in: News & Features

January 18, 2015

French Jews, French Music, and Terror


Fromental Halevy by Etienne Carjat

Fromental Halevy by Etienne Carjat

The emancipation of Jews in France began with the Revolution, when the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man specifically affirmed the civil rights of French citizens regardless of religion, and continued in the Empire, in which Napoleon in 1806 proclaimed that Judaism was an official religion of the state, along with Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. France remained overwhelmingly Catholic, but Jews moved out of ghettos and began to claim civil rights. In music, Jews began to enter public life, and a powerful testimonial to their presence began in 1835 with the success of the grand opera La juive (The Jewess), by Fromental Halévy (1799 – 1862) on a libretto by Eugène Scribe. It is possible that the moral message of the opera carried weight with a Parisian public that had previously known little about Jewish persecution, or even about Jewish religious life; Act II begins with a Passover observance. The music of La juive earned praise even from Wagner, and it is the only one of Halévy’s 40 operas to be staged today. (Halévy’s nephew Ludovic Halévy teamed up with Henri Meilhac to coauthor several durable librettos, including Bizet’s Carmen after Mérimée’s novel, several immortal operettas by Offenbach, and even a vaudeville adapted in Austria to become Die Fledermaus, although Nazi censors probably didn’t know that.)

A year after its brilliant premiere, La juive was followed by another grand opera with text by Scribe about a persecuted religious minority. This was Les Huguenots, by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791 – 1864), a Jewish native of Germany who made his career in Paris. In a series of popular successes in that and the next decade (Robert le diable, Le prophète, l’Africaine), Meyerbeer established himself as the master of Parisian grand opera, and became very wealthy. Though not Orthodox, Meyerbeer remained faithful to his religion throughout his life, even to the point of composing music for the synagogue (he also wrote for the church). Meyerbeer was generous to the 18-years-younger Wagner during the latter’s impecunious years in Paris, assisting him financially as well as helping him promote his work; Wagner returned the favor after his fashion, sealing his own anti-Semitic reputation when he attacked both Meyerbeer’s Judaism and his fortune in the famously nasty polemic “Jewishness in Music” (1850, expanded 1869). Meyerbeer’s popularity was fading by the time of his death, in 1864, while Wagner’s was of course rising dramatically.

Six years later came the Franco-Prussian War, its aftermath changing the face of Europe with the proclamation of the German Empire, the birth of the Third Republic in France, and, to the point of this essay, the founding of the Société nationale de musique. Concert music, largely dormant in Paris since the 1840s, soon thrived, and several Jews began to emerge into this new environment, including Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), virtuoso pianist and eccentric composer who emerged from obscurity only in the 1970s (for years he had been known chiefly as the unfortunate composer who, reaching for a volume of the Talmud on an upper shelf, was crushed to death by the falling bookcase, a story almost certainly false); Édouard Colonne (1838-1910), who founded an orchestra that exists today; Paul Dukas (1865-1935), composer of a slender catalog of works of high quality; and eventually Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), who became one of France’s leading 20th-century composers.

The national passion of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) split French society between those who supported Dreyfus, the Republic, and secular society, and those who supported the Army, the domination of the church, and the hopeful return of the monarchy; it also brought anti-Semitic feeling to the forefront of public consciousness and debate. The devoutly Catholic composer Vincent d’Indy became a member of the Ligue de la patrie française,s along with the avowedly anti-Semitic Degas and many others; he also wrote an opera, La légende de Saint-Christophe, which in a letter from 1903 he described as a “drame, anti-juif,” hoping to counteract the “nauseous” influence of “Judeo-Dreyfusard lust.” After Zola entered the fray with “J’accuse!”, Dreyfus was eventually exonerated, and life in France, including music, returned more or less to normal, but with anti-Semitism never far below the surface of public awareness. D’Indy remained passionately nationalistic, though Wagnerian in his musical outlook; Saint-Saëns, who was sometimes taken as Jewish in the German press, remained strongly pro-French musically and publicly contradicted d’Indy in a newspaper essay; Debussy, neither Jewish nor notably religious, in 1905 (the year of La mer) left his wife for Emma Bardac, a married Jewish woman who had been Fauré’s mistress; Ravel, also nonreligious but a philo-Semite, wrote his Deux mélodies hébraïques in 1914, the start of the Great War. The texts of these two “Hebrew songs,” neither of which is actually in Hebrew, can be construed as a lament for a more peaceful, nonsectarian world. The first song uses the Aramaic text of the Kaddish, the ancient prayer for the dead; the second, in Yiddish and entitled “The Eternal Enigma,” translates as follows:

The world asks the ancient question: Tra la tra la la la la,
One answers: Tra la la la la la tra la la tra la la la la,
And if one wishes one can say: Tra la la la tra la la la,
The world asks the ancient question: Tra la tra la la la la…

Darius Milhaud begins his autobiography, Notes Without Music (1952): “I am a Frenchman from Provence, and by religion a Jew,” expresses pride in his ancestry back five centuries, and notes that there were Jewish traders in southern France 600 years before the birth of Jesus. In the 1920s Milhaud composed a short opera, Esther de Carpentras, in the form of a Purim play within a Purim play. A prolific composer in every genre, he wrote a Sacred Service (1947) for liturgical use (unlike Ernest Bloch’s, which is a work with orchestra, for the concert hall), a Liturgie Comtadine for Rosh Hashana (1933), a ballet about the life of Moses (1940), Poèmes juifs (1916), several psalm settings, and a cantata written for Israel, Ani maamin, op. 441, his last work, on a text by Elie Wiesel.

Darius Milhaud

Darius Milhaud

France, no less than a dozen other nations in Europe, was emotionally and physically wrecked by the Great War, but unlike Germany never claimed to have been “stabbed in the back” by Jews (or Socialists), and by 1936, in the midst of the worldwide Great Depression, managed to elect Léon Blum as its first Jewish prime minister. (There would be another one 18 years later, after World War II: Pierre Mendès-France, who would gather both praise and condemnation for extricating France from their phase of the war in Vietnam.) The anti-Semitism that permeated politics all through the 1930s and 1940s left a permanent stain on French honor during the Occupation of 1940-1944, when so many of their fellow citizens handed Jews over to the Nazis. Though France came late to introspection about its collaboration, today, 70 years after the Liberation, it has more Jewish citizens than any other nation in Europe—and is home to a large Muslim population as well.

If France can determine to defend all minorities and their institutions with the fervor recently shown for the institution of free speech following the massacres at Charlie Hebdo, then Jews (and Muslims, and all persecuted peoples) can safely choose to remain citoyens.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


  1. Two new eBooks document France’s institutional antisemitism during the Dreyfus affair, the very comprehensive by lawyer Jean-Denis Bredin of the Académie française and which includes original documents, including from France’s antisemitic press of that time.

    Comment by Patrick Mehr — January 18, 2015 at 7:07 pm

  2. France has actually had THREE Jewish prime ministers since the 1930’s. Besides Blum and Mendes-France, there was Laurent Fabius under Mitterand; he is still very active and important as minister of foreign affairs. And Nicolas Sarkozy, whether one likes the idea or not, is part-Jewish.

    I was surprised see missing, in Mark DeVoto’s otherwise fine essay, the name of Jacques Offenbach. Granted, he made his mark as a composer of light music, and he converted to Catholicism. Néamoins….

    Moving forward: I think the current unease among French Jews is mostly in the observant community, among rather recent North African immigrants. The assimilated, secular Jews tend to blend in more smoothly with the non-Jewish majority. Examples: The morning news show on France Inter is run very capably by Patrick Cohen, and the 8 PM TV news show on Channel Two features David Pujadas. Mark Minkowski is one of the most prominent French conductors. The comic Gad el Maleh is wildly popular both in France and North Africa. And so on. I am, like Mark, rather optimistic about the prospects for a Jewish-inclusive France.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — February 2, 2015 at 7:05 pm

  3. I am a Jewish musician, and I was in Paris during the attacks- I was all too close to the Hebdo attack. I am no scholar on the subject, but I find it difficult to fathom that in the first quarter of the 19th century “a Parisian public had previously known little about Jewish persecution.” Over a millennium, Jewish history has permeated the city. It is unavoidable.
    I unfortunately do not share Joel’s optimism. Immediately after the Hebdo attack, I went to the Marais and the Jewish museum to calm my nerves. The gunmen had yet to be caught, and there was still no security- that took an attack on a Jewish target to implement. Even when the army was deployed in Jewish areas of the city, this stops the bleeding without addressing the problem. There is a reason there was no rally of solidarity around the attack on the casher like there was on Hebdo. There is a laissez-faire public attitude towards protecting the Jewish community in France. Just a week after the attacks, I walked by a newsstand, where a cardboard poster proclaimed “Plus de Charlie Hebdo- allez vivre votre vie.” That says it all.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — February 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm

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