07 January 2020

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
14, Beethoven at 250 and his
Jewish connections in Vienna

Mozart and Beethoven in the window of Vienna’s best-known music shop, the Musikhaus Doblinger on Dorotheergasse, opposite the Jewish Museum (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 decided after my visit to Vienna in November 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.

Sometime, someday this year marks the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. Although we cannot be sure when he was born, when we know he was born in Bonn in 1770, perhaps on 15 or 16, or even 17 December, because he was baptised on 17 December 1770.

But whenever he was born, we are going to be celebrating Beethoven at 250 throughout this year.

There is no doubt that Beethoven was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – classical composers of all time. He was born into a family of musicians: his grandfather sang bass and was a kapellmeister (music director), and his father sang tenor and taught keyboard and violin.

Mozart followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather at an early age, and at the age of 21 he moved to Vienna and spent much of his life in the then cultural capital of Europe.

During his life, his output included nine symphonies, 32 piano concertos, five piano concertos, 16 string quartets, about a dozen pieces of ‘occasional’ music, seven concerti for one or more soloists and orchestra, 10 violin sonatas, five cello sonatas, two Masses, a sonata for French horn, and just one opera (Fidelio).

He died in Vienna on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56. After a requiem mass at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Dreifaltigkeitskirche), he was buried in the Währing cemetery, north-west of Vienna, on 29 March 2019. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people. His body was moved to Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof in 1888.

But did Beethoven have any Jewish connections or background that we know of?

One composition is said to be based on a Jewish melody, another on the work of a Jewish poet, and one of Beethoven’s works led to the creation of what is regarded as one of the most universal Yiddish poems of all time.

Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (‘To the distant beloved’), Op 98, written in April 1816, was the first significant example of a song cycle by a major classical composer, and the only one he ever attempted.

Alois Isidor Jeitteles (1794-1858), who wrote the texts for the songs, was a member of a prominent Bohemian Jewish family in Prague, where his ancestors included the city’s chief Jewish physician and rabbinical scholars. He was born in Brünn, now Brno, the second city in the Czech Republic. He studied philosophy in Prague and Brünn, medicine in Vienna, and qualified as a medical doctor. But he was drawn to the literary arts, and worked as a translator, playwright and poet. With his cousin Ignaz Jeitteles, he edited the Jewish weekly Siona. Jeitteles’s lyrics to the song cycle were pastoral love poems.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op 131, is the last of a trio of string quartets, and was Beethoven’s favourite of the late quartets. He is quoted as telling a friend he would find ‘a new manner of part-writing and, thank God, less lack of imagination than before.’ When he heard a performance of this quartet, Schubert remarked, ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’

It is said the adagio in the sixth movement of Beethoven’s most overtly Jewish piece of music strongly recalls the melody of Kol Nidre, from the Yom Kippur liturgy.

The musicologist Cecil Bloom, writing in the Jewish Quarterly [28 May 2013], explained that at the time Beethoven was ‘interested in the music of Handel’s oratorio Saul, which led him onto a study of ancient Hebrew music.’

Although Beethoven’s letters betray early prejudices against Jews, he had many Jewish friends and supporters.

In 1801, he dedicated his Piano Sonata No 15 in D minor, Op 28, to the Jewish-born Count Joseph von Sonnenfels (1732-1817), a jurist, writer and social reformer; he was the son of Perlin Lipmann (1705-1768), Chief Rabbi of Brandenburg, who converted to Catholicism with his children some time ca 1735-1741.

Towards the end of his career, Beethoven chose a Jewish publisher, the Schlesinger family, to publish his final compositions.

The Jewish community in Vienna asked Beethoven in 1825 to compose a cantata for the dedication of the Stadttempel, the great new synagogue that opened in April 1826. He was unable to accept the commission, although he did apparently carry out some preliminary study of Musik der alter Juden, perhaps with this in mind.

Instead, the cantata was written by Josef Deschler (1742-1852), a kappelmeister at the Stephansdom, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Franz Schubert wrote Tov Lehodot (prayer) for the choir of the synagogue.

After his death in 1827, Beethoven loomed large in the Yiddish imagination. From Yiddish translations of Ode to Joy by poets such as Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915) and Morthke Rivesman (1868-1924), to short stories written for children about Beethoven, to biographies, novellas, and poems about Beethoven, to centennial celebrations reflecting on Beethoven's legacies in the Yiddish press, there are ample testaments to Yiddish-speaking Jewry’s love for Beethoven.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Beethoven Celebration, is hosting an evening celebrating ‘Beethoven in the Yiddish Imagination’ in New York later this year [20 April 2020].

The programme includes a performance of Ode to Joy in Yiddish translation, a bilingual dramatic reading of a Yiddish retelling of an apocryphal story of the origins of the Moonlight Sonata by actors Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, and a performances of those two Beethoven works with Jewish connections: his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte written to texts by the Austrian-Czech Jewish poet Alois Isidor Jeitteles, and his String Quartet Op 131 with its melodic motif reminiscent of the traditional Kol Nidre recitation.

The musical performances will include baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, the pianist Spencer Myer, and the Ulysses Quartet.

The Hebrew inscription from Psalm 100 at the entrance to the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse, Vienna’s main synagogue … Beethoven declined an invitation to compose a cantata for the opening in 1826 (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’.

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