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When I am in a contemplative mood, which really does not happen too often, I enjoy listening to classical music on my computer. A few weeks ago, I was listening to Symphony, No. 2 by Gustav Mahler. While listening to this long and dramatic masterpiece of somber music, I thought about the composer and his tortured life.

Mahler was a Jew in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Despite his obvious genius and talent, he was discriminated against by the directors of the Viennese philharmonic and not allowed to become its conductor or musical director. Mahler was a completely assimilated Jew who really had no deep ties to his faith or ancestry. In order to advance his career, as music was his main interest in life, he converted pro forma to Christianity so that he would finally become the director of the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Since he was not too much of a Jew, he wasn’t too much of a Christian either, and really gained his fame by becoming the guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and by his magnificent compositions. Naturally when Austria and Vienna showed their true colors in the 1930s by becoming rabidly Nazified – one of the great myths of World War II is that Austria was somehow a victim of Hitler when in reality it was the cradle of Nazi ideology and leadership – the compositions of Gustav Mahler no longer were performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It took Hitler to make Mahler a Jew once again. Life is nothing if not ironic.
So, the question arises whether one can listen to or enjoy splendid music without somehow referencing the story of the composer of that music. Is music by itself truly neutral? The great hero of Nazi music was Wagner. He was the favorite of Hitler and was a willing supporter and believer in Nazism and its horrors. Because of this history of Wagner, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra for decades refused to include any of his compositions in their concerts and repertoire.
There was an incident where a guest conductor – naturally Jewish – attempted to perform a composition by Wagner in one of the concerts that he was leading here in Israel. There were enormous protests against that conductor and his attempt to include that musical work in a concert performed in Israel. There is no question that this was a purely emotional reaction, but it proved again that it is difficult for people, even music lovers, to separate the composer from his or her musical composition.
So, perhaps we must conclude that music is not neutral and that we are unwilling to hear even great music if composed and presented by evil people. This being the case, we are constantly teetering on a slippery slope and never really judging the music by itself but rather by all the personal baggage that the composer has brought along. This is a difficult dilemma, but perhaps the best solution would be to listen to the music without knowing about the composer. A little ignorance can go a long way in making life more bearable.
One of the fascinating phenomena in our time is something that is labeled Jewish music. There are very famous melodies that are part and parcel of the Sabbath worship service and are sung by all sorts of Jews worldwide. Some of those melodies are non-Jewish in origin and many of them are melodies derived from secular songs. Nevertheless, once the melody has entered the realm of acceptable ritual, simply because of its use and repetition, apparently no one is disturbed or even aware of the true origin of that melody.
This phenomenon is truly an example of how, throughout Jewish history, Jews have been able to sanctify the profane and make holy the mundane. Much of what passes today for Jewish music is not Jewish in origin. It is reflective of the general society and the type of music that that society currently enjoys and approves. However, since those melodies are given Hebrew and many times biblical lyrics, they enter the realm of Jewish music and are accepted as such.
Music is an integral part of Jewish prayer and society. Music conveys and inspires the necessary emotion that enhances Jewish life. So, once again, perhaps we are blessed by our ignorance as to the source of much of what passes today for Jewish music.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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