How much Judaism went into Mahler’s music?

How much Judaism went into Mahler’s music?


norman lebrecht

October 03, 2016

The question is well put by a recent convert – to Mahler, that is, not to Judaism.

Here’s Barton Swain’s argument:

I wonder the degree to which Mahler had internalized this Judaic aesthetic, if that’s not an unduly literary way to put it. Many of the Hebrew Bible’s histories read this way: An untidy series of mistakes and betrayals and partial gains leads in time to fulfillment and rest. We know that as a child Gustav was an “excellent” student in Judaic studies, and many scholars have pointed out the Jewish influences apparent in his works, especially the Second Symphony, “Resurrection.” The analogy of his music to the life of Joseph is probably a fanciful one, but it is not preposterous.

Mahler’s achievement, if I’m right, was to translate the things that make human life by turns fulfilling and painful, elegant and stupid—the tawdriness, the chaos, the dignity and comedy and splendor—into exquisitely beautiful works of art. They are overpowering and outrageous in their scope, but beautiful all the same. Six months ago I didn’t see the point of Mahler’s music. Now, as I write, I hear the jokey pulsations and majestic horn trills of the Ninth’s second movement in my head, and it’s hard to see the point of anybody else’s.

Read the full conversion article here.

mahler mountains

You can learn more about Mahler and his Jewishness by reading…

why mahler



  • David Osborne says:

    Well that’s definitely a Klezmer band (complete with clarinet doing all the right things) you hear striking up some way into the 3rd movement of the 1st.

  • Hans van der Zanden says:

    Bernstein made a fascinating easy – ‘The little Drummer Boy’ – for the BBC in 1985 examining ‘the roots of Mahler’s inspiration’ – dealing with this subject in great detail; available grom Deutsche Grammophon.

  • mr oakmountain says:

    The first time I heard Mahler as a kid was Symphony No3, VPO under Abbado. Intrigued and fascinated as I was, I also remember my utter disbelief when the recapitulation of the first movement was started by an off-stage drum playing the traditional “Einschlagen” that starts EVERY March in Austrian marching bands; also when the Posthorn Solo was interrupted by a muted trumpet playing the “Abblasen” – the most frequent and banal of Austrian military bugle signals.

    My first thought was, “Why would Mahler do that?” But then it struck me that the real question was, “What do all the other people make of that passage if they don’t get the jokes, and how many dozen jokes am I missing?”

    Now, in said VPO recording there is no doubt the orchestra members get these particular two jokes – many of them have a traditional Austrian music background. When they see the music for the first time, they must be amused or shocked by the passage, and this will inform their performance. But what about US and UK trumpeters and percussionists? Mahler’s contemporaries must have noticed these passages too. What is lost when today’s audiences can’t?

    Now, having gotten many of the Austrian wind band inside gags, the mind boggles at how many Jewish, Czech and 19th century references I keep missing, but in the end a masterpiece will never reveal all its meanings to everyone at once, not even to its creator.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But maybe all those possible references are irrelevant, because they have been filtered into ‘absolute’ music, not opera? By turning them into ‘pure’ music, they become universal human experiences, also when listeners have no associations with the sources.

      • mr oakmountain says:

        I see your point, but some of these passages would strike contemporary Viennese audiences as hard as if you were to include, say, a passage from a Lady Gaga song into a symphony. It would take a century of forgetting where the reference came from before reception of the music became pure and universal.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Maybe…. but it seems that there is a great difference between Bohemian or Viennese folklore and the utterances of this woman. And then, there’s much contemporary music around nowadays including snaps of pop, but not many people do care, since the genre has stopped to mobilize goodwill.

  • Peter says:

    Mahler’s music is full of the surroundings he grew immersed in. Judaism is one but not a very big part of it. The high quantity of scholarly work done particularly digging into that one aspect, but much less so into the many other aspects of life in Bohemia and the Austrian Empire that influenced Mahler, the born jew, converted to christianity, what do we learn from that?
    To me it feels like an attempt to make Mahler into something he wasn’t and didn’t mean to say. Like an attempt to reposess Mahler, him, that free creative spirit that can’t be put into that one box ever.
    I love Mahler the great musician as the artistic and creative human spirit he was and will be for a long time through his creations. Why is that not enough for some?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. And also: what exactly is ‘Judaism’? A racist concept? A cultural concept? As far as it is cultural, it is European, and not ‘Judaic’. The collective experience of Jews as being alienated etc. was and still is shared by numerous non-Judaic people in the West. The Holocaust, however insanely horrible it was, does not suddenly turn people from Jewish descent into a separate category of European inhabitants, it was a murder on Europeans.

      And racist elements reading into music is nonsensical.

      R. Wagner described, in his rather clumsy and unpleasant way, ‘Judaism’ as a cultural phenomenon, clothed in racist terms, but reading closely you understand he meant the negative forces of early industrialism, and thus ‘Judaism’ was and is an entirely European notion and irrelevant as a ‘label’.

      Whatever could be described as ‘Judaism’ in Mahler’s music, is fully and entirely a European notion: the feeling of breakdown of culture, the clashes between past and present, nature and the city, the individual and the collective, the intellect and the emotions, etc. etc. and especially: aesthetic splintering and loosing ground. All of M’s music can be considered the expression of the inner drama of the European 20th century, more so than its ‘official’ products as offered by Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, and P. Alzheimer.

  • Milka says:

    The Swain read is barely interesting but typical of the subjective psychobabble that
    people are prone to when writing on music ..
    People read into music whatever suits their point of view however banal , from
    fate knocking on the door to Joseph to changing the world .Music in itself has no meaning.,people bring the “meaning baggage “to the music and one guess is as
    good as the next ,unless the composer marks in the score this abstract sound reflects what I was thinking at the time of writing and notes what it was he was thinking ,it is all subjective game playing .

    • MS says:

      You’re like a dog that keeps fouling the carpet.

    • David Osborne says:

      My dear Milka, you appear not to be your usual bubbly, jocular self at the moment. Shame because I think you’ve really nailed it with this comment. I completely agree with everything you say here.

      • Milka says:

        Thanks , but the air heads go on and on ,they must have their day in the sun
        with all the” ironic” psychobabble they can muster, irony this irony that etc .
        Siegfrieds’ observation is spot on .

    • Max Grimm says:

      Agreed. And kindly, Mr. Eric Shanes supplied a practical example to go with your words in the comments down below.

    • Sally says:

      Just exactly what we think here down in the basement! So relieved someone writing this… From now on, I don’t have to feel inferior when listening to classical music. It’s just noise.

  • Siegfried says:

    Surely Mahler spent much of his time giving Jewishness a wide berth.
    He certainly wasn’t a believer, he had himself baptized to further his career, putting
    worldy success above what is quaintly called The Faith of His Fathers, married a Gentile whom he asked to be on the look out should he behave in ‘too Jewish’ a manner, what ever that might have been, and to give him the high-sign to knock it off. I suspect he wanted to be a German more than anything else. And why not.

    • Peter says:

      one word: assimilation. It was in Mahler’s time the other strong, if not even stronger, movement in judaism, in opposition to zionism, which was, as the radical ideological alternative to assimilation, also too radical and ideological for many, particularly well educated, jews at the time.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It seems that many people from Jewish descent did no longer consider themselves ‘Jews’ because fully assimilated, they did not give it any serious thought. Identity is what you create yourself for yourself. This explains the enthusiasm for Wagner at the time by many ‘assimilated Jews’ – people who had ‘shed’ Judaism from their identity catalogue.

        For people who consider themselves first and forewmost ‘Jew’, such people ‘betray’ their desendence, and this can turn into nasty sentiment comparable with antisemitism, like the American (!) musicologist (and conductor) Leon Botstein who wrote with vitriolic condemnation about Stefan Zweig, who considered himself entirely European, in spite of his forefathers stemming from the ‘Judaic’ tree.

  • Dennis says:

    “…Jewish influences apparent in his works, especially the Second Symphony, “Resurrection…”

    This couldn’t be more off base. Of all his works, the Second Symphony is surely the least “Jewish” and the most “Christian”. “Resurrection” is not exactly subtle, and the fifth movement’s lines from Klopstock and Mahler bear a striking resemblance in tone and subject matter to the ending of Dostoevsky’s “The Brother’s Karamazov,” one of Mahler’s favorite writers and favorite books.

    In any case, it seems to me that those are eager either to dismiss or claim Mahler as a “Jewish” composer all overstate his “Jewishness” and also understate the Christian influence on him. Mahler, was a complicated man, and his relationship to religion, both his native Judaism and Christianity was equally complicated and sometimes contradictory.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    How much Judaism went into Beethoven’s music? Itzhak Perlman thinks that Beethoven heard “Kol Nidre” and it made its way into the String Quartet No. 14 op. 131 movement 6, Adagio quasi un poco andante.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Who is Barton Swaim anyway? A former speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina who shamed his state by dumping his wife and family for an Argentine mistress after claiming he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” during a six day disappearance when he was actually canoodling with her. Now Swaim seems to be a freelance writer.

    How seriously can we take someone who “tried to like” Mahler without success, but now that he’s in love with Mahler can’t “see the point” of anyone else’s compositions? Obviously, not seriously at all. This is not a serious person and the soft, ice cream-like extrusions from his brain about Mahler should not have been solicited or accepted for publication.

    Which is not to say that the header of the post, whether and how much Judaism is in Mahler’s music, is not an interesting question.

  • Eric Shanes says:

    Like all religions, Judaism is a belief system and a culture. Mahler had no real belief in Judaism but culturally he was wholly Jewish. The irony in him was especially Jewish – being a form of psychological defence – and it permeates his music from beginning to end. It may well be that to fully understand it you have to be Jewish; who knows? But if you cannot grasp Mahler’s irony you cannot fully understand his music. That is why so many people have problems understanding him, especially in works like the finale of the seventh, which is perhaps his most bitterly ironic (if wittiest) Jewish statement. And the so-called tragedy of the sixth was clearly Mahler’s response to the nihilism implicit in the vast wall of Viennese anti-semitism he constantly had to face.

    I endorse everything that Cyril Blair has to say in his second paragraph about Barton Swain, by the way.

    • Peter says:

      Irony is especially Jewish? I don’t think that’s right. Ever been to eastern and south-eastern Europe? Irony and sarcasm are widespread in slavonic, also germanic, regions.

      • Eric Shanes says:

        Jewish irony is especially Jewish, yes. It’s very different from, say, British irony or German irony or Romanian irony or wherever. It’s very much a matter of subtlety and veiling, in order to survive, alas.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Irony in music does not quite work, since it is a literary / linguistic thing, dependent upon context. The classical concert context is much too straightforward to offer irony.

  • Siegfried says:

    Quite so, and how well you spell it out.
    The Mahler Industry has never been noted for its sanity,
    probity or restraint, as opposed to self aggrandizement, muddled
    thinking, desperate claims, bland phoniness and the wildest commercialism.
    How it does remind one of the Trump campaign….

  • Michael NYC says:

    Our speechwriter’s chronology seems a bit fantastical when you consider the segue leading from this:

    “Which brings me to August of this year. Earlier in the year, I planned to be in Edinburgh for several days during the city’s yearly music festival, and the only musical event I could make it to was—I was disappointed to find—a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It would be undertaken by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Daniel Harding.

    And then a couple of sentences later over to this:

    “I spent more than three months listening to nothing but Mahler and reading little but books and articles about him and his music.”

    Perhaps it was August of LAST year when the introspection crept in over in Edinburgh?
    Ach these johnny come lately latch-on Mahlerians with their loose sense of chronology…as time goes by, the world a symphony, yes indeed…

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    “Six months ago I didn’t see the point of Mahler’s music. Now, as I write,…”
    Does this imply that he wrote about Mahler after “getting his music” for only 6 months?
    He’s a dilettante, not even on the level of a Gilbert Kaplan.

    Actually, the two paragraphs quoted above show he is clueless.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    One of my musicteachers (a witty jewish gentleman) once said: ‘I detest Mahler. in his music I hear the screaming and yelling of my jiddish grandma.And that goes on and on and on….

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    Jennie Tourel used to say “Even when Mahler tries to sound happy, he sounds sad,” i.e. Lieder ein Fahrendes Geselen “ging heut Morgen uber’s Feld” and then “nun faengt auch mein Glueck heran”, and what can compare to the Jewish soul like “ich bin der welt, usw. Judaic modality and tonality frequent Mahler’s music, how could they not? It’s in his soul, in his heart, very, very deeply. Did he intend it to be so? He couldn’t help it….but nothing middle eastern, al la Israel….all Eastern European. Amazing composer. I’m glad he gave us his all.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What Mahler ‘said’ in his music, is part of universal human experience. That is why he is so popular, and not exclusively so among people who consider themselves Jewish.

      • Milka says:

        What nonsense … he “said ” nothing” you are doing all the interpretation.

        • John Borstlap says:

          For people, for whom music is mere noise, there is no communication from the work to the listener – music is merely the noise it makes and any interpretation is entirely a projection of the listener. But the point of music’s communication is comparable with language: letters and words, and the sounds if spoken them, are means of communication the meaning of which is embedded in the text. When we hear a classical piece in a concert hall, we hear a narrative, things moving high and low, in fore- and background, while ‘in reality’ only a group of people are sitting still on the platform scratching strings and blowing in pipes. We hear these thins in the imagination. But they have been planned, organized, rehearsed, because they were envisaged as organized meaning by the composer; the interpretation by the listener is of a meaning that was organized as such at the beginning of the trajectory.

          • Milka says:

            Your argument falls apart within the very first sentence.

          • Mr Oakmountain says:

            I completely agree with Mr Borstlap, and this is why the influences, references and quotes that Mahler put in his symphonies are so interesting: Like in normal conversation, the common field of references the audience and the composer share enable some degree of mutual understanding, implied by the composer and experienced by the audience.

          • Mika says:

            Mr. Oakmountain falls into the same trap that Mr. Borstlap always sets for himself.
            Whatever audience and composer share is all after the fact…what the audience hears
            and what the composer hears are two different worlds.Music is not a conversation .

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    There is something sick about Mahler. It is for me unconceivable to get artistic inspiration of dead children, or of children dying of starvation, or of things like that. However, his instrumental symphonies, the 5th, the 7th and the 9th (I have not given much attention to the 6th), were great.

    • Helene Kamioner says:

      Leonard Bernstein said that Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler’s greatest symphony. Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod. How true.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Isn’t that a bit of a generalization? I’m having tea just now & feeling quite happy.

        • Helene Kamioner says:

          Sounds lovely, and you are quite right about Mahler’s message being universal. I believe Mahler was bipolar….why he was bipolar, I cannot tell you, but the man suffered terribly and he had a God given gift to express his internal feelings through the MOST gorgeous music. I believe there is sadness in joy….? I’ts a Jewish thing, though.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I regularly experience sadness in joy and the other way around, not because I have two instead of one pole, but because that is often the case with life experiences in general. Mahler was excessively good in turning this phenomenon into music, but not he alone: Mozart, Schubert, and much of Beethoven, and the entire romantic school of the 19th century. Mahler wrote in that tradition. Also in Wagner operas there are many stretches with complex combinations of emotional shades, not tried before. The typical ‘Jewish sadness’, tinged with irony, is merely a universal emotion sharpened into focus because of the history of antisemitism. It is not in itself something that deserves an altogether separate category of psychology.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    This is a link to the very short but helpful relationship Mahler had with Freud

    • John Borstlap says:

      Freud’s ‘scientific psychology’ has to be treated with scepsis….. and so should his ‘treament’ of Mahler. If Mahler had not had an extremely demanding and busy conducting career and had had a better partner choice, he would have had a calmer life, with more music written, and different music, and probably he would have lived much longer. But then we would not have had Mahler but someone else. Nothing is predetermined.