a humanist.  He was referred to as ‘the German Socrates . . . and praised to the skies by his followers for ‘having inaugurated an era of light after one of darkness’, and for having ‘brought the Jewish people from folly to wisdom, fostered the Hebrew language, fought Talmudic casuistry and acted as a messenger of ‘Providence’.” (p. 472)

This intriguing link in the background of Felix Mendelssohn’s and Gustav Mahler’s struggles with and against their Jewish identity is explored in detail by de La Grange.  He notes that after Moses Mendelssohn’s death,  he was mourned by a huge following of both Jews and non-Jews.  Included in the sage’s vision was a departure from the traditional linkages of Jewish religion and learning toward a secularization that the Haskalah movement characterized as “an ideal synthesis of loyalty to Judaism and involvement in general culture and society.” (p. 472)  This separation from Jewish tradition was embraced by Mahler’s father, Bernhard, who, in de la Grange’s telling, decided to raise his whole family in accord with the Mendelssohnian principle of Haskalah.

Notwithstanding this optimism, subsequent historical events dashed Mahler’s and many other artists’, professionals’, scientists’, and philosphers’ hopes for integration as Jews in Germanic society.  The 1885 General Election in Austria brought to power a popular demagogue, Karl Lueger, an ally of Georg von Schonerer,  the author of racial clauses in the socialist “Linz Program.”   This victory, de la Grange asserts, “sounded the death knell for Austrian liberalism, and thereby served to end any hope of true assimilation that many Jews may still have harboured. . .Although many Jews had unconsciously yearned to become part of the Christian world, the general feeling now was ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew,’ and Jewish integration into the ‘Aryan’ world seemed impossible.  Espousal of Protestantism was the frequently preferred solution, and it was the option chosen by Viktor Adler . . .Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, and Arnold Rose, amongst many others.  The legal status of Christianity was thereby conferred without any recourse to Catholicism, and in the event of marriage there was no need for a religious ceremony to take place.” (p. 484)

Mahler, who married  Alma Schindler in a Roman Catholic service, made only one known statement about his conversion.

Do you know what particularly offends and annoys me?  The fact that it was impossible to occupy an official post without being baptized.  This is something I have never been prepared to accept.  Of course it is untrue to say that I was baptized only when the opportunity arose for my engagement in Vienna – I was baptized years before.  In fact it was my longing to escape from the hell of Hamburg under Pollini that prompted me to contemplate the idea of leaving the Jewish community.  That is the humiliating part of it.  I do not deny that it cost me a great effort, indeed one could say it was an instinct for self-survival that prompted me to such an action.  Inwardly I was not averse to the idea at all. (p.484)

Henry-Louis de La Grange appends to this quotation the following revealing footnote that speaks to the personal and moral conflicts Mahler was forced to endure to sustain his conducting career:  “For understandable reasons, Mahler wrongly claimed to have converted ‘years before’ his Vienna appointment.  He was in fact baptized in Hamburg on 23 Feb. 1896, and appointed Kapellmeister at the Hofoper on 8 April.  Further, his aim in struggling to be appointed in Vienna was not only to escape from Pollini’s ‘hell’.” (pp. 484-485)

The reception of Mahler’s Third Symphony was generally very positive, but on April 15, 1910, one influential French critic, Georges Humbert, editor of La Vie Musicale, ascribed its ‘enigmatic originality’ to the manner in which “these clichés mingle and collide,” that represent, he asserts, “an accurate reflection of his Jewishness:”  (p. 528)

Not that he is a unique member of this powerful, fecund, and marvelously talented race, with a will which senses when it is opportune to be supple.  He is an artist who is primarily concerned to assimilate, in spite of being obstinate and inflexible.  Here his is sweetly Italianate.  There he is the clever director of a chaos on which he projects a very bright light.  He resembles both Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, and often reveals that he has a similar temperament, even though he lives in a different age, and uses different means. (p. 529)

Now in 2010, your present reviewer, whose grandparents fled the violent anti-Semitism of Austria-Hungary and Russia in the interval between Mahler’s conversion and the premiere of his Third Symphony, would pose two questions:  “What’s a Roman Catholic lantzman to do?”  and “What’s the relevance to the music?”  (note:  Lantzman means “fellow countryman” or “fellow Jew” in the Yiddish spoken in these provinces.)

To the first question, there can be no answer, and surely no condemnation of the exigent accommodations that Mendelssohn and Mahler made to prevailing anti-Semitism, except perhaps to express gratitude that one’s forbears took leave of this mishigas (craziness).  The world is a harsh place if you’re not a bona fide member of the favored ethnic majority or minority, and no one could have foreseen the destructive energies unleashed by racial “science” later in the 20th century in these very countries.

To the second question, the answer must be:  nothing, and everything.  Music is ephemeral, disappearing into the ether once the sounds are heard.  What we interpret as musical narrative is our own.  We can never know what anyone else hears and how they make meaning of it.  Neither can we know how external attributions affect our, and others’, listening experiences.  If you never knew that Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, you might enjoy his wonderful music only on the basis of how it sounds.  Leonard Bernstein, to whom this annual concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra is dedicated, once was asked how he could love Wagner.  He replied:  “I hate Wagner – on my knees.”

See related review here.

Eli Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.


1.     D.S. Hertz: How Jews became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 189

2.     H.-L. de La Grange: Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

3.     W.M. Johnston: The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1938, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972, p. 278, quoted by de La Grange supra.


  1. Eduard Devrient in “My Remembrances” (1869) maintains that Mendelssohn only made only one public reference in his lifetime to his own Jewishness when he said “ was an actor and a Jew who restored this great Christian work [The Matthew Passion of Bach] to the people.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 22, 2010 at 11:58 pm

  2. This essay will spur me on to read both Mahler’s and Mendelsshon’s biographies. As an RC I’m embarrassed by the weight of the Church’s pull in certain political times and climates. What baptism has to do with music is beyond me. I’ve grown away from my parochial (literally and metaphorically) up-bringing. The more I listen to classical music, the more I’m reminded of the old saw that God is in the details; only now I’ve come to realize (a real epiphany) that god resides in the music. Thanks to Newberger for helping me confirm this.

    Comment by Bob Fagone — July 23, 2010 at 12:14 pm

  3. I do not want to leave the impression that I wrote the comment on Schoenber. I did not. I merely copied the article on Schoenberg’s conversion back to Judaism fom he site, .

    Comment by Jack Tucker — July 24, 2010 at 5:04 pm

  4. The response of nineteenth-century Jewish musicians (as well as writers and painters) to the issue of anti-Semitism and assimilation is indeed a fascinating story, one that is important for our understanding of the entire era. Mahler and Mendelssohn were, of course, not the only Jews who faced this problem, only the most iconic. There were many others, each confronting the challenge in his or her own way. Ignaz Moscheles, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ferdinand Hiller are just three noteworthy examples. Hiller’s case, incidentally, takes on a particularly intriguing and somewhat bizarre twist, since it has a connection to modern history. Despite having converted to Christianity by the early 1800s, the Nazis still considered his family Jewish, and it was because of his grandsons’ last minute escape from the Holocaust in the 1940s that a lock of Beethoven’s hair Hiller had taken from the dying composer in 1827 ultimately reached this country in the 1990s

    One further comment, a bit of nit picking, although I don’t want to make a big “megillah” about it: a more accurate transliteration of the Yiddish word for “countryman” is “landsman,” rather than “lantzman.” Although “lantzman” is how it sounds and how our Yiddish grandparents pronounced it (and, I just discovered, how it is written in Wiktionary), it is written in Hebrew characters just like it is for the ?German word “Landsmann,” which is pronounced the same way.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — July 25, 2010 at 10:07 am

  5. Small correction to Lee’s comment: what Mendelssohn wrote was “Judensohn,” “son of a Jew.” Mendelssohn was baptized as a child and did not, in the same sense as Mahler and Schoenberg, “convert” to Christianity apart from his whole family’s conversion. He was a believing Christian for his entire mature life. Mendelssohn was luckier than the later composers in one important respect, that he lived in a period and among a social cohort that was more willing to accept at face value what Christians had always professed to want, the conversion of the Jews. The racialist doctrines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries–the dark underbelly of nationalism–denied this, and therefore set the stage for the rock-and-a-hard-place dilemmas Jewish musicians (and Jewish everyone else) faced then. That’s not to say that Mendelssohn didn’t come up against some of that as well, as did Benjamin Disraeli, since these ideas were gradually developing, but his was a more, shall we say, “enlightened” time. So much for the idea of linear progress, eh?

    Comment by Vance Koven — July 26, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  6. Is the above a “correction to Lee’s comment”? Or to the author whom he quotes? As the reference is to one of the most cogent events of music history (the “resurrection” of St. Matthew’s Passion, it would be nice to have our facts straight.

    And, yes, the 19th-century belief in linear progress is a sham(e). Give up reading the newspapers, folks. Take up Sudoku.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — July 27, 2010 at 10:32 am

  7. I found this review fascinating and, more importanrly, enlightening. Elt, I abk you for calling it to my attemtion.

    Comment by Robert Manning — July 27, 2010 at 4:44 pm

  8. Please forgive the the typos in my originank you for calling my attention to the review.

    Comment by Robert Manning — July 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  9. Hello Eli: What a pleasure to be able to learn more about Mahler’s & Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage and how it inevitably affects, somehow, their lives and work. As then as now, there are plenty of people, let alone countries, who take pride in keeping good people safe from barbarian influences. Let alone barbarians. And yet, there are parallel currents of progress, e.g., the NY Times piece on the popularity of gay marriage in —who knew?— South Africa. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that, over the broadest timeline, the record is ten steps forward and eight or nine back. Shorter-term, it’s hard not to feel like the sum is backward, though. Thanks again for keeping me in the loop. More please!

    Comment by Louis Raymond — July 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm

  10. A useful, short book with excerpts from works by Felix’ grandfather Moses is “Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from his writings (The Jewish heritage classics)”

    Comment by Joel Cohen — August 1, 2010 at 4:58 am

  11. Great Piece Eli. I particularly liked the quote from Mendelssohn’s father about names as clothing. My family came from the same background and the Czech-Moravian Highlands. My grandfather Emil Rabinek converted a few years after Mahler did in Vienna but like Mahler and Mendelssohn, retained his name — which in his case meant “litte Rabbi” in Czech, i.e. Rabinek. One of the many people who helped me research my family history (published as Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History) was Jiri Rychetsky, who did most of the Czech-area research for Henry Louis de la Grange.

    Comment by Helen Epstein — August 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

  12. A small correction that Eli encouraged me to leave, since I’ve researched the Jews of the Czech-Moravian Highlands. Mahler was actually born in the Czech village of KALISTE. The house in which he was born has been rebuilt, spurred on by Jiri Rychetsky’s local Mahlerites. My husband and I slept there a few years ago hoping to encounter ghosts and thought the village was pretty much the same size it had been then: tiny and totally rural, with a church and a pub as in former times. The family moved to IGLAU (I saw that house but did not go in) which was a German-speaking enclave in the Czech countryside, and a city not a village. It was there that the Habsburgs maintained a military garrison. Kaliste probably had a three-piece pub band at best. Mahler had a special place in the hearts of Czech Jews. Several had his adagietto from Fifth Symp played at their funerals as did my mother.

    Comment by Helen Epstein — August 24, 2010 at 9:43 am

  13. I just thought everyone should know that Mendelssohn was anti-Semitic enough himself that I had to quit a chorus I belonged to that was performing his Paulus because I couldn’t stand to be part of a Jewish mob singing “Stone him to death! He blasphemes God, and those who blaspheme God must die!” about Paul at every opportunity. It even indicated at the end that the Jews would ultimately stone Paul to death, which according to Wikipedia did not happen.

    Comment by Judith Newman — September 2, 2010 at 4:35 am

  14. Newberger’s article, while raising some interesting questions, reveals a lack of familiarity with the extensive scholarship in the field. Unfortunately, this leads to or reinforces a number of misconceptions, as can be seen by some of the comments about Mendelssohn’s sacred works (e.g. “Paulus). For a thorough (and thoroughly researched!) book on the subject, I strongly recommend “The Price of Assimilation” by Jeffrey Sposato (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

    Comment by e.r.staunt — September 2, 2010 at 10:38 am

  15. On this topic, see:

    Comment by P. Cohen — November 9, 2010 at 7:21 pm

  16. Thanks for keeping this interesting thread alive. It seems axiomatic that Mendelssohn was ambivalent about his Jewishness. It’s a real Doppelgaenger dilemma- the Jewish Mendelssohn and the Christian one.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 9, 2010 at 7:59 pm

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