Monday 21 October 2013

Book review: KM Knittel, Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

KM Knittel, Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2010), ISBN 9780754663720, pp. xiii + 201, £55. 

Die Muskete, 10 January 1907


Gustav Mahler’s time has come, the anniversary years 2010 and 2011 (150 years since his birth and 100 since his death) having intensified the ubiquity of his music. Orchestras and conductors treat it as a calling-card. Even Beethoven has been eclipsed as the concert hall’s favourite symphonist. Yet, not so long ago, things were very different. Mahler’s years in the doldrums have been exaggerated, especially by those anxious to claim that Leonard Bernstein’s direction of the New York Philharmonic catapulted Mahler into the spotlight, a dubious proposition even in the Western Hemisphere. Mahler had numerous earlier, influential advocates. Nevertheless, his music long faced ignorance and disdain. Ralph Vaughan Williams, for instance, opined: ‘Intimate acquaintance with the executive side of music made even [!] Mahler a very tolerable imitation of a composer.’ Why might this have been? Did anti-Semitism play a role?

A study of Mahler’s early critics should have much to offer here. As KM Knittel argues in her conclusion (p.168), ‘if there is even the slightest possibility that we have taken over a way of thinking about Mahler and his music from a culture that could not deal with his Jewishness … we owe it to ourselves to rethink what makes Mahler’s music unique, thought-provoking, and valuable.’ Such rethinking, alas, lies without her study. No matter: we can rethink for ourselves. The real problem with Knittel’s book, rather, is that it fails to make a cogent case for anti-Semitic coding of early Mahler criticism: oddly, given the endemic nature of anti-Semitism in Mahler’s Vienna and many of the attacks he suffered as Director of the Court Opera. Despite occasional disclaimers that texts may be read variously, the tunnel-vision of Knittel’s readings counter-productively renders one suspicious of reasonable interpretations in such a vein. She misses an open goal.

The first chapter proper opens promisingly, surveying artist Alfred Roller’s verbal portrait of Mahler. It is good to have Roller’s original German quoted in footnotes, though Knittel appears throughout to have used Norman Lebrecht’s existing translation rather than furnished her own. That may seem pedantic, but when dealing with the nuances of linguistic transmission, reference to words actually used will help. When interpretation commences, claims immediately become questionable. Roller’s ‘failure to address the obvious issue of circumcision inadvertently emphasises its association with castration’. Perhaps, but assertion replaces argument. Moreover, it is odd, in discussion of the body, to lack reference, explicit or implicit, to writers such as Foucault, Lacan, and Žižek. An oft-acknowledged progenitor, however, is Marc Weiner’s ‘brilliant’ (p.160) Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. Weiner’s inability or disinclination, during discussion of Parsifal, to distinguish between circumcision and castration does not augur well.

Moving on to discussion of Mahler’s wife, Alma, it is doubtless revealing that she writes (p.41), ‘So much irritates me: his smell, the way he sings, the way he speaks,’ but failure to consider words such as ‘I don’t believe in him as a composer,’ as possessing weight of their own or other possible justifications almost renders one sceptical concerning anti-Semitism undoubtedly present. Alma’s descriptions are surely more interesting when ambiguity is permitted, indeed explored. That she decided to marry Gustav in order to ‘cure’ him of Jewishness is asserted (p.43) without a shred of evidence. In its absence, many will follow Mahler’s near-definitive biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, considering documented dedication of a performance of Die Zauberflöte to Alma and her mother’s attempted dissuasion to have played some role. Roller’s positive physical descriptions most likely betray (p.47) ‘his unconscious absorption of … cultural markers of difference’. Such is lost, however, in a morass of implausible assertions. Doubtless a considerable part of such work will have to remain highly speculative; it is not thereby invalidated. Consideration of alternatives might nevertheless prove fruitful.

The villain, bizarrely, is Wagner. Weiner et al. at least make him the villain of his own story. Here, echoing Joachim Köhler’s monocausal explanation of the Second World War (Wagners Hitler: Der Prophet und sein Vollstrecker), newspaper critics err on account of, or at least in sympathy with, Wagner’s Das Judent[h]um in der Musik [not ‘Music’, p.53], unhelpfully conflated by Knittel with his Oper und Drama, so that anything in the latter automatically betokens anti-Semitism. Wagner’s criticism of Berlioz’s ‘mechanical means’ of orchestration is read as anti-Semitic, though Berlioz was never thought to be Jewish and Francophobia seems a better candidate – as well, perish the thought, as misplaced cultural criticism. William Ashton Ellis’s outdated translation of Wagner is employed, so that we have no opportunity to compare Wagner’s actual words with the critics’.  Is Wagner, even if one takes the most hostile approach to him, the sole lens through which to view musical critics’ anti-Semitism? Unlikely, to put it mildly. And yet, we read (p.108): ‘The juxtaposition of surface versus depth, the implication that Mahler has nothing to say, and the emphasis on noise or novelty rather than music and ideas can all be traced to beliefs about the inferiority of Jewish music, as articulated by Richard Wagner.’ And so, without presenting any evidence that Max Vansca’s 1907 review of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was indebted to Wagner or intended anti-Semitically – and both may well have been the case – why should we heed the forthright ‘moral of Vansca’s review …: Mahler will reveal himself eventually as a Jew – by writing banal or second-hand melodies’? Something more than bald assertion is required. On the rare occasion when we learn something a little more about a critic, Robert Hirschfeld, it is illuminating, though I remain unconvinced that Hirschfeld’s likening Mahler to George Bernard Shaw (p.135) in terms of technique and playing with irony reveals anti-Semitism. More needs to be said about other critics: background, influences, etc.

Racialist theories languish unexplored, Knittel near silent even concerning Vienna’s own leading anti-Semites. Georg Schönerer and Karl Lueger are merely name-checked, declining comparison of their anti-Semitism with the critics’. When claiming, ‘in a critical sense, anyone could be a Jew,’ Knittel neglects to invoke Lueger’s celebrated claim to decide who was a Jew. She does not mention even in passing the young Hitler’s fervent admiration of Mahler’s Wagner interpretation. Despite repeated please for contextualisation, anything not incriminating Wagner is excluded. Gustav Klimt is ignored. When dealing with cultural history and its politics, other arts, other discourses, will not only provide important material – no one would claim that music existed in a vacuum here – but also suggest what may or may not have been unusual about music. Perhaps that helps explain why strange claims abound, for example (p.49): ‘While Mahler’s Jewish background may seem unimportant now – or indeed, something to be purposely excluded from discussion…’. No evidence is given for unimportance or exclusion; in reality, the contrary would seem to be the case. Knittel then footnotes a few other studies on Mahler and anti-Semitism, enigmatically commenting, ‘I will not dwell on the limitations of the other studies’, before confusing ‘infamous’ and ‘notorious’.

What remains? An interesting selection of extracts from Viennese newspaper critics. An expanded edited collection of such criticism might have been more helpful than an argument that probably needed more time to be honed. We never approach the nub of why Mahler’s (partial) decision to write programme music was understood to indicate Jewishness, whereas undoubted resolutions to do so by Berlioz, Liszt, and Richard Strauss were not. Must there not have been something more to the matter, given that the genre’s foremost practitioners were certainly not Jewish? Knittel’s reading is not necessarily invalidated, yet complexities require consideration, not evasion. A chapter on Strauss criticism holds out promise, but its argument turns out to be: Mahler was Jewish and Strauss was not, therefore identical criticisms of Mahler and Strauss are and are not anti-Semitic. As for the claim that Strauss turned his back upon modernism because it was perceived as Jewish, it is arresting, but where is the evidence? One can imagine the contrary being claimed, that he was returning to a comfortable classicism akin to that of Mendelssohn. 

It is a tedious hallmark of reviews that they berate the writer for not having included something else. I nevertheless cannot help but wonder at the exclusion of discussions by composers such as Alexander Zemlinsky – Jewish, spurned by Alma – and Arnold Schoenberg, and musicologists such as Guido Adler and Heinrich Schenker. Stefan Zweig is dismissed (naïvely?): ‘it must be said, … a rather naïve and self-centred man’. Such figures would, despite their exceptionalism, have something to say about prejudices of ‘mere’ critics and reasons for hostility extending beyond or illuminating anti-Semitism.

Mahler’s time having come – he predicted to Alma that it would, when Strauss’s had ended – might even signal acceptance, indeed approbation, of ‘Jewish’ aspects to his music. Alternatively, even if they exist, that may have little connection to his present esteem. Our view may depend upon preference for Bernstein’s Mahler as agent of personal redemption or Pierre Boulez’s Mahler as modernist godfather.  We should not, however, decide upon the outcome before conducting the investigation.