800 Words: A Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks: The Good Stuff from Rossi to Mendelssohn - Oh God This Is Getting Longer
(Al Naharot Bavel - By The Waters of Babylon. By Salamone Rossi)
And so out we came from the Ghetto at no more than a trickle. We see signs of a Jewish musical culture to rival any Goyishe claim as early as the 16th century. Out of the hundreds of musical masters to come out of the musical Rennaisance, the Jews produced
exactly one. The Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi wrote absolutely gorgeous polyphonic motets with Hebrew texts from the Old Testament. If one were a music lover who couldn’t tell the difference between Hebrew or Italian, one might assume Al Naharot Bavel a Gesualdo madrigal. Rossi was a court musician in Mantua, but his family almost certainly originated from Venice’s once-thiriving Jewish community. Indeed, he and his sister were both friends with Venice’s greatest contributor to musical history: Claudio Monteverdi. That a court musician like Rossi could be openly Jewish and write devotional music for the glory of his religious minority is a development not to be repeated for three-hundred years.
(An Adon Olam of which Palestrina would be proud)
However long it took for Italian Jews to be accepted by the rest of Italy, it took far longer in Eastern Europe. Italy had a large and consistent Jewish presence since the Flavian Dynasty. To this day, the Italian Jewish community exists as a genealogy utterly apart from the rest of Judaism - neither Sephardi or Ashkenazi. But if Italian Jewry stretches back to the Roman Empire, Eastern European Jewry can only trace its roots to the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne admired the industry of Jews and therefore invited the gumptious Hebrews to settle in towns upon the banks of the Rhine. As a result, the emancipation of German Jews was correspondingly later.
(Giacomo Meyerbeer - Psalm 91: Qui in manu Dei requiescit)
There is always something about musical achievement that always seems to occur later in history than other branches of the humanities. By 1870, Impressionist painters were scandalizing Parisian galleries while salons were still stuck on Saint-Saens’s gold-plated neo-classicism - Debussy was still a small child. Goethe and Jean Paul lit the way toward Romantic literature while Haydn and Mozart were still sounding the notes of high classicism. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that while the intellecual emancipation of German Jewry begins in the mid-18th century with Moses Mendelssohn, the musical emancipation of German Jews does not occur until the mid-19th century with Felix Mendelssohn, Moses’s grandson - more on him in two minutes.
(Wagner in embryo. The Coronation March from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete - the first piece I ever played in an orchestra.)
But before the 19th-century emancipation of the Jewry which Germany found so crucial in its development into a world power, we must stop for a brief but welcome sojourn in Paris. As the French always have been in matters of principle, 19th-century Parisians were at the very vanguard of progress as far as Jews were concerned, and as always they were nowhere near the progressives they thought themselves to be. In the early 19th century, there were not one but two eminent Jewish composers of Grand Opera. One of them was the much-feted Giacomo Meyerbeer, who practically invented the term ‘Grand Opera’ and was a Peter Jackson for his day - a composer of the grandest stage entertainments Paris had ever seen. His operas are gluttonous displays of orchestral muscle, virtuoso singing and grand choral fanfares which call for the tackiest, most exotic possible stage sets - all with nary a three-dimensional character to be found. His operas are synthetic as motor oil, as dated to our ears as C.B. DeMille is to our eyes.
(Il Crociato in Egitto - some typically grand Meyerbeer)
One of the very first people to notice how artificial was his music was one Richard Wagner. In the early 1840’s, Wagner was a talented but penniless musician living in Paris who spoke not a word of French. By 1840, the German-born Meyerbeer was an extremely wealthy man and quite generous to other musicians whom he felt displayed promise. Meyerbeer so highly esteemed Wagner’s potential that he personally recommended Wagner’s opera Rienzi for the Dresden Opera - a premiere that would the first (and financially the greatest) success of his career. Wagner repaid that debt by anonymously publishing an tract called ‘Judaism in Music’ in which Wagner took Meyerbeer to task for ‘Judaizing’ opera with hours of empty bombast, artificial plots, superficial characters and facile spectacle. In the forty years after Meyerbeer’s friendship proved so key to Wagner’s success, Wagner paid Meyerbeer a much more fitting tribute by writing operas of empty bombast, artificial plots, superficial characters and facile spectacle. Incidentally, Wagner also reserved some time in his infamous pamphlet for the only musician he hated more than Meyerbeer, the "detestable" Felix Mendelssohn; but more on him in one minute.
(Mime and Siegfried. The German ideal alongside the Wagner’s archetypal Jew.)
As befits a stranger in a strange land, Meyerbeer’s operas all seem to focus their plots on the theme of tolerance. The typical Meyerbeer plot will include (among many other things) an oppressed minority group at the mercy of the majority. Whether intentional or not, Meyerbeer’s Jewishness may have made him particularly sympathetic to the plight of the ‘other,’ a plight which the other eminent Jewish composer of his era addressed far more frankly. Whereas he pecunious Meyerbeer was the son of great wealth long before he made money himself, Fromental Halevy was the mere son of a cantor. Halevy was not only born to modest means, but he died in near-penury - forced his life long to support himself as a professor and musical administrator. He did, however, achieve two great successes in his career. The first was an opera called La Juive (The Jewess) - an opera praised as one of the very greatest not only by Mahler but by Wagner himself. It’s medieval plot, like all opera plots, is a bit far fetched; but the plot deals with the impossibility of love between Christians and Jews, and the horrific persecution which Jews endured in the Middle Ages. At its center is the character of Eleazar, the Jewish goldsmith who watched his sons executed as heretics. In order to save his daughter’s life, he must confess that his beloved daughter is not his biological daughter but is in fact the daughter of the very man who sent his sons to their deaths. In his despair, he sings one of the greatest opera arias ever written:
(Rachel, quand du Seigneur...Rachel, as God gave me to you...)
The ability to create something as wrenchingly sad as this seven minutes of music takes not only talent but immense training, luck and knowledge of life’s suffering. It’s a combination inherently difficult to gain, and Halevy never managed it again. Whereas Meyerbeer possessed an infinite supply of money and ease to put his talent in the service of grand entertainment for fifty years, Halevy only once gathered the means to develop his still greater talent into the creation of a great work of art. Never again did he manage to set the world afire. But part of his legacy was to bequeath the world a pupil who very much did.
(The most famous duet in all opera...from an opera people still don’t know)
Over the years, Halevy taught various musical subjects to most of French music’s greatest lights of the mid-19 century. But no light among them was so great as Halevy’s prize pupil, to whom he grew closer than any other student. The student was Georges Bizet, the greatest musical talent of his generation from any country. And Bizet grew so close to Halevy and his family that he married Halevy’s daughter Genevieve. After Halevy’s death Bizet completed his final opera, Noe. Six years after Halevy’s death, Bizet’s followed. In the intervening six years, he bequeathed the world (along with a number of still neglected works) Jeux d’enfants, L’Arlessienne, and Carmen. Meyerbeer's legacy to our day is Wagner, Halevy's is Bizet. I know who I prefer...
(Is it completely insane to wonder if Bizet based the Chanson Boheme on memories of watching the Halevy family dance the Hora?)