12 December 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
13, Gustav Mahler and
the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) … a 1902 portrait by Emil Orlík (Wikipedia/Galerie Bassenge, Public Domain)

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 decided after 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.

The composer Gustav Mahler, who studied in Vienna and later lived there for the last 20 years of his life in Vienna, is linked inextricably with the city. Yet he once described himself as ‘thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world – always an intruder, never welcomed.’

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was one of the leading conductors of his generation, but his music was banned in much of Europe during the Nazi era. As a composer, he is a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century, and has influenced composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitry Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten.

Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire, to German-speaking Jewish parents on 7 July 1860. He later converted to Roman Catholicism to secure a prestigious appointment in Vienna, but always saw himself as Jewish and throughout his career, especially in Vienna, was constantly the target of hostility in the anti-Semitic press.

The Mahler family had humble origins in east Bohemia: his grandmother had been a street pedlar. The family belonged to a German-speaking minority among Bohemians, and were also Ashkenazic Jews.

His father, Bernhard Mahler, a coachman and later an innkeeper, and bought a house in Kalischt (Kaliště), a village halfway between Prague in Bohemia and Brno in Moravia, in the geographic centre of today’s Czech Republic. Bernhard’s grandfather had been a shohet or Jewish ritual slaughterer.

Gustav Mahler, the second son, was born on 7 July 1860. Three months later, in October 1860, the family moved 25 km south-east to the town of Iglau (Jihlava), where Bernhard Mahler built up a distillery and tavern business and was one of the founders of the local synagogue.

Gustav Mahler began playing the piano at four, gave his first public performance at 10, and was accepted as a pupil at the Vienna Conservatory at 15.

After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of posts in the opera houses of Europe. From conducting musical farces in Austria, he rose through various provincial opera houses, including important engagements in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg.

Mahler was baptised early in 1897, making it easier to secure his appointment later that year, at the age of 37, as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper), a post he held for 10 years.

His innovative productions in Vienna and his insistence on the highest standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. But it was a testing time too for Mahler, who often had to prove his German cultural credentials to appease his employers and did so with some storming concerts conducting Wagner.

His ten years at the Hofoper represent his more balanced middle period. His new-found faith and his new high office brought a full and confident maturity. He married Alma Maria Schindler in the baroque Saint Charles Church in Vienna on 9 March 1902, and they were the parents of two daughters, born in 1902 and 1904.

By then, anti-Semitism in Vienna had become ‘a virtual obsession.’ Mahler became the target of an outrageous anti-Semitic campaign in a press that questioned whether a Jew could maintain the German character of the opera. This in part drove from the company in 1907, and at the of age 47 he became a wanderer again. He moved to New York, where he directed performances at the Metropolitan Opera and became conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Nonetheless, he returned to the Austrian countryside each summer to compose his last works. On 21 February 1911, he conducted his final concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. He was severely ill afterwards and confined to bed. He travelled back to Vienna and died there on 18 May 1911.

In the 1930s, Mahlerstrasse in Vienna was renamed, the Nazis decreed Mahler’s work was degenerate and it could be played only by Jewish musicians for Jewish audiences.

After periods of neglect, his music gained wide popularity and his reputation soared in the mid-20th century. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Leonard Bernstein, his music received international attention, and a recent survey of conductors placed three of his symphonies in the top ten symphonies of all time.

The religious element in Mahler’s works is highly significant. His disturbing early background, coupled with his distance from his ancestral Jewish faith, brought about a state of metaphysical torment that he resolved temporarily by identifying with Christianity. But his Jewish background remained a source of much of the hostility he suffered.

Many say they can identify the influence of Jewish folk music in some of his work, including the third movements of his first and second symphonies. One critic is convinced these were used as models for Fiddler on the Roof, although it is probably difficult to argue that Jewish folk music was central in Mahler’s musical project. Others say Jewish clichés make his music unmistakable, including the klezmer theme in the first symphony, the possible shofar blast in the second, the sighs and whispers of the ninth.

The thrice-homeless Mahler felt most homeless as ‘a Jew throughout the world.’ Scholars are going to keep asking Mahler’s ‘Jewish question,’ continue searching for Jewish musical themes in his symphonies and continue to ask the extent to which he continued to feel he was a Jew.

Mahler’s grave is in the Catholic cemetery in Grinzing, a wine-making village now on the northern outskirts of Vienna, and his gravestone is a simple upright slab. In Jewish tradition, visitors regularly place small stones on top of the gravestone in his memory.

A decorative plate with the Ten Commandments for a Torah Scroll in the Jewish Museum at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse in Vienna (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 12

‘I will pull down my barns and build larger ones’ (Luke 12: 18) … a large barn at Comberford Manor Farm in Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 12 (NRSVA):

1 Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

4 ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7 But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

8 ‘And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; 9 but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.’

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14 But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15 And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16 Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18 Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20 But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

22 He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

41 Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ 42 And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

57 ‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’ … (Luke 12: 35) … the lamp before the Aron haKodesh in the Kadoorie Synagogue in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 pray for the UN and all agencies and bodies working for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially on hunger and poverty.

Tomorrow: Luke 13.

Yesterday: Luke 11.

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