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.