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  • The Music Libel Against the Jews by Ruth HaCohen
  • Jesse Rosenberg
The Music Libel Against the Jews. By Ruth HaCohen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. [xvi, 507 p. ISBN 9780300167788. $55.] Music examples, illustrations, index.

How has Jewish identity been conceived in aural terms over the last thousand years? Ruth HaCohen, in her formidable monograph The Music Libel Against the Jews, proposes a number of answers to this enormous question, but her central contention is that Jews have consistently been associated with sonic unpleasantness of one sort or another. This is the “music libel” referred to in the title, although the author also employs various synonymous designations (“noise libel,” “noise accusation,” “noise allegation”). By whatever term it is designated, the precise meaning will vary from one instance to another. In a given case it may be a suggestion of innate Jewish unmusicality; in another, sounds that are shrill, loud, or discordant; in yet another, a heterophonous texture perceived as chaotic for its lack of the rhythmic coordination characteristic of most Western polyphony, and so on. Although certain of HaCohen’s arguments are far more persuasive than others, overall the evidence she presents for the existence of this libel is massive and indisputable. The title, in any event, is susceptible to misunderstanding. The very word “libel” may suggest a more or less exclusive focus on anti-Semitic representations of Jewish sound. In fact, HaCohen’s inquiry ranges well beyond the area of anti-Semitism (or the related anti-Judaism) to encompass the ways in which certain writers and musicians, such as Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn, George Eliot, and Arnold Schoenberg, have moved in the opposite direction, effectively neutralizing, and sometimes even refuting, the noise accusation. At the same time, the author is deeply interested in how Christians have projected an aural identity at the opposite pole from Jewish “noise,” characterized by those values (balance, euphony, harmonious proportion, rhythmic coordination) supposedly violated by Jews, indirectly reinforcing the libel by taking up a position on the reverse side of the coin. Likewise, the word “music” in the title would seem to indicate musical compositions as constituting the main subject matter of the book, everything else being relegated to the background. In fact, examples drawn from fiction, poetry, theater, and the visual arts, as well as putatively “ethno-graphic” accounts of synagogue services, take up a large proportion of the book; writings such as Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise, Heine’s uncompleted novel Der Rabbi von Bacharach, or “The Prioress’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, occupy what is emphatically the foreground of the book, every bit as important as the musical compositions considered by the author. Nor is this the only way in which HaCohen’s study is interdisciplinary, as she draws on her extensive knowledge of history, aesthetics, literature, Jewish and Christian liturgy, and literary and psychoanalytic theory to construct an elaborate framework for her observations. Many of the issues she addresses have been considered by other commentators (the treatment of Jews in Bach’s Passions, Felix Mendelssohn’s complicated feelings about his Jewish family background, the intended religious message of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron), often accompanied by polemics; HaCohen provides succinct summaries of the controversies surrounding these questions, and her thorough absorption of a large secondary literature across a variety of disciplines, enables her to raise [End Page 724] the scholarly conversation to a distinctly higher level. For example, in Chapter 6, mostly devoted to Moses und Aron, she makes particularly fine use of her overarching noise critique in the interpretation of the often-noted difference in vocal style between Moses and his brother Aron, and provides an extremely convincing account of the theological ramifications of Schoenberg’s alteration of his conception of the work from oratorio to opera.

The vast scope of HaCohen’s study is reduced to manageable size by limits both chronological and geographical. While the earliest examples she discusses in detail are from the Middle Ages, and despite occasional glances back at classical or biblical antiquity, by far the larger part of her attention is focused on the years extending from the early eighteenth century, where she arrives as...


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