Although my luggage for the trip to the cottage included a pile of books on diverse subjects –popular culture, a novel, psychology, and a few musicology books—the one that seized my imagination was the darkest of the group. How could it be otherwise, in a week already coloured by Israel vs Hamas, and Russia continuing in this centennial year of the First World War to remind many of the aggressive stance of the Nazis in the run up to the Second, a week when we lost Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, conductor Franz Bruggen, and soprano Licia Albanese.
No wonder I was drawn to Michael Haas’s Forbidden Music: the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis. Lady Gaga et al would perhaps have been more suitable in a sunnier week (am I talking about the weather or the headlines?). Haas’s study is more than I bargained for. When I alluded to it in my recent blog post about the books I was taking with me, I cited Viktor Ullmann & Der Kaiser von Atlantis. I assumed I’d be reading about the 1930s.
I did not expect to be reading about the 1814 Congress of Vienna.
The multi-disciplinarity of current scholarship keeps surprising me. Yes I know, this is what we’re to expect: that for example, any good book about a musical phenomenon must address its context, the culture from which it springs.
But I didn’t anticipate this. Music is only one part of this book. I did not expect to have so much insight into anti-Semitism, into the heart & soul of central Europe over the past two centuries. These insights are presented without judgment, but dispassionately, with a scientist’s clarity and lack of bias. We’re given insights into the Jewish soul, the bourgeois population seeking to assimilate in every aspect: and that includes the consumers & creators of music.
And we see the resistance to that assimilation of those in Germany & Austria (that is, the various incarnations of each country).
In passing you can’t help noticing how many others share the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, but who’ve been largely given a free pass by history. Hanslick & Brahms have a rather intriguing place in this story, considering that
- While Brahms is usually seen as the anti-thesis of Wagner, he too was anti-Semitic (although he didn’t publish treatises, just cried out his bigotry at people across crowded restaurants)
- Hanslick, the apologist for Brahms, and Wagner’s great enemy, epitomizes the troubling question, a man who was probably partly Jewish but concealed his race. I squirmed reading about him, as i squirmed for Schreker and Schoenberg
Maybe this isn’t news to anyone –that racism was endemic—but Haas’s treatment is spectacular for its insight & clarity. I’ve written before about the Mendelssohn family (having seen a wonderful DVD) and the mystery of the European Jews who stayed put, apparently incapable of seeing the disaster that was coming. What I especially admire about Haas’s study is how well he frames 20th century events as a natural development from the psychology of 19th century culture, which furnishes the inescapable context. Reading the story of the Jews’ quest for assimilation and acceptance helps explain a great deal.
I found myself unable to put the book down, dark as it is, because it seemed to open up this nasty world for the first time. Monstrous as Wagner was, he no longer seems as inexplicable as before. Mahler, Korngold, Schreker and Schoenberg are placed into a kind of history that’s much more than musicology.
I’m not finished this book that I only started a few days ago, but even so I’m comfortable recommending Haas’s book to anyone intrigued by the music of Germans (meaning the broader Germany that includes Austria-Hungary) in the last century or two.