- Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner by David Conway
David Conway offers a much needed historical account of the unexpected emergence of men and women of Jewish extraction who, independent of church and court, had careers as composers, performers, patrons, publishers, or impresarios in late-eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century musical Europe. His book stands as a complement to two other recent books: James Loeffler’s engaging 2010 study of Jewish musicians in Russia, and Ruth HaCohen’s penetrating 2011 study, which covers some of the same material as Conway’s, such as Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies set by Isaac Nathan, but in a more essayistic fashion. Together these three books stand as a corrective to other recent studies that by virtue of either their polemics or their interpretive shortcomings are unable to draw together methods of Judaic studies and musicology effectively. With three quarters of its text organized as a country-by-country exploration, covering the Netherlands, England, Austria, Germany, and France, with a brief excursion to Italy, there is the sense that one is embarking on a journey akin to the grand tour. Though discrete points of interest do crop up—did you know Charles Sloman (born Solomon), who wrote, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” was Jewish?—the journey is not intended to be simply a pleasure cruise. For one thing, it is punctuated by case studies of major figures—Charles-Valentin Alkan, Fromental Halévy, sister and brother Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jacques Offenbach, Salomon Sulzer—and for another, Richard Wagner is always looming.
The views of Wagner are represented by his notorious 1850 essay, Das Judentum in der Musik, which Conway translates as Jewry in Music, thus intentionally sharing a title and placing his work in counterpoint with Wagner’s. Although Judentum is commonly translated as Judaism, which is Charles Osborne’s choice for his 1973 translation, Judaism is not Wagner’s subject. “Jewry” is the topic common to Wagner and Conway, namely, the social-economic dimensions and authenticity questions of Jewry’s involvement in the arts. It is Conway’s purpose to erode the key points of Wagner’s position: that Jews do not have the capacity for artistic creativity, and their participation in European culture is artificial—both are reflected in Wagner’s animus toward Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. Ultimately, Conway presents [End Page 125] evidence to reduce the exaggerated footprint of Wagner’s essay by showing that “for the broad public of 1850 … Wagner’s affronted principles were below the threshold of perception” (265). In the spirit of looking at this history of emergence free from the coloration of Wagner’s essay while mindful of its existence, we can take up the question that motivates Conway’s book: “why did Jews suddenly appear in the musical profession from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards?” (1). Ramifications of this question touch on the fluidity of social standing and religious identity, societal pressure to convert and the exchange value of conversion, economic and intellectual opportunity, and cultural and self-formation. All these aspects are taken up in the treatment of Felix Mendelssohn, who has been the subject of renewed scholarly interest in the aftermath of attempts either to degrade him (Wagner) or, since World War II, valorize him (Eric Werner) by tying him falsely, in one way or another, to his Jewish origins.
Those following the discourse in recent years concerning Mendelssohn’s inscrutable spiritual identity and who are wondering what Conway adds to help crack this enigma will wish to turn to “The Jewish Ambience of Felix Mendelssohn” (173–84). Conway does not adopt the approach of Jeffrey Sposato, Leon Botstein, or Michael Steinberg, that of using Mendelssohn’s music to assess his mature attitudes to Jewish self-identity. Distinct from Botstein’s or Steinberg’s, Sposato’s analysis of the anti-Judaic texts set to music by Mendelssohn places him at a remove from a Jewish orbit. As desirable as a musically informed reading of Mendelssohn...