Apr 12, 2010

Iglau Jews (like the Schwarzkopfs)


Mahler & Anti-Semitism in Europe

by Bill Breakstone

The role that anti-Semitism played during the lifetime of Gustav Mahler, and many other artists of Jewish descent, was very important in both a personal sense, and in an artistic one as well. Many may think that the rise of hatred against European Jews stemmed from the 1920s and the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, but it in fact goes much, much further back in history.

What is both interesting, and tragic, is that European Jews were on the verge of real emancipation from religious bigotry. Mahler and his family provide a fascinating case in point.

Mahler was born in 1860 in the small Moravian town of Iglau,like the Schwarzkopfs, close to the border with Bohemia. It was one of just a few towns in that region where German-speaking inhabitants predominated. His father, Bernhard, was a Jew born in Germany, and was a quite successful businessman who had accumulated a high degree of education and monetary wealth.

Without becoming too historically detailed, during the 18th Century a division occurred among Jews in Europe. The emerging Haskalah sect, whose members were referred to as “Maskilim”, was composed of doctors, lawyers, philosophers and business people of all types, who “exhibited an ideal synthesis of loyalty to Judaism and involvement in general culture and society”1, and its purpose can be defined as ‘to bring light to the dark night in which the people of Israel are immersed’.2 These were the beliefs that Bernhard Mahler adopted in his early years. The Maskalim bitterly opposed Hasidism and its rampant superstition as the main obstacle in the way of improving the political, moral, and cultural situation of the Jews.

When the young Gustav Mahler left Iglau in 1875, nothing dramatic had yet occurred to dash the Jews’ hopes of emancipation, and he no doubt looked forward to attaining his full civil rights in the capital. Nor was he to be disappointed, for in Vienna he found himself in a tolerant society in which the Jews had been successfully integrated, even though the most precious benefits of assimilation were of course reserved for the rich bourgeoisie and foremost intellectuals.

This religious tolerance was about to change beginning in the late 1870s and then far more dramatically from 1880 onwards, especially after the 1895 General Election, which brought the Christian Socialists to power with an anti-Semitic programme that destroyed all hopes of assimilation of the Jews. As De La Grange states, “In any case, although Christian politics, Christian anti-Semitism and Christian social demagogy had effectively taken over Viennese politics, it was still Jewish brains, Jewish passion for learning, and Jewish artistic gifts which held sway in all branches of the City’s intellectual life, with science, medicine, philosophy, sociology, and the law all largely in Jewish hands. Jewish talent reigned over Viennese culture, especially in literature, while the philanthropy of Jewish magnates sustained the visual arts and saved them from sinking into traditional Viennese conservatism. The majority of the press was also in Jewish hands, and had remained faithful to its former liberal ideals. But an important change had taken place: Vienna had become the major centre of European anti-Semitism.”3

After his time in Hamburg and Prague, Mahler was approached by the Vienna Court Opera [Hofoper] to take over its reins. Mahler was quoted as saying “The fact was that it was impossible to occupy an official post without being baptized.” Thus, what I call a conversion of necessity was accomplished in 1896, shortly before he accepted the position in Vienna, one of the world’s highest achievements in musical arts.

Here it is worth quoting De La Grange in detail. “In any case, what is demonstrable is that he [Mahler] never was, and never became, a church- or synagogue-goer. Although there were a great number of Jewish organizations, societies, and fraternities—both religious and secular—Mahler never belonged to any of them. Throughout his adult life he never observed any of the Jewish High Holidays, but instead confined himself to the traditional—i.e., Christian—feasts, with Christmas as the main one. His religious beliefs were expressed in other ways. First there was his devotion to music and his positive sense of morality and justice. Then there was his unceasing life struggle to achieve the highest ethical standards, whether in a search for inner truths and eternal values or in his uncompromising sense of duty and solidarity with the rest of humanity. But, above all perhaps, at the core of his belief lay the commitment to be as true to himself as possible (often dangerously so), whether in his life or in his music. Mahler’s imaginary folk music, his expressionistic excesses (the asperities and cruel irony of his late scherzos for instance), can be interpreted as a form of the Jewish ‘ethical pursuit of truth, because in his music he strove to include everything human and thus sought to fulfill his ultimate desire—artistic integrity.”

1 Steven Belle, Vienna and the Jews 1867-1938(Cambridge University, Cambridge,
2 Samuel Finer, Haskalkah and History, The Emergence of Modern Jewish Historical
Consciousness (Littman, Oxford, 2002).
3 Henry-Louis de La Grange, Gustav Mahler—A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911), (Oxford University Press, London, 2008

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