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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

Yet less than three years after Mendelssohn's death, in September 1850, an article appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (by then no longer edited by Schumann) that set in motion a backlash against him from which his reputation has never fully recovered, and put a whole new complexion on the idea of German nationalism, indeed of nationalism as such. The article, signed K. Freigedank (“K. Free-thought”), was called Das Judenthum in der Musik (“Jewry in music”), and it made the claim that Jews, being not merely culturally or religiously but biologically—that is, racially—distinct from gentile Christians, could not contribute to gentile musical traditions, only dilute them. There could be no such thing as assimilation, only mutually corrupting mixture. A Jew might become a Christian by converting (as Mendelssohn had done), but never a true gentile (hence never a true German).

Nationalism Takes a Turn

fig. 3-6 Monument to Mendelssohn by the sculptor Werner Stein, which stood in front of the Leipzig Gewandhaus from 1892 to 1937.

As long as nationalism was conceived in linguistic, cultural, and civic terms, it could be a force for liberal reform and tolerance. To that extent it maintained continuity, despite its romantic origins, with Enlightenment thinking. A concept of a united Germany could encompass not only the union of Catholic and Protestant under a single flag, but could also envision civic commonalty with Jews, even unconverted ones, so long as all citizens shared a common language, a common cultural patrimony and a common political allegiance. During the 1830s and 40s, the period now known to German historians as the Vormärz (because it preceded the abortive revolution of March 1848), German musical culture had demonstrated the liberality and inclusiveness of its nationalism by allowing an assimilated Jew to become, in effect, its president.

Mendelssohn, for his part, was an enthusiastic cultural nationalist, even a bit of a German chauvinist, as his letters, with their many smug if affectionate comments about the musical cultures of England, France, and Italy, attest. The libretto of Paulus, which begins with the story of the stoning by the Jews of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, even betrays an anti-Judaic sentiment.

But there is a profound difference between the anti-Judaism of the Paulus libretto and the sentiment displayed in Das Judenthum in der Musik, to which we now apply the label anti-Semitism (a term coined—by its adherents!—in France in the 1890s). That difference, moreover, is directly congruent with the difference between the liberal or inclusive nationalism of the early nineteenth century and the racialist, exclusive nationalism that took its place in the decades following 1848 and that is with us still. A religion may be changed or shed, as a culture may be embraced or renounced. An ethnicity, however, is essential, immutable, and (to use the favored nineteenth-century word) “organic.” A nationalism based on ethnicity is no longer synonymous with patriotism. It has become obsessed not with culture but with nature, symbolized by Blut und Boden (blood and soil).

Thus, for the author of Das Judenthum in der Musik, even Mendelssohn's undoubted genius could not save him from the pitfalls of his race. He could not “call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from Music,” because his art has no “genuine fount of life amid the folk,” and can therefore only be “reflective,” never “instinctive.” His choice of Bach rather than Beethoven as his model was the result of a stunted, “inorganic” personality: “the speech of Beethoven can be spoken only by a whole, entire, warm-breathed human being,” while “Bach's language can be mimicked, at a pinch, by any musician who thoroughly understands his business,” because in Bach “the formal still has the upper hand” over “the purely human expression.” In sly reference to E. T. A. Hoffmann's bedrock romantic tenets, the author denied Mendelssohn, or any Jew, the ability to rise above mere glib, social articulateness and achieve “expression of an unsayable content.” Yet in seeming paradox, the most conclusive proof of Mendelssohn's impotence (and his unworthiness of comparison with Mozart) was his failure to write a great opera. Oratorio—“sexless opera-embryos”—was the highest level to which his Jewish spirit could aspire. The only authentic emotional expression Mendelssohn could achieve was the “soft and mournful resignation” found in his piano pieces, where the author of the article affected to discern a genuine and moving response to the composer's own consciousness of his racial inadequacy.

Finally, the author warned, Germany's acceptance of this musician as its musical president was only the most obvious sign of the “be-Jewing” (Verjüdung) of the nation in the name of Enlightened liberality. The Jewish influence must be thrown off if the nation is to achieve organic greatness, its heroic destiny.22

With contents that by the late twentieth century could only be regarded with alarm, such an article would hardly be worth quoting in a book like this but for three factors that conspired to make it in its day, and (alas) have allowed it to remain into ours, a force to be reckoned with. In the first place, it is the most vivid symptom to be found in musical writings of a change in the nature of nationalism that all modern historians now recognize as a major crux in the history of modern Europe (and, after the blood-soaked twentieth century, in the history of the entire modern world).

Second, it paints a picture of Mendelssohn that has remained influential even after its motives have been forgotten, owing to the radical opposition it constructs between retrospectivism or conservatism (stemming, in this case, from Bach) and “revolutionary” progressivism (stemming from Beethoven) as historical forces. This dubious opposition, originating in ugly politics, has nevertheless remained a basic tenet of music historiography since the middle of the nineteenth century. It has been influential, moreover, not only on historians but on composers as well, which has made it a major influence on the actual history of composition, not merely its historiography.

Third and most immediately consequential: as many readers guessed, and as he himself revealed in 1869, “K. Freigedank” turned out to be Richard Wagner (1813–83), an envious fellow composer and a native Leipziger (and, though it is usually forgotten owing to the very different shapes of their careers, a member of the same generation as Mendelssohn) who would shortly become in his own right one of the towering figures in music history. Wagner's words achieved an almost scriptural authority for his innumerable followers, and he was probably the most potent single “influence” on many succeeding generations of composers everywhere. As hardly need be added in view of his pronouncements on Mendelssohn's limitations, his main domain was opera.

His authority was such that by the end of the 1860s, Wagner was (in Carl Dahlhaus's words) the “uncrowned king of German music.”23 Comparison of that epithet and the one we have applied to Mendelssohn—“president of German musical culture”—not only goes a long way toward explaining Wagner's obsessive antagonism toward the figure he displaced, but is also quite suggestive of the trajectory along which the parallel histories of music and of Germany would proceed over the course of the nineteenth century.


(22) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, condensed, Vol. III, pp. 93–96.

(23) Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, trans. Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 4.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003012.xml