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The Cultural War Against Jewish Music

Ruth HaCohenFilmed at Hebrew University

That Jews, with their spectacular record in the last two centuries as composers and performers, were ever considered as unmusical and noise makers comes as a great surprise today to many musicians and non-musicians. And yet, for at least one millennium, in Western Europe and beyond, Jews were considered inharmonious, haters of pure Christian music, and their service was condemned as noisy and nauseating. This defamation, I argue, was deeply ingrained in a theological conviction that linked Jews' alleged perfidious act towards Christ in the moment of crucifixion with their total exclusion from the Divine Harmony, celebrated by the Church.  Erupting in the wake of the notorious blood libel (12th c.), this accusation was embodied in a libellous story about an innocent Christian boy killed by a Jew in order to silence his "harmonious musicality" and spread in multifarious ways throughout Europe in the following centuries. What  I chose to claim in my talk goes beyond the libel itself, as well as its early and later manifestations (which extend up until Nazi films), and even beyond the way it affects the careers of Jewish composers once they started to populate a common sonic sphere that seemed, at first, quite welcoming. My talk's major thrust is to show the neglected, however crucial, role of music in shaping modes of religious, communal and ethnic experience, self-perception and perception of the Other, and how they reinforce major political trends in human culture. Concurrently I plead for reading even such entrenched and unfavorable "plots" in a non-deterministic ways, showing that within the history of that noise libel, individuals and groups sometimes lent their ears and hearts with sympathy to the sonic unfamiliar discovering most precious cultural, emotional and moral values it embodies.

Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower) – the  Artur Rubinstein Professor of Musicology – is  a musicologist and cultural theorist  at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she also officiates as the Head of the School of the Arts.  She widely published on various topics related to the role music plays in various cultural, political and religious contexts and conflicts. Her work and teaching, regarded as “interdisciplinary in the strongest sense” combines methods and insights from philosophy, theology and critical theory, among other disciplines, and spreads to other art forms, including literature, painting and film. Her last book, The Music Libel Against the Jews (Yale University Press) won the Kinkeldey award for the best book published during 2011 by the American Musicological Society, and the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines.  HaCohen’s original thesis, regarding the role of noise accusations as a strategy of excluding the sound of other cultures was widely acclaimed.   Her work extends also to the emotional dimensions of the arts, exploring in particular how compassion and sympathy configure through sound, sight and literary texts. Most recently, she has completed, with Yaron Ezrahi, a volume on music and politics and is currently engaged in studying conflicting and complementary sonic exegesis of the Bible by Christians and Jews in modern times.

Imagine a young Christian boy, age seven or so, walking down a narrow street, the Jews street, on his way back from school to his eagerly awaiting mother, a widow. It’s a picturesque medieval town and the time’s mid-12th Century, or a bit later. The boy, who adores Virgin Mary, sings day and night and on the way hymns in praise of our lady. That’s a chance; alma redepmtoris mater…..sings ala redemptoris mater. The Jews are irritated; actually, they abhor this sweet music. So they conspire to stop this singing and they catch the boy and slit his throat and a miracle transpires. Mary’s grace, the boy, this young Orpheus continues to sing even after death and is canonised as a saint. The Jews, if moved by the marvel, convert; if not, all burn to death.
So, this fiction which embodies, what I call ‘the music libel against the Jews’, disseminated in a host of variations throughout the Middle Ages, western Middle Ages Europe. Erupting in the wake of the notorious blood libel, it found expression in multifarious ways. Surprisingly, historians overlooked it until now and I as a musicologist, as you heard, I detected somehow its echo actually through texts, pictures and of course music in many centuries to come. This is Mary and the boy many centuries later. Where did this libel stem from? In as much as Jews were inevitably exposed to Christians singing in late medieval towns, so Christians could not refrain from hearing neighbouring Jewish sounds, it was all very small and close by and it sounded different. No imposed harmony on the voices of individuals prevailed in the Jews’ singing. No musical scores, like this beautiful one, guided the singing, no trained musicians. Jews mumbled the prayers in an uncoordinated way and the results was heterophony; unsynchronised tunes mixed with unruly actions. There was also a sound of unnerving wail and the terrifying ululation of the shofar, in the autumnal season. To unaccustomed Christian ears it sounded weird and scary. So, of course, Jews experienced their sonic world in a different way but who was interested in what they felt? As a matter of fact, they were neither the first nor the last oppressed or alien group whose sonic world sounded noisy to the hegemonic culture. Clearly noise was and still is associated with the music of the other. But it went deeper than that, for this noise accusation was anchored in a deep tripartite theological conviction consisting of, perfidy, destruction and disharmony. Perfidy: Jews, the uncompassionate, betrayed Jesus causing his crucifixion; Destruction: God, therefore, destroyed their Temple repudiated them as his chosen folk. Disharmony: They were banished out of cosmic harmony, the harmony that all Christians dwell in. Thus they became musically deaf and vocally strident, as if carrying a sonic mark of Cain wherever they wandered. This complex theological conviction is tersely conveyed by Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who instructs Jessica, the daughter of Shylock the Jew and his bride about music and morality. “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils. The motions of his spirit are dull as night and his affections as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted.” Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. ‘Mark the music’ he tells Jessica/ The good music. Inharmonious, treacherous and uncompassionate is such a man therefore he must be destroyed. This is Shylocks’ basic nature, crime and punishment. The tripartite formula can work back and forth like all equations. Look at this 15th century painting by the Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck: an altar piece, depicting a cosmic structure. God and his Christian entourage are high up. Jesus as a lamb, as the fountain of grace. Further down you see the angels with the music and the pious Christians below are standing attentive to the music and the apparition. But the sinister Jews on the left are blind to the scene and deaf to the music. Again, perfidious and inharmonious, the conclusion is self-evident. But even such a deep conviction was bound to change. In secularizing world, Jews’ ancient perfidy tended to be effaced while cosmic, political and musical space became more inclusive and Jews more adaptable. At the turn of the 19th Century, in Germany, France and England, Jews were gradually entering political and musical spaces and low and behold in no time they became leading composers, performers and lovers of what we call; classical musical style. Composers Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, both of them born in Berlin, became in the first half of the 19th century, the Princes of the European music in Germany and in France. Attracted by harmonious art music Jews felts they should also alter their synagogal rites and modes of prayers introducing cantors, euphonious choirs and sometimes even organs, while cleansing their sound space from disordered and dissonant vocalities. So, this is how it looked before, in Hebrew what we call ‘balagan’ and afterwards looked with dignity, “decorum”. Through music, by and large, they felt a belonging to the general European musical world and adopted it wholeheartedly, a Jewish family, while still adhering to the Jewish identity. But look at this caricature. This lady seems cosmopolitan, acculturated. Skilfully playing the modern harp. But hark; her Jewishness protrudes, an ugly animalistic and excessive Jewishness. And watch this singer. His name is John Braham; an opera singer he was also a cantor in England and a rather successful one; but maliciously juxtaposed to the jolly English natural singer on his right, his music is a squeak if you see the notes above. It was shrill and very, very long. Ridiculous. A new form of the old libel thus surfaced and a real cultural war erupted. Jews are only seemingly harmonious, goes the accusation. They utter, play, perform the proper tones but it is all false and thus, treacherous, this is in a nutshell, what Richard Wagner claimed: Mendelssohn knows the rules, but his music is empty. He’s kind of a parasitical art on the vigorous German creation. He had for example this piece in his ears from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, on words from Psalms (psalms 91). (MUSIC) Jews, among them my own family, would find great solace in this music in the dark times of the Nazi regime. Wagner dramatizes here a classical modern anti-Semitic belief which, paradoxically, is more extreme than the medieval one. No matter what the Jews do, their expression, actions, achievements are discordant, disgusting, and destructive. The old tripartite conviction was back in power, now dressed in essentialist, unchangeable nationalist and sometimes even racist garments. But not everybody surrendered to Wagner’s obsession. British author George Eliot, for example, sent her hero, Daniel Deronda, an Englishman, equipped with a deep sense of sympathy, to the old style synagogue in Frankfurt and quote; “The Chazan’s passage from monotony to sudden cries, the outburst of sweet boy’s voices the devotional swaying of men’s bodies backwards and forwards affected him as one expression of a binding history, tragic and yet glorious. A divine influx in the darkness.” See, darkness and darkness in Shakespeare quote and they function differently. The old conviction turned upside down. Through sympathy or even compassion, Jewish sound became revelatory and Jews’ miserable state called for restoration. Indeed, the sonic expression of Jews became for various creators and thinkers, Jews and non-Jews alike, a source of particular inspiration. In early 20th Century Vienna, Freud’s disciple, Theodor Reik, analysed the sounds of the shofar, claiming that such an animalistic terrifying ululations connect the people to the basic feelings of primordial crime and open the way to communal rehabilitation. God loves them because they know how to use sound in this way; once the blowing is over, and all of your remember this, the cantor bursts out in a musical fanfare, rich and beautiful unto itself goes back all the way down, musically to the middle ages and of course this is it – sings in Hebrew pslam, 89:16. Composer Arnold Schoenberg, another Viennese Jew and a major harbinger of modern music, sought to emancipate the dissonance for similar reasons, yielding new forms of feeling, intellection and religiosity. And there were others. With the Nazis, we are back to the primitive and extreme expression of the libel. Jewish noise, Nazi movies show, is too degenerate to prevail and to be totally excised from the German sonic world. To conclude; the music libel against the Jews was deeply entrenched in Christian theology and practice. Prevailed in European culture for a long time, incarnating in various forms throughout the ages. Its cultural forms are not pre-determined and since early modern times various attempts have been made to transform or transcend the libel for better or for worse. The final analysis the heterophonic nature of the old synagogal landscape bespoke less disciplined, more democratic religious rituals of a community that, however oppressed, expressed its agony and joys in its own unique ways. I grew up in such a synagogues and have learnt to love its sonorities while also, with my German born father and family, fell in love with the harmonious both Christian and Jewish music. I learnt that there is more than one form of beauty and expression. The clash is not inevitable. Indeed, the music libel against the Jews should awaken us all to listen to voices and noises of others around us. Here in Jerusalem and you all know we live in the midst of Muezzins’, Adhans especially now (Ramadan), Shofar’s blasts, in a few days (Ellul) and tolling church bells, which call us daily and seasonally to lend our ears and hearts to the people who generate them and to their spiritual worlds. Thank you.

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