05 December 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
and his Jewish librettist

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) … his image seems to be present on every street corner in central Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided since my visit to Vienna last month to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

When Kurt Waldheim was President of Austria, there was a cruel joke among journalists that the definition of an Austrian politician was someone who tried to convince you that Hitler was German and that Mozart and Beethoven were Austrian.

Of course, both composers died in Vienna, Mozart in 1791 and Beethoven in 1827. But while Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Germany – in Bonn in 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Austria – in Salzburg in 1756.

The great Jewish composers and musicians associated with Vienna included Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), who lived in Vienna in 1897-1907; and the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), a cousin of the grandmother of the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nor should we forget the Jewish origins of the Strauss family.

Mozart decorates souvenirs and boxes of chocolates and marzipan in shops in central Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

There can be no doubting that Viennese citizens and shopkeepers regard Mozart as one of their own – he decorates shop windows, chocolate boxes and a variety of marzipan gifts on every street in the Austrian capital.

And, while no-one could even imagine that Mozart was Jewish, many key Jewish people influenced his life and work.

The Habsburg Emperor, Joseph II (1780-1790) issued his ‘Edict of Toleration’ in January 1782. For a long time, his chief censor was Joseph von Sonnenfels, a convert to Catholicism but a grandson of Rabbi Michael the Pious, Chief Rabbi of Berlin. He was a subscriber to Mozart’s piano recitals and generously helped the composer’s brother-in-law, Joseph Lange, when the actor was ill.

Joseph II raised Israel Hönig (1724-1808), a rich merchant and a subscriber to Mozart’s piano evenings, to the nobility with the title of ‘Edler von Hönigsberg’ and made him a ‘Government Counsellor’ (Regierunsrat), although he remained a faithful Jew.

Joseph II also employed Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), a converted Jew from Venice and a one-time Catholic priest, as the librettist of the Imperial Opera House.

Lorenzo da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Republic of Venice. He was Jewish by birth but in 1764, his widowed father converted himself and his sons to Roman Catholicism in order to remarry. Emanuele took his new name of Lorenzo Da Ponte from the Bishop of Ceneda, Lorenza Da Ponte, who baptised him. He was ordained a priest in 1773 and moved to Venice.

But the young priest led a dissolute life: he had a mistress while he was the priest at the Church of San Luca and they had two children. He was charged with ‘public concubinage’ and ‘abduction of a respectable woman’ in 1779. At his trial, it was alleged that he had been living in a brothel and organising the entertainments there.

He was found guilty, banished from Venice for 15 years, moved to Gorizia Görz, then part of Austria, and from there moved to Vienna. There, through the good offices of the composer Salieri, Da Ponte met Joseph II and later Mozart, at the residence of Baron Wetzlar, a converted Jew who supported the composer and wanted to help Da Ponte.

In his collaboration with Mozart, the Jewish-born Venetian poet wrote the libretti of three operas: The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi fan tutte (1790).

Figures of the Golem on a shop shelf beside the Old-New Synagogue in Prague … does the Golem comes to life in the statue in ‘Don Giovanni’? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The original character of Don Juan first appears in The Trickster of Seville (1630), a play by Tirso de Molina (1579-1648), a Spanish monk from a family of converted Jews or conversos. A century and a half later, another converted Jew and priest, Emmanuele Conegliano, known as Lorenzo da Ponte, reworked Tirso’s play as a libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Jewish folklore comes to life in the finale of Don Giovanni, as a huge marble statue is turned into flesh to exact vengeance on a murderer. Indeed, the oblique reference to the Yiddish legend of Der Golem was not lost on audiences in the Austro-Hungarian empire who were familiar with the tales of the Golem of Prague.

Mozart, like Michelangelo – who concealed his love of Judaism in his Sistine Chapel painting – criticised the anti-Semitism of his time, in his opera Il Seraglio, depicting the hated Turk, Selim Pasha, as a compassionate man devoid of religious prejudices.

Mozart was well-read in the works of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, owned copies of his works and seems to have been influenced by his thinking.

Judengasse or Jewish Street … Wetzlar helped Mozart to move to No 3 in 1783 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Baron Raymond Cordulus (Naphtali Herz) Wetzlar von Plankenstern (1715-1799), a wealthy Jewish banker who converted to Catholicism, was Mozart’s understanding landlord during his early, struggling period in Vienna and Mozart asked Wetzlar to be the godfather of his first son. When Mozart found more secure lodgings at Judengasse 3 in 1783, the baron paid for his move.

Mozart and introduced to Da Ponte were introduced at Wetzlar’s palais in 1783. When theatrical intrigues seemed to prevent the first staging of The Wedding of Figaro in Vienna in 1785, Wetzlar to look after the financing of the opera and to stage the production in London. In a letter to his father, Mozart says ‘the Baron, a wealthy Jew, is my true and good friend.’

When almost all wealthy supporters had abandoned Mozart by 1791, shortly before his death, he was still welcome at Wetzlar’s house.

The composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, was known to his contemporaries as ‘the Mozart of the 19th century.’ He regularly conducted Mozart’s orchestral compositions and played the piano concertos with great enthusiasm.

Ernst von Mendelssohn Bartholdy, a nephew of the composer, presented some valuable musical manuscripts to the library of German Emperor William II in 1908. They included a complete copy of Mozart’s Entfuhrung aus dem Serail.

From the early 19th century on Jewish virtuoso musicians played a major role in popularizing Mozart's compositions.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s kinsman, Joseph Joachim, was the leading violin virtuoso of his time and a close friend of Clara and Robert Schumann and of Johannes Brahms. In a letter to Clara Schumann on 18 August 1857, he writes: ‘… for us, who generally consider Mozart a musical Divinity, all little parts by him are interesting and dear.’

Hermann Levy (1839-1900) was the conductor at Bayreuth of the first performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, and provided one of the best German translations of Le Nozze di Figaro.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was instrumental in revitalising the popularity of Mozart’s operas at the beginning of the 20th century. He was the meticulous, demanding conductor of their initial productions at the Salzburg Festivals.

Bruno Walter (Schlesinger) (1876-1962) wrote in his Von der Musik und Musizieren (‘About Music and Music Making’) in anticipation of the approaching bicentenary of Mozart’s birth on 27 January 1956. He wrote, ‘To begin with, this should serve above all as a word of gratitude for the supreme joy with which Mozart’s compositions have brightened, blessed my life.’

Mozart and Beethoven in the window of Vienna’s best-known music shop, the Musikhaus Doblinger on Dorotheergasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 5

‘Jesus was standing beside the lake … and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God’ (Luke 5: 1) … by the shores of Lake Butrint in south Albania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Advent this year, I am joining many people in reading a chapter from Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning. In all, there are 24 chapters in Saint Luke’s Gospel, so this means being able to read through the full Gospel, reaching the last chapter on Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].

Why not join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent?

Luke 5 (NRSVA):

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ 13 Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. ‘Go’, he said, ‘and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.’ 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 Just then some men came, carrying a paralysed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. 20 When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ 22 When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the one who was paralysed – ‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ 25 Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26 Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’
27 After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him. 29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 31 Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’

33 Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ 36 He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good”.’

A prayer for today:

A prayer today from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Let us repent for the times we have failed to recognise the and work against modern forms of slavery.

Tomorrow: Luke 6.

Yesterday: Luke 4.

‘When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him’ (Luke 5: 11) … boats by the harbour in Mesongi in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org