Did Mahler get his klezmer idea from Mendelssohn?

Did Mahler get his klezmer idea from Mendelssohn?


norman lebrecht

June 25, 2018

A new recording of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra brings out a striking klezmer clarinet in the funeral march.

It also makes you wonder whether Mahler was processing Mendelssohn half a century later in the funeral march of his first symphony.



  • Paul says:

    Yes, you are right, in that he was most certainly quoting Mendelssohn there. However, that had already been pointed out at least by Henry-Louis de La Grange in the early 1970s, so let’s not attribute any striking discovery to maestro Fischer or to this recording.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Mahler’s material is almost entirely quoted, it is his bringing together of different things that bears the stamp of his originality and his ‘own voice’.

      • Rob says:

        Wrong. Mahler doesn’t quote from this Mendelssohn at all. His music is about as far from this material as the Earth is from Neptune.

        This tired story has been going around for years. It’s like saying, there is a blade of grass. So there must be a god! Say it often enough, print it, build a few temples and millions will believe it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I was not particularly commenting on the supposed Mendelssohn quote but about Mahler’s way of composing in general.

          • Barry Guerrero says:

            After doing TONS of reading on Mahler, I’m in John’s camp . . . or is it Sally?

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Barry: If my PA sneaks into my study and uses my account, it’s definitely her (she is always making a point with her name), but about Mahler she does not know a thing.

            I don’t know what ‘my camp’ would be (‘Mein Kamp’?), I am a great admirer and lover of M’s music, but selectively.

  • Rob says:

    Subconsciously? Probably not.

  • Chris says:

    Doesn’t de la Grange tell us that Mahler never heard klezme,r and those sections in the funeral march are based on Romani music? Perhaps I’m not quite remembering what I read though.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      If he did say it that way, I don’t think he had it quite right. Jens Malte Fischer – the author of the most thorough single volume biography on Mahler – goes into great detail on this topic. What I put in my posting towards the end of this chain, reflects Fischer’s thought on this. I think Malte Fischer got it right.

  • anon says:

    I don’t get it:
    1) is it the claim that Mendelssohn was quoting an actual klezmer tune, which therefore justifies the klezmer playing style?
    2) or is it the claim that because Mendelssohn’s ancestors were Jewish, that if a tune he wrote could be treated in the “Jewish” style, it should be?
    3) or is it the claim that no matter how Mendelssohn self-identified (as a Christian, along with his parents, who were baptised), he is, and what he wrote, were inexorably Jewish at there core?
    4) or is it the claim that Jewishness is co-extensive with klezmer-ness?

    I think Mendelssohn would be horrified by the klezmerisation of his music, because all 4 claims above are wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

    • anon says:

      Imagine if all Jewish composers, when conducted by Jewish conductors, should include klezmer clarinets and violins:

      – Gershwin: Rhapsody in Klezmer
      – Schoenberg: Verklezmer Nacht
      – Glass: Klezmernisqatsi
      – Bernstein: Klezmer Side Story

      • The View from America says:

        Goldmark: Rustic Klezmer Symphony
        Schoenfeld: All Klezmers Go to Heaven
        Meyerbeer: Le Klezmer
        Schreker: The Birthday of the Klezmer
        Zemlinsky: A Klezmer Symphony
        Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Klezmer
        Korngold: Die Tote Klezmer

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        Actually, it could be argued that the huge clarinet glissando that begins “Rhapsody in Blue” is very Jewish or ‘Klezmer’ influenced.

        • JoBe says:

          Schnittke: Life with a Klezmer Idiot
          Weinberg: The Klezmer Profile
          Tansman: Suite in modo klezmerico
          Bloch: Baal Klezmer

    • John Borstlap says:

      Klezmer is as Jewish as jazz is black and classical is white and dominating. The music is easily adaptable so its ‘ethnic’ prehistory is irrelevant for the music itself. Traditions are not ethnic in themselves.

      And Mendelssohn is as German/classical as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Reicha, Goethe, Kant, Moscheles, Weber and Wieland.

  • C Porumbescu says:

    The Wikipedia article suggests that klezmer musicians didn’t habitually use the clarinet during Mendelssohn’s lifetime: therefore that the clarinet sound would not have been understood as ‘klezmer’ in the first half of the C19th.

    That said, some clarification from someone with access to genuine musicological research would be a useful counterpoint to a lot of wishful thinking.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    That sound awful. Mendelssohn is so refined, elegant, beautiful. I’ll skip the Fischer and keep Marriner.

    • jaypee says:

      You’re right. God forbid we try something new…
      And you know what? Let’s not stop there: let’s also get rid of all recordings on period instruments… After all, Neville Marriner recorded everything…
      And we all know that there is only one interpretation possible for each work…

  • phf655 says:

    The history of what is today called Klezmer is obscure. It is often portrayed as a transitional moment in music – between the liturgical music of the Ghetto, and the music of the assimilated, acculturated and secularized Jewish communities of Europe of the later nineteenth centuries. It should be noted that the Jews of Prussia were only emancipated in 1812, it is thus doubtful that Jewish musicians would have had access to ‘western’ musical instruments, such as the clarinet, much before that. To my inexpert ears, the clarinet episode, as conducted by Fischer, has a strongly Eastern European tinge, inappropriate in the generally post-classical, Biedermeier musical world of Mendelssohn. In short, this is an anachronism.

  • Old Jim in Toronto says:

    I am not a musician, I am not Jewish, and I have only recently been made aware of the existence of klezmer music. But I have been listening to music for a very long time, and the first time I heard this particular piece by Mendelssohn (in an EMI recording by André Previn) the thought immediately occurred to me that this was Mendelssohn doing a wicked parody of Mahler. The similarity may or not be accidental, but it’s certainly obvious. That said, Mr. Fischer’s interpretation of it seems to me to attribute to Mendelssohn a more klezmerisch disposition than he can possibly have had.

    • JoBe says:

      “the thought immediately occurred to me that this was Mendelssohn doing a wicked parody of Mahler”
      It could surely only be the other way round, if ever.

  • Doug says:

    Hey, cut him a break. Living in an upscale residence in Berlin while you bellyache about so-called “fascists” in Hungary is hard and expensive work.

    • jaypee says:

      Lookie: another trumpanzee who’s confusing slippeddisk and fox “news”…

      This vermin is really everywhere… Thank god, we’re starting to treat them as they deserve: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/23/trump-press-secretary-sarah-sanders-ejected-virginia-restaurant-red-hen-lexington

      Oh, and fyi, orban is a fascist…

      • Sue says:

        Imagine, if you will, if that was Obama ejected from that Virginia restaurant! Off to the Supreme Court!!

        Such staggering hypocrisy and infantile behaviour from the Left. As usual.

        • Bruce says:

          Our Supreme Court decided that a baker can refuse to practice his trade if it promotes something he finds morally abhorrent. Providing nourishment to members of this administration falls (or should fall) under the same protection.

        • jaypee says:

          Sue, when your hero talked abour grabbing women by the pussy, were you turned on? Or was it when he made fun of a handicaped person?
          Oh, I get it, it must be when he said that Megyn Kelly was bleeding from her whatever… That’s the moment you realized that this was the man your country needed, right?

    • Heath says:

      Are you upset that other conductors too are living in upscale residences? Or is it something about his background that you are intolerant of? Hmmm

      Oh and, by the way, Hungry is pretty close to fascism these days. Guess you don’t read the news.

  • Max Raimi says:

    I loved it. Just as I have loved many very different interpretations of the same music. On a related topic, I played the “Tannhauser” Overture a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck by how Wagner took time out from eviscerating Mendelssohn so he could all but plagiarize the “Nocturne” from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The parallels between that work and the opening of Wagner’s overture are striking: Same meter, same key, pretty much the same tempo, same sonority with the unison horns and clarinets, and the same device of adding intensity with triplets in the accompaniment a few measures in. Even the melodies have distinctive similarities, although I would argue that Mendelssohn’s gains in interest by eschewing the standard four-bar phrase lengths.

    • Philip says:

      There is another intriguing Wagnerian connection with the Mendelssohn. There is a phrase in the Intermezzo of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music that sounds as if it’s about to turn into the Act 3 Prelude to Die Meistersinger.

      Both works take place on midsummer night so it might not be just a coincidence…

      • John Borstlap says:

        Later in life Wagner expressed admiration for Mendelssohn’s music (Cosima’s diary). When he wrote his nasty anti-Mendelssohn texts he had been treated badly by the musical world, had infinite money problems, had to flee Germany and lived isolated in Zürich, while Mendelssohn’s career had gone from Gipfel zu Gipfel, was famous and was supported from the craddle onwards, and had always been cushioned by money (his father was a rich banker). But wagner always knew that Mendelssohn was, in terms of purely musical craft, superior to him who had to struggle with everything, also in his music – maturing slowly and only later in life achieving mastery. He was simply envious of Mendelssohn’s obvious ease in everything.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Mahler did hear colloquial dance music in his home town of Iglau. How close that was to what we would describe today as being ‘eastern European’ sounding is difficult to ascertain. Mahler clearly heard something because there are too many places in his music – “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” and the first symphony in particular – that give away those origins.

    This also gets into the semantics and etymology of the term “Klezmer”. Wikipedia gives us the following: ” is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Played by professional musicians called klezmorim in ensembles known as kapelye, the genre originally consisted largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations”

    In that sense, Mahler most likely heard ‘klezmer’ music at some point.

    As for Ivan Fischer’s treatment of the funeral music from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, I feel that we would have to have Mendelssohn himself listen to the recording and give us his verdict. I rather like it.

  • Rob says:

    Iván Fischer has said in interview he will never record the Mahler 8th Symphony,. It’s sad, because it is Mahler’s masterpiece.

    He said “I have no key to it.”

    In my view if you don’t understand the 8th, you’ll never understand Mahler at all.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Rob, I agree with you on this point. Klaus Tennstedt said that the 8th married Mahler’s earlier “Wunderhorn” style to his middle period “Ruckert” style (I’m paraphrasing). Tovey pointed out the mastery of the 8th, ‘in spite of the great noise that it makes’ (again, I’m paraphrasing). Mahler himself called it ‘objective’, but stating that all his previous symphonies were, quote, “subjective”.

      The 8th is usually explained as an anomaly that happened out of thin air. It isn’t. Mahler himself didn’t realize that he had composed an important ‘darkness to light’ trilogy with his symphonies six through eight (with five being a ‘darkness to light’ model for the trilogy). Symphony six recognizes and states the dark direction that Europe was headed (with its rapidly expanding ‘military-industrial complex’, combined with the antiquated and bellicose political system), while the 8th proves to be the antithesis: pointing the way to a more ‘enlightened’ society by improving our own being (or enlightening ourselves, if you will).

      After this trilogy, Mahler ceased composing ‘publics’ works and turned inward. Hence, the great ‘farewell’ trilogy of “DLvdE”, 9th symphony and 10th symphony Adagio (or the complete 10th, if you prefer).

      As crazy as it sounds, I’ve often wondered that if Mahler had miraculously recovered – let’s say through the sudden introduction of penicillin (which didn’t happen until much later) – would he have had the political clout to interfere and change the course of the European crisis, and hence prevent the blood bath of 1914 – 1918. Then again, you could make that same argument for any number of great men, if they had lived longer than the normal life expectancy of those times. But while Mahler had ties into the upper echelons of Paris society and politics, he would have had little influence in Berlin. It’s a pipe dream, but I one I indulge myself in, from time to time.

      Regardless, yes, the 8th is a great work in my view. I see it as the summation of all European music up to the year 1910 (pre Debussy and Stravinsky, let’s say).

      • John Borstlap says:

        I could not possibly more disagree, even if I tried very hard. I always found Mahler VIII very thin in musical substance (not all, but many themes are cheap and insignificant) and some pumped-up Mendelssohn with a couple of abberations thrown-in. A very pretentious subject and very pretentious instrumentation – no serious music does need more that 80 musicians – and if you listen closely and look into the score, there are many sloppy things in it especially in the parts of the solo voices. A beautiful idea and much to quickly put together in a summer holiday vacation without much thought. No, I don’t think it is Mahler on his best, this work is rather a sketch of a work than a real achievement.

        It reminds me of those very big, sympathetic but clumsy Victorian railway stations with all the elements of Great Architecture but all on odd places and incompatible with each other, and using incompatible materials.

    • barry guerrero says:

      Ivan Fischer doesn’t need to “have a key to it”. Line up good singers; make sure you get a get a really decent tenor; use a hall that has plenty of space for the the two adult choirs and childrens chorus, plus a good sounding organ; then do what the score tells you to do. Have plenty of rehearsals for the choirs; play ‘traffic cop’ and keep a positive outlook. If you do just that, it’ll come out fine and – who knows! – maybe he’d actually enjoy the experience.

      It’ll be interesting to see if his brother, Adam Fischer, feels the same way.

      F.Y.I. We already have a very good recording of Mahler 8 from the Mormon Tabernacle with yet another (unrelated) Fischer: Thierry Fischer on Reference Recordings.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I don’t agree with that – I think it’s extremely well put together, but it’s good that there are differing opinions. There may be some short-cutting here and there, but it’s a hybrid of the oratorio and symphonic genres. For what it is, I don’t think there’s anything better. Certainly Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” isn’t an improvement (great ending though). Regardless, what sort of world would this be if all agreed on everything?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Being confronted by works like Mahler’s and having the opportunity to compare them with other works, all this forces us to develop and refine our perceptive frameworks and tastes and understanding. There should not be a general absolute consensus….