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?