The New Republic Reviews “The Music Libel Against the Jews”

University of Chicago professor David Nirenberg reviews Ruth HaCohen’s new book, The Music Libel Against the Jews, a study of how Christian and Classical music developed in relation to ideas about Jews and their music: “The idea that Jewish music (or noise) was un-harmonious, insincere, manipulative, materialistic, or in some other way morally and spiritually dangerous: this idea helped to produce (and was also produced by) the Western musical tradition.”

Each case study takes us as through a magnifying glass into an unknown gem, many and mysterious facets gleaming in a forest of reflection and delight. Consider HaCohen’s chapter called “The Aesthetic Theology of Multivocality: Arnold Schoenberg among Alter Egos.” The title already points to multiple mysteries. Aesthetic theology, we imagine, is meant to suggest a field every bit as fertile as its more famous cousin, political theology. Multi-vocality places us in a soundscape—simultaneously choral and psychoanalytic—in which many selves and voices resist reduction to unity or harmony. And alter egos, we suspect, will emerge not only from the composer’s cultural context, but also from the music itself, as figures and motifs into which, as HaCohen shows us again and again, composers and authors project the vital questions of their being.

Schoenberg converted to Protestantism in 1898. This was something of a contrarian choice in the Catholic Vienna that he, Freud, and many culturally prominent Jews called home. His conversion was motivated, we may assume, by the same desire for “normalization within Gentile society” that HaCohen sees in the musical aesthetics of other early twentieth-century composers of Jewish extraction such as Mahler. Theirs was an “aesthetics of transfiguration, subverting fixed categorization.” It prioritized “process over form, experience over object, and hard-won spiritual gratification over ready-made pleasure.” The goal was to produce a music that overcame attributes considered “Jewish” in the aesthetics of the day (such as formalism, mimesis, and vulgar sensuality), and thus “transcended [Jewish] particularism and endorsed [Christian] universalism of a new kind.”[….]

HaCohen turns now to the glissando sonorities of Schoenberg’s cellos in the Golden Calf scene of his oratorio Moses and Aron, in which she hears the bellowing voices of the Bull god on the verge of slaughter. And out of the musical and narrative tensions of the scene she begins to construct Schoenberg’s struggle with the basic oppositions of the theological aesthetics of his age. These oppositions, already encoded in lapidary Christian antinomies such as Paul’s “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” had long since been mapped onto the difference between “Christian” and “Jew,” and thence via countless cartographies onto musical “oppositions” such as dissonance v. harmony, surface v. depth, formalistic v. inspired, words v. music, epigone v. genius.

Read the rest of the review here. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.