Salt of the Earth

Die Presse (05/09/03)

In view of the Vienna Festival, the Jewish Museum is presenting an exhibit entitled “Quasi una Fantasia” on “Jews and the Viennese City of Music” from May 14 to September 21 - a look at the contributions which Jewish artists and patrons of the arts made to the musical life of the city.

When the National Socialists went about arianizing Austrian musical life in 1938, they found it particularly difficult when dealing with popular music of the time. Complete arianization was anyway an impossible thing to achieve. Several of the most successful operettas, such as those of Franz Lehár, included libretti composed by educated Jewish writers. Moreover, innumerable melodies of the light genre type, from the operetta hits of Emerich Kálmán or Oscar Strauss to popularized Viennese songs, were written by Jews. For the first time an exhibition attempts to reconstruct Jewish influence on Vienna’s musical life, with socalled popular music automatically playing an important role.

“Quasi una Fantasia,” chosen from a title taken from Ludwig van Beethoven, hopes to thoroughly analyze the topic, reaching back to the year 1867 when one granted the Jews the right to legally establish themselves in Vienna. Sometime later the Jewish intelligentsia constituted an enormous potential for cultural life in the imperial city. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the circumstances than the official numbers of deaths caused by the fire in the Ring Theater in 1881. At that time 900 victims were mourned and more than 400 of them were Jewish! Every third student at the Conservatory, currently known as the Vienna University of Music, was a Jew. Given the circumstances, it was only a matter of time until important positions within Viennese musical life could be held by Jews. The nomination of Gustav Mahler was in this respect the high point of this development. More than once Mahler was the target of anti-Semitic campaigns, and no one could have guessed the inhuman dimensions this was to take on historically.

The exhibition confronts us with initial documents of Jewish influence on Viennese musical life. It encompasses Mahler’s brilliance in renewing musical interpretation to the key function played in modern composition by such masters as Alexander Zemlinsky and his students, together with his brother-in-law, Arnold Schönberg.

The eminent contributions Jewish musicians to the development of Viennese popular music as well as cabaret created a very colorful picture in the history of Viennese musical life in 1900. It was not only the Jewish composers and musical interpreters who left their stamp but also men of letters and journalists such as Julius Korngold, the first music critic of the “New Free Press.” Also the patrons from the Jewish middle class played a significant role.

This historical background is followed by a documentation of the expulsion and assassination of the Jews after 1938 and supplemented by a critical look back to the years of the reconstruction following 1945 when one believed or could do without the Jewish talent.