- Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner by David Conway
With Jewry in Music, David Conway offers a broad survey of European Jews’ entry, activity, and development in the musical professions between 1780 and Wagner’s publication of his infamous Das Judentum in der Musik in 1850. These bookend dates are particularly connected to new eras and changes in Jews’ standing in musical life. After Arthur Holde’s earlier attempt in 1959 (Arthur Holde, Jews in Music: From the Age of Enlightenment to the Mid-Twentieth Century [New York: Philosophical Library, 1959]), this is the first book that surveys the history of Jews in Western music in an analytical and systematic way, focusing particularly on those countries that had well-developed musical centers at the time. Conway scrutinizes how and why Jews were attracted to the musical professions, as well as their contributions to them in terms of novelty and difference. According to the author, one of the motivations of musicians of Jewish heritage to enter the musical mainstream is the “Jewish desire and ability to buy into Gentile culture as part of a process of entry to European society” (p. 27).
The core of the book consists of a survey presenting the situation in selected European countries: a very short section on the Netherlands, a more elaborate one on Austria, and substantial portions on England, Germany, and France. Although the section titles promise information on the musical life in individual countries, their content focuses almost exclusively on their capitals, centers of Western musical life at the time. Unfortunately, a brief survey of those countries that have had strong Jewish musical traditions such as Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia is absent. Through out this survey, we find universally familiar names, such as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Giacomo Meyerbeer, George Frideric Handel and Ludwig van Beethoven (vis-à-vis their relationship to Jews), as well as names particularly known to Jewish music scholars, such as Salomon Sulzer and Isaac Nathan—just to name a few. In addition to greater- or lesser-known composers and their activities within the music scenes of Europe, the reader will also find information on Jews such as Maurice Schlesinger who were in the music business. The activities and interactions of musicians are provided largely through anecdotes and biographical information, eloquently written in engaging prose. These sections are framed by an introduction that seeks to clarify terminological issues and outlines the conceptual framework of the book, followed by an overview of more general concerns such as Jewish musical life in Europe before the eighteenth century, synagogue music, klezmer, and folk song, as well as some broad musings on Jews, music, and romanticism. The closing chapter summarizes information on Wagner’s Das Judentum in der Musik in an attempt to provide an overview of the situation of 1850. Yet Wagner’s infamous tract also serves as recurrent reference in earlier parts of the book.
Perhaps being swept away by romanticism himself, the author conceived the book as Theme, Variations, and Coda, as if the book itself were a piece of music (p. 5); yet the proportions of the “Variations” seem unbalanced: while the chapter on England is fabulously detailed, it is disproportionately long, especially compared to the scanty information we receive on the situation in the Netherlands. One reason for this may be the almost exclusive reliance on existing research and secondary literature, an armchair approach that is especially unfortunate in the case of the little-reflected and uninformed use of Abraham [End Page 535] Zvi Idelsohn’s seminal Jewish Music in Its History and Development (1929) and Eric Werner’s A Voice Still Heard (1976) as a basis for information on Jewish music. Both books are largely outdated and ideologically tainted by different scholarly zeitgeists, emphasizing the authenticity of Jewish music though definitive studies of age and provenance. The reliance on this and other literature instead of primary sources also leads to the perpetuation of inaccuracies...