How five Jews changed western music

How five Jews changed western music


norman lebrecht

September 11, 2020

Just released: my debut performance at the Wigmore Hall, discussing themes from my book, Genius and Anxiety.

The brilliant pianist illustrating my talk is Daniel Lebhardt.

The five composers discussed are Mendelssohn, Alkan, Mahler, Schoenberg and George Gershwin.


  • Detruit says:

    Schoenberg is a destroyer.

    “History will say—history says now—that the 12-tone movement was ultimately a dead end, and that the long modernist movement that followed it was a failure.”

    “Deeply flawed at their musical and philosophical roots, unloving and oblivious to human limits and human needs, these movements left us with far too many works that are at best unloved, at worst detested. They led modern classical music to crisis, confusion, and, in many quarters, despair, to a sense that we’ve wasted decades.”


  • YouToo? says:

    “The Modern Age is the Jewish Age–and we are all, to varying degrees, Jews.”
    As explained in the book “The Jewish Century” by Yuri Slezkine.

    • beyond the absyss says:

      I don’t quote Hitler often… (and I don’t condone genocide.)

      “It is the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere, who do not have anywhere a soil on which they have grown up, but who live in Berlin today, in Brussels tomorrow, Paris the day after that, and then again in Prague or Vienna or London, and who feel at home everywhere.”

      • that was then and now is now and Israel is the Jewish homeland as was and always will be and is here to stay. Jews who do not live in Israel are living in the Diaspora. When we all return home the Messiah will come.

        • Edgar says:

          According to Messiah’s will. Agreed. Not to the will of those who pursure, or sondone, or support political movements/parties that want to force their will onto the Messiah.

    • LaQuanda Mitchell says:

      As a proud Jewish person of color, it’s very painful to have such a disgusting and RACIST lack of inclusion in these posts.

      • Darrious says:

        Hmm…So many thumbs down when Jews are called upon to support their fellow man (particularly a person of color).

        It has made many wonder if racism is rooted not in white culture but more obviously in Jewish culture which self-segregates deeply even amongst other whites.

        • Darwin Approaching says:

          Yes, it makes one wonder about “The White Experience” as well.

          White people consider themselves linked to their birth country whereas Jews self-segregate reverting to their religion skipping over their geographic roots substituting religion.

          Now that BLM/ANTIFA have risen into power, Jews in particular are auspiciously more afraid as they were when Hitler and the same narrow minded, blindly hate filled masses employed the same violence. Due to these BLM Progroms, Jews are now eclipsed by blacks.

          Unfortunately, history has also been rewritten to remove the racism amongst the Irish vs Czech-Poles.. vs Italians vs English when they settled into their own culturally homogeneous areas and fought one another years ago.

          Democrats changed their racism narrative from country vs country to color vs color and infiltrated the educational institutions under the once noble guise of Academia (ie The now dumbed-down “college educated…”). It’s belittled the once vaunted university system in the US.

          Think about it.
          College educated liberals believe they are morally superior yet it is they who fuel ANTIFA, BLM, progressives with their frenetic hate and destruction. They represent the “educated”?!?! Well, how do they support themselves right now? Where do they live and how? And of course, who’s going to HIRE these social deviants with their rap sheets in the future? Who’s going to stick around a 24/7 angry person as they grow older and likely crippled from the fights they provoke? What are they accomplishing to justify the savagery they inflict on others in their black outfits similar to the KKK without the pointed hats yet acting in the EXACT same way?

          These unemployable, bored kids are merely wasting their youth embroiled in unproductive rage but that’s the Democrats.

          Interesting one doesn’t see the Republicans acting out in this manner. They are positive, defensive only when provoked and clean up after themselves when they assemble. Though flawed, they at least have a moral compass and will listen to opposing points of view if not shouted at.

          Soon those using violence as a way to communicate will finally realize the righteous power of the US legal system as their “defund the police” rubbish makes THEM vulnerable to their true enemies…themselves.

    • Ida Golden says:

      Tell that to the Muslims who’ve been driving Jews out of England, France and Italy with their superior religion.

    • Marvin Devonshire says:

      BLM has out-marketed Jews in their forcing of a single group’s history onto the public since Obama came on the scene.

      All people have seen and heard about in recent times are of “black oppression” with no thought for any other group.

      Jews got tossed into the “white bin” to the point that a new study from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany finds almost two thirds of people under the age of 40 have no idea about the Holocaust.

      Since blacks and whites of the BLM variety are mentally blinded to anyone else’s feelings, Jews are exiled once again due to the newer “diversity standards” schools teach about skipping over “white folks issues” believing whites have no problems worth discussing.

      Protests and riots only happen with white on black issues. Other major religious topics which have befallen mostly white people from say anti-Semitism to Catholic Church abuse and Christians being murdered in Africa based on their whiteness barely get a headline. It’s brushed off without acknowledgement as their violent destruction is more important in the name of “black humanity” while black on black crime is soaring with the Defund the Police cuts across their own cities.

      Amusing, isn’t it? But that’s what Democrats have sold to the public in order to attempt to regain power.

    • Jumani Kafahr says:

      More Democrats whining on the anniversary of 9/11 while none of you stop to observe the masses that died.

      You’re all too busy being selfish as you protest what exactly?

      More important events UNIFY people as opposed to your unbalanced divisiveness. Remember that (unless you’re from East Jerusalem of course).

  • Not Bernstein and Sondheim?

    • MWnyc says:

      Bernstein was a titan, but, as a composer, he didn’t change (Western classical) music the way that Schoenberg or Mahler did.

      Sondheim changed musical theater, which is a separate genre.

      Within that genre, yes, I’d say he has had as big an effect as Mahler did. Strange to say about someone who has never had a huge hit — although there are any number of huge hits that probably couldn’t have been written as they were without Sondheim’s musicals as antecedents.

  • Phyllis Stringer says:

    Not Leonard Bernstein?

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Norman, this is extraordinary. I love it, especially the Gershwin segment. Yes. It ain’t necessarily so – Borchu et Adonai hamvorach! And let’s always remember that, even though George fused many ethnic cultures, his ‘tag’ motif in Lullaby, Blue Monday, Rhapsody in Blue and The Man I Love is ‘Good evening, friends!’ This was terrific, and bravo to Daniel for his sensitive and beautiful playing throughout!

  • Luis says:

    Congratulations, querido Norman.
    A really brilliant performance!

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Excellent and thought provoking commentary and presentation.

  • Carlos Solare says:

    Whatever Mendelssohn’s merits are, he didn’t “change Western music” (but then again, he became a Protestant…).

  • Edgar Self says:

    Much food for thought, Norman. My Bavarian wife and I watched it straight thrugh, and will again. Daniel Lebhardt is brilliant, especially his Gershwin arrangements, but also everything he touched. Thank you both. Your ex tempore manner was just right, just informal enough, not too much; the whole intellectually challenging and stimulating. I learned many new things for which I’m grateful to you. And no notes, no scores.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    Thank you for this splendid talk.
    Now I’m looking forward to reading “Genius and Anxiety”.

  • Carlos says:

    You could have added Meyerbeer to your list, I would imagine. I wonder if you considered it?

  • Jeff says:

    “The best talk I’ve ever seen…”

    2/5 Stars

  • Una says:

    Having read the book, bought a few for gifts, and joined in with its virtual launch in Leeds, lovely to have this recording from thevWigmore Hall and the human side. Sorry there wasn’t a normal audience in front of you other than the invisible one. Thanks Norman for shattering. Found it really infiomative and to get it at a time when the New Year and the High Holy Days are fast approaching for all my Jewish friends and all these Covid restrictions again in the way.

  • Bravo, Norman. Next year in NYC!!

  • David K. Nelson says:

    N.L., I would add another name to your list (either expand it to 6 or replace Alkan whose music and biographical details I enjoy but do not find to be particularly influential).

    That name is Joseph Joachim. As a composer he was fairly negligible although not without talent, but even on that point his interesting and attractive Hebrew Melodies for viola and piano would make him a Jew who not only changed music but who actually wrote some explicitly “Hebraic” music.

    But more to the point, it was Joachim more than any other 19th century performing musician I can think of who separated the gold from the dross in European art music. It was largely he who determined that the central string quartet repertoire was Haydn/Mozart/ Beethoven/Schubert/Mendelssohn/Schumann/Brahms. So NOT Taubert or Raff or Lachner or Draeske or Burgmuller and a long list of quartet composers whose music at one time was extremely popular and much performed and thought to be great and timeless.

    Maybe “dross” is too strong a word to describe those perfectly able composers whose music should be heard, but Joachim was really the one artist who was respected enough to make his repertoire decisions influential and wide-reaching, and because he was also a respected conductor I think there is strong reason to believe his prioritizing of quality in European composers was carried over to the orchestral front as well.

    He did similar service to the violin repertoire, establishing the primacy of Bach, Mozart, Viotti, Beethoven, and Brahms in his performing, teaching, and published editions. Not to mention the works written for him, including by Bruch and Dvorak, and of course Brahms. It was really Joachim who made the Beethoven violin concerto into “the” concerto for the instrument. Few knew it or played it after its premiere (true, Paganini did know it and he loved Beethoven’s music, but he rarely played music written by others). These days we have little grasp of the file cabinets full of concertos, sonatas and recital pieces that were once primary violin repertoire and are now very secondary (Spohr) or even obscure rarities. (For a taste of names and pieces check out Carl Flesch’s book on violin fingerings for pieces he likely learned as a youth, and marvel at all the music and even composer’s names which have up and disappeared between his time, which came at the end of the Joachim era, and our own).

    Of course it helped that Joachim knew and made music with Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, and he studied under one of Beethoven’s favorite quartet violinists. But he wasn’t doing favors for pals by making them primary: it was an aesthetic decision and not all agreed with it, but eventually the world came around to share his views. Now we think “well of course Schumann, of course Haydn, of course Brahms” but it was not always so, and not always easy to insist on it.

    Finally and another reason I nominate Joachim for your list, is that some of the most barbed (and not terribly well veiled) slanders about Jews in music in Wagner’s infamous essay were quite clearly aimed at Joachim, who even as a young man was regarded as a “culture carrier” for the best in European art music. And unlike Hermann Levi, who seems to have swallowed hard and offered rather weak rejoinders to Wagner’s points, Joachim took deep and understandable offense and went so far as to break off his important friendship with Liszt (he was Liszt’s concertmaster) because of Liszt’s failure to openly disagree with Wagner in any meaningful way, and firmly put Joachim on the Brahms side of the Brahms / Wagner divide once and for all. Only when Liszt was old, ill and widely known to be dying did Joachim reconcile with the man to whom he owed so much early in his career. But the primary way Joachim refuted Wagner was to continue on his path as a proud, hugely respected, and highly influential European Jewish artist.

  • ira says:

    fascinating and valuable but i believe you got gershwin’s personality wrong. he was no shrinking violet, tinkling away at the piano in a corner. he was a showoff who loved the spotlight and went straight to the piano where he would be surrounded by admirers.
    i never heard a hint about bisexuality. he was well-known as a ladies’ man and the only man he loved was his brother ira.
    he did not leave new york at the height of his fame because of any anxiety but rather because of the great financial opportunities in hollywood.

  • NowhereMan says:

    Very interesting. I just ordered the book.

  • Bill Gross says:

    Amazing information.

  • Donald Wright says:

    What a brilliant lecture, and such beautiful playing from Daniel Lebhardt too. I’d never heard that piece of Alkan’s (“The Song of the Madwoman at the Seaside”) that starts at about 16:10—it was evocative and terrifying! I’m looking forward to reading Genius and Anxiety.

  • fred says:

    Meyerbeer : they ALL learned and borrowed from him from Verdi to Wagner

  • Edgar Self says:

    Daniel Lebhardt’s extraodinarily beautiful playing, and his exquisite Gershwin arrangements, linger in the mind and make me hunger for more. I hope he has commercial recordings.

    With his “Summertime”, “The Man I Love”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. he at once joins loved Gershwin players as Michael Feinstein, Earl Wild, Oscar Levan, Jesus Maria Sanroma,t, and Gershwin himself as one of the best.

    Lebhardt’s quiet playing is ravishing and, in Scriabine’s term, “affanato.” In an on-line interview he mentions Sofronitki and Cortot among his vafroite pianists, with Richter and others. That is revealing and evident. Sofronitzki by the way named Richter, and Richter named Sofronitzki. Cortot named few but taught many.

  • Gus says:

    The book is wonderful, I keep going back and rereading parts, a real treasure. Thank you.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    When you are good, you are good….

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Wonderful talk, but I think Wagner anticipated the opening of Mahler’s first in his own opening to Das Rheingold…

  • Simon Broughton says:

    A really compelling talk. Excellently delivered and lots to think about. Congratulations.

  • norman lebrecht says:

    Many thanks for these very kind comments.

  • Elvira says:

    So to the point, with new data about Mendelssohn.
    The piano music chosen perfectly to support the presentation.

  • Denise Kantor says:

    I first came across the glorious and emotive music of Alkan in 1994 when I managed Ronald Smith’s London concert at St John’s Smith Square featuring four pieces by this composer. A superb performance by all accounts I recall, and I was delighted to receive a copy of his all-Alkan recording on the EMI label – super disc. Thank you for your most inciteful and thought-provoking performance Norman.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I’m still thinking about Mahler, Freud, the Unconscious, and Alkan’s revenge. It helps to know that Norman’s vita gives his alma mater as Kol-Torah Rabbinical College of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. I hope it’s named for the excellent concert-pianist and reccording artist David Bar-Ilan, former editor of “The Jerusalem Post”, friend and adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, or if not for David personally, thenfor his famiy. Bar-Ilan is evidently a name to be reckoned with in Israel.

    I’m also warming my hands over the memory of Norman’s relaxed, ingratiating manner as lecturer, and his unscipted facility as extemporaneous speaker, however experienced and well-rehearsed. Thank you again, Norman, not least or introducing me to the pianism of Daniel Lebhardt.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Peter, the beginning of “Das Rheingold”does more than that. It r-capitulates the Pythagorean basis of harmony over the fundamental E-flat up through the entire physical overtones system and sustains it for so long before moving off with an audible sigh of relief. .

    It’s what Furtwaengler meant in pronouncing atonal music “biologically inferior” to tonal music, with italicized emphasis, with almost comically German Q.E.D. logic in the final chapter of “Conversations on Music”, written about 1948. IT is a deep truth here related to human physiology and the power of tonal music and he Western harmonic system, however habituated.

    The scattering of notes in the beginning of Beethoven’s fourth symphony, which led Weber to think he had finally gone barking mad, is the nearest thing I can think of to the quiet opening of Mahler’s first symphony, in their anticipatory mood. soon confirmed and followed by a jaunty walk.