“Brahms the Jew”

I am listening at the moment to the late great violinist David Oistrakh play the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, a large, sublimely melodic, complex orchestral piece with a solo slicing through the it like a magic conductor’s wand again and again. I haven’t listened to it in years, but a recent email sent me back to it, and am I glad!

My friend Misha Pless—brilliant physician, polyglot, once-concert-quality pianist, and music lover extraordinaire—who supplied the rather pessimistic assessment of anti-Semitism in Europe I wrote about a few weeks ago, sent an uplifting account of a great composer’s relationship to the Jews:

“On a different, happier note, in the last couple of months I had been coming

back to an old love, the music of Brahms. It is comforting that there is a

tendency in my life to go back to previous anchors, to former safe harbors.

Well, as part of such a return, I had been listening to some more obscure and

yet absolutely riveting vocal pieces of this magnificent composer.  

“Also I decided to re-read his biography when I got the surprise of my life…it turns

out that in his mature years, Brahms, a cantankerous and rather solitary, gruff

type of person became almost obsessed with issues of anti-Semitism, which had

been come to an overt  boil during his long tenure in Vienna. The Wagnerian-Nietzsche camp, under the spell of their rabid anti-semitic rhetoric which took over middle Europe in the mid-19th century, upset Brahms to no end.

“He wrote a few letters to many of his Jewish friends, including to the famous

celebrity violinist and close friend of Brahms' Joseph Joachim, decrying this

trend. To this end one of the most bizarre turns of events took place in and

around 1860 – Brahms began to be known as ‘Brahms, the Jew,’ chiefly by

Wagnerian groupies. In an era of rumor-turned reality, even the public bought

the canard that he was Jewish, even though he was raised in a strict Lutheran

household.  He actually took pride in such rumors and defended his many Jewish

friends with ardent loyalty to the end of his days.” 

Misha reminds us that Wagner and his followers, the reigning force in music in the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth century, were virulently anti-Semitic, and that was no small part of their popularity. They were an integral, important part of the mutagenic process that led to the Germanic world’s stinking, pervasive, metastatic twentieth-century cancer that ended in six million murders of Jews.

So what was Johannes Brahms doing while his rival Richard Wagner was laying the musical foundations of Fascism? Stuart Isaacoff, in his 2004 article “Brahms the Beleaguered,” explains further:

“To be politically liberal in Brahms's Vienna meant to be artistically conservative…The city was immersed in a struggle between an ascending political right wing and a waning left. Wagner had declared the work of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven superseded by the new music, and the more powerful right embraced Wagner's revolutionary call for a new wave. ‘For the right wing,’ wrote [Jan] Swafford, ‘the exigencies of form proclaimed by the old liberals were to be swept away by a music of passion and blood-instinct.’”

It was a war between liberal ideas of progress expressed in civilized music that built on Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann’s musical discoveries, versus the increasingly vicious passions of a radical, anti-Semitic right, expressed in the bombastic musical bluster giving pride and life to twisted Teutonic dreams.

No wonder Hitler found his muse in Wagner. The “Ride of the Valkyries” would end at Auschwitz. No wonder, either, that Israelis have refused to play his music in public ever since.

For any Wagner lovers who may be reading this, I am not accusing you of being anti-Semitic. I am accusing you of embracing the music of an anti-Semitic composer whose racism and anti-Semitism were an intrinsic part of his creative impulses and goals, and whose musical choices were designed to further the worst conceivable political aims.

Do yourself a favor and download some Brahms lieder. I just did, and now my only problem is, How am I ever going to get back to work?

10 thoughts on ““Brahms the Jew”

  1. That was a wonderful blog Dr. Konner. I am downloading more Brahms, adding to my collection, as we speak. Great new information on two important musical figureheads. Thank you. It is always good to feel informed about the individuals whose work I choose to embrace and support.

  2. You must listen to the Vier Ernste Gesange op. 121 (Four Serious songs).  The texts for the first 3 songs are from Ecclesiastes ( nice Jewish writer).  These songs were written at the very end of his life and are as moving and profound an expression on the theme of life and death as any ever written by a living mortal.  A few hearings of this music done by a great singer and pianist will hook  you for life and bring a few tears to your eyes. Try the old Kipnis or Fisher-Dieskau recordings. The surest indicator of great music is the test of repetition.  The more I listen, the better it gets and I have been listening to this music for over 60 years with ever increasing appreciation and love. Mel, your job is to take a few minutes of your time and sit Steve down near your Hi Fi set to hear this stuff…one of my failures as a father.   Life is short and I don’t want my son to have lived it without the inspiration that comes from such a genius…even if he (Brahms) never had a Bar Mitzvah.

  3. Good post. Nietzsche was nauseated by Wagner’s Antisemitism, which was one of the reasons for their famous schism. Nietzsche, thanks to the Nazis, was tarred as an Antisemite, although in fact he was a strident opponent of Antisemitism and exerted a great influence on Jewish culture and politics.

  4. What sense does this make? “I am accusing you [who love Wagner’s music] of embracing the music of an anti-Semitic composer whose racism and anti-Semitism were an intrinsic part of his creative impulses and goals, and whose musical choices were designed to further the worst conceivable political aims.”
    So it is morally wrong to love Wagner’s music? Why else is an ‘accusation’ being made? Must the Wagner lover share Wagner’s vile views? Is he supporting them, it loving the music? What’s your point? –not a Wagner lover, but get a grip.

    • Thanks for your comment. I guess I was just trying to call attention to the fact that many experts see the theme of racial supremacy as intrinsic to Wagner’s music. I would restate the quote from the article by Isaacoff: “Wagner had declared the work of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven superseded by the new music, and the more powerful right embraced Wagner’s revolutionary call for a new wave. ‘For the right wing,’ wrote [Jan] Swafford, ‘the exigencies of form proclaimed by the old liberals were to be swept away by a music of passion and blood-instinct.’” Also, one of the articles I linked to in the posting gives a complex and balanced analysis. It ends, “If anybody introduced politics into music, it was Wagner himself.” Investigate Wagner’s writings, such as “Das Judenthum in der Musik,” and you will see how true that statement is. Like I said, it’s not anti-Semitic to love Wagner’s music, but I do think people should know the facts, which do not support a separation between the music, the man, and the politics.

  5. It is a challenging problem, evaluating musical works and taking into consideration the views of the composer. Certainly Wagner presents us with such a challenge in that his views and behavior were repugnant while his music has had enormous influence and is loved by millions. On reflection, I feel it is a mistake to not make a separation. First, to appreciate and enjoy the music is not in any way an expression of support for the composer’s political views. Second, if one demands that a composer has to be a nice person before his or her music should be listened to, one won’t be listening to much at all.

    • Dear David, I think you oversimplified my views considerably. I don’t think a composer has to be a nice person. I do think that in Wagner’s case separating the politics from the music is more difficult, as I indicated in my response above to DWS, with citations to scholars far more knowledgeable than me. Mel

  6. Thanks for your response, Dr.Konner. I liked your essay and essentially agree with everything you said. I assume that any exhortation it contains is intentionally ambiguous. It is this “grey area” I am addressing in pointing out that the relationship between the views and behaviour and the artistic output of a composer is a problematic one. What would you advise, for example, regarding Modeste Moussorgsky and Vincent d’Indy, both notoriously anti-Semitic (pale, perhaps, in comparison to the standard-bearer Wagner)?

    • David, thanks for hanging in there all this time. I don’t know d’Indy’s music but I do like Moussorgsky pretty well. I didn’t know he was anti-Semitic, and I will now try to learn more about both, but I doubt that either’s anti-Semitism would make it difficult for me to like their music. Anti-Semites have abounded in the past, among artists as well as everyone else. I guess my Wagner problem has to do with his own conception of his music as a Teutonic answer to the weakness of the Jews, especially Jewish composers and all who (like Brahms) trafficked with Jews. Anti-Semitism was part of Wagner’s artistic program, as I understand it. Poetry is something I know and love much better than music, so it’s helpful to me to think about Ezra Pound. I always loved and still love his early poems, especially his imitations from Chinese and Anglo-Saxon, but his original ones as well. I think that his two-line poem called “In a Station of the Metro,” is a little masterpiece. In its entirety it reads, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/petals on a wet, black bough.” I have little doubt that he was very anti-Semitic (like T.S. Eliot) when he wrote that, but I don’t think anti-Semitism became a part of his poetic program until the Cantos he wrote under Mussolini. I have little use for those, read some of them once, and probably won’t return. Perhaps if I knew more about music I would find things to like in Wagner—Tristan und Isolde maybe?—but my resistance is great. Thanks however for helping me clarify my thinking about this. Happy 4th of July, Mel