Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2003.
vii, 199 p. : music ; 22 cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 181-194) and index.
For Jews, the terms “assimilating” or “assimilation” are charged. Many unpleasant associations arise with thoughts of Jews “assimilating into” or disappearing altogether into, general society; becoming like others. As Jonathan Sarna says in the introduction to his new book, American Judaism,: “Through the years, ‘assimilation’ has become so freighted with different meanings, modifiers, and cultural associations that for analytical purposes it has become virtually meaningless. In some Jewish circles, indeed, the term is regularly employed as an epithet.” But “assimilating” is a term that the dictionary states, also means, “absorbing”, or “to take in and appropriate.” It can mean a “healthy appropriation of new forms and ideas.” In this book, David Schiller bravely makes distinctions with something that “happened in a more or less remote past or that is happening now.” Using the term in the title is not only eyecatching, but essential to his thesis about the nature of Jewish art music.
Assimilating Jewish music is, Schiller points out, “something that audiences do when they listen, as well as something that critics and musicologist do when they write about it.”. At the same time Jewish music “assimilates into the Eastern tradition of art music when it appears in the form of concert genres such as the oratorio, cantata, and symphony.” This book concerns these ideas, but also presents discussions of the connection between the composer, his views of himself as Jew, his views toward assimilation into greater society, his art into universal art, and his views toward Jewish identity in, and through, his music.
At the core of the work, Schiller discusses three great compositions of the twentieth century as the case studies. He presents his theories on how Jews both absorb Jewish musical identity into their music, and how that music is understood as Jewish and Western art music. These compositions are: Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service, Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, and Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish. Comparisons are drawn between intentionality in creating the three great works, which are based in part on Jewish liturgical texts. The issue center is not that the composer is assimilated into Western art music, but how much did the composer “assimilate”, or incorporate Jewish elements into his work, why, and how? What constituted the composer’s Jewish identity within the music, and why was it used? How does one create a specifically Jewish sound? How does one portray the uniqueness of the Jewish theological message, or the intensity of Jewish grief after the Holocaust? How can one be true to being ‘German,’ or ‘American’ and Jewish at the same time? How is this reflected in the music?
These questions are difficult. The reader is provided with some insightful, deep answers to explain these complex questions by Schiller. For this reason, reading this book is essential to those who want to understand how Jewish art sharply reflects and also defines us culturally.
Ironies abound. Schiller goes into the expropriation of the works of these Jewish artists by critics, Jews and non-Jews, for their own interpretations of events. Indeed, in the first segment on Bloch, Schiller’s carefully researched and thorough examination of Bloch’s creation, and intentionalities in regard to the Sacred Service, show Bloch’s hoped for understanding of the universality of Judaism through his work. Bloch felt the Sacred Service‘s universality could redeem Jews in the eyes of Europeans. It was to be the Jewish oratorio for all humanity. In fact, it was quickly adopted by Jews and others as the piece showing Jewish particularism. Time and place mattered for Sacred Service and it did not achieve status as the universal connector. Even Bernstein’s recording of Bloch changed text from the original score, in part, for the purposes of Jewish specialness. Ironically, Bernstein’s own work of Kaddish, intended to express his personal statement of Jewish identity, was not accepted by many on Jewish theological grounds. Schoenberg, whose ‘education’ about what it really meant to be a Jew came after an early conversion in life, felt, in the end, that he carried on Wagner’s musical legacy and guaranteed the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.
In ways that stagger the imagination, the art of these three men summarizes the experiences of their generation of Jews. Ultimately, as an emigre from Nazi Germany, Schoenberg came to believe that Zionism was the truest answer to Jewish problems. His 12-tone musical construction of A Survivor from Warsaw may be doubted as “Jewish music”, but, Schiller states there is “no doubt that it is (to borrow Ringer’s dintinction) a Jew’s music.”
Bloch’s profound understanding of himself as a Jew in “racial” terms informed his Sacred Serviceas much as his artistic loyalties to Wagner. And the younger, American-born generation of Bernstein brought “a postmodern perspective to the problem of assimilating Jewish music”. Bernstein felt that the trend and pull of assimilating into the general culture of Americanism was too strong to hold onto the Jewish past. Yet he too found that his “feelings of Jewishness” had to be answered and dealt with artistically. The results meant an unraveling and retwining of identities into a new synthesis –albeit with awkward juxtapositions and incongruities.
Schiller’s examination of the musical aspects of these theories of assimilating of Jewish music is studied, thorough and clear. Heavily indebted to previous writers about the biographical aspects of these musicians, Schiller nevertheless reveals a refreshing ability to tap into the essential points of the thread of ideas. Cultural Jews will want to know and understand these aspects of Jewish art music, and this book will bring them to that understanding.
Perhaps only now, after the close of the twentieth century, can we begin to put the pieces into perspective. Despite numbers of composers such as Schoenberg who came into America mid-century, the central event of the Holocaust changed everything in Jewish music as all else in Jewish life. Perhaps these compositions represent more of the history than just identity and separate events. Bloch’s pride of Jewishness in Sacred Service, Schoenberg’s declaration that “we’re still here” in Survivor, and Bernstein’s mourning, pleadings, defiance in Kaddish, all essentially still revolve around that central event. What the musicians today learn from how these composers “assimilated” Jewishness into their music, speaks not only to our generation, but for those to come.
“Assimilating Jewish music” must continue for Jewish art music to continue. It’s a model about how to go forward from here. Understanding how the great ones did that, makes this book an important party to that future musical development.