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Jews and Geniuses

Two music-related essays of broad general and complementary interest have recently appeared in periodicals, the more important of them, on the connection between Schoenberg and Einstein in relation to Zionism, in an esoteric journal with limited readership,1 the other, on the politics of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and selected colleagues, in a more widely circulated but primarily political weekly.2

Completing research for a book on Stravinsky, Richard Taruskin, the esteemed musicologist, and by no one more than this writer, has uncovered documents that animadvert on the Russian composer’s political and ethnic prejudices. Some of these findings Taruskin has set forth in an article enthusiastically glossed by the critic John Rockwell (“Reactionary Musical Modernists,” The New York Times, September 9, 1988).

Rockwell describes Taruskin’s paper, “The Dark Side of Modern Music,” as “ostensibly a review of Harvey Sachs’s book Music in Fascist Italy, [which] lays out biographical evidence indicating Fascist, or at least authoritarian, tendencies of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern.”3 In fact, Toscanini occupies a larger share of Taruskin’s space than do the composers. But the more disturbing misrepresentation is in the added interchange of “authoritarian” equaling “Fascist” (Rockwell’s, not Taruskin’s, upper case). Though the three composers were obviously authoritarian, like, one supposes, the major masters of the past, to associate Schoenberg with Fascism is plainly preposterous.

“Mr. Taruskin,” Rockwell goes on, “cites two letters not included in Robert Craft’s collection of [Stravinsky’s] correspondence.” Rockwell then quotes Stravinsky on Mussolini, not from correspondence but from an interview with a newspaperman in Rome in 1930. But no matter: the Stravinsky-Mussolini conjunction has not been news for a long time, and my books are the duly acknowledged source for nearly all of Sachs’s discussion of the question.

Turning to the “second” letter, Rockwell writes that

…shortly after Hitler took power in 1933, Stravinsky queries his German publisher: “I am surprised to have received no proposals from Germany for next season, since my negative attitude toward communism and Judaism—not to put it in stronger terms—is a matter of common knowledge.”

The letter, however, is not to Stravinsky’s German but to his Russian publisher, the director of Koussevitzky’s Russische Musik Verlag, and the difference is significant: anti-Semitic remarks between White Russians, like anti-goy remarks between Jews, are not invariably, or even usually—so one must believe—expressions of deep hatreds.

Stravinsky’s statement is shocking, however, because a cultured cosmopolitan of artistic genius is simplistically identifying Jews with Bolsheviks, and, at the same time, revealing his willingness to conduct anywhere for money. But it puzzles on other counts as well. Stravinsky was perfectly aware that the Third Reich had classified him as a Jew. And if his “negative attitude” toward Judaism had ever been “common knowledge,” Taruskin would not have to be digging it up now.

Russian anti-Semitism, imbibed with mother’s milk, promoted by official decree, the Orthodox Church, and even university philosophy courses—Stravinsky’s background in this sense can only be understood from his undergraduate notes on Nesmelov’s The Science of Man—has been the subject of many studies. The most recent that I have read, encouraged by a blurb from Sir Isaiah Berlin, is David Goldstein’s Dostoevsky and the Jews; and though Dostoevsky’s case is that of an extreme paranoid, many if not most of his fellow countrymen whose biographies have been made public shared some of the same prejudices. Gogol’s stereotype “Yankel” is an example. (Leon Bakst once complained to Diaghilev about “the Yankel Shtravinsky”—the Yiddish pronunciation.) Tchaikovsky’s diaries, for another, expose an anti-Semitic bias, as do Diaghilev’s letters, including one that scolds Stravinsky for “trusting your Jewish friends,” though Diaghilev’s own closest artistic intimates, Benois and Bakst, were Jews.

Rockwell is soon portentously referring to Stravinsky’s “fervent pro-Fascism and anti-Semitism,” and sermonizing that “those for whom political and moral correctness is [sic] inseparable from art, and consider themselves staunch defenders of democracy and the Jewish tradition”—democracy and which Jewish tradition?—“and have heretofore loved Stravinsky’s music but were unaware of his beliefs, may have a problem.” (Inferentially the problem does not exist with Schoenberg’s and Webern’s music because it is unlovable.) “Political and moral correctness,” indeed—as if great artists have not been delinquent in both and great art has not flourished in undemocratic societies, as if artistic genius were somehow an assurance of personal integrity. Rockwell belongs on a Wheaties box.

Taruskin mentions two other anti-Semitic references in Stravinsky’s correspondence, and quotes a third, also from the spring of 1933: “Is it politically wise vis-à-vis Germany to identify myself with Jews like Klemperer and Walter?” Here one hangs one’s head in shame for the composer’s selfishness and callous indifference to the fate of friends, Semitic or otherwise. By my count, five more anti-Semitic remarks, none of them after 1933, occur in Stravinsky’s Nachlass. To judge from this and other criteria, Taruskin’s speculation that if the composer had not come to America in 1939 “he might very well have ended like Pound” betrays an alarming misunderstanding of Stravinsky’s character—as well as the limitations of scholarship based entirely on the almighty document. But in the first place, an American citizen committing traitorous acts and a French citizen who could at worst have collaborated are not comparable cases, and, in the second, while Pound was rabidly and increasingly anti-Semitic, Stravinsky developed in the opposite direction.

Taruskin damages his exposé by falling into factual errors. He says that “Stravinsky performed…in Germany right up to the beginning of the war.” No; he performed there only once after the Nazi accession, in 1936, against his will and under pressure from his German publisher, though by choosing to play the piano rather than to conduct he managed to avoid all personal encounters and to confine his trip to a single day. (Taruskin mentions a recording made in Germany, but recordings are not public performances.) In the mid-1920s, Taruskin goes on, the word “modernism” had become a “code” for Stravinsky “exemplified by the expressionistic atonal works of Schoenberg.” No; at that date Stravinsky did not know any “expressionistic atonal” music except Pierrot Lunaire, which, in 1912, he was the first to herald as a masterpiece.

Taruskin grants nothing to the other side of the story: Stravinsky’s defense of Vittorio Rieti against the Fascisti after the enactment of racial laws in Italy; Stravinsky’s presidency of the Martin Buber Society; Stravinsky’s gift to Israel, Abraham and Isaac. Nor is any mention made of the Nazi persecution of Stravinsky’s “entartete” (degenerate) art at the 1938 Düsseldorf exhibition, and of the Nazi murder of his Jewish son-in-law in a concentration camp. In fairness to Webern, too, why does Taruskin make an exception of Berg, who was petitioning for an official Austrian declaration of his pure Aryan descent while Schoenberg, in Paris, was formally returning to Judaism? At the same time, when Hindemith invited Berg to join the faculty of the Hochschule für Musik, Berg wrote to his wife: “It would be more feasible now than before as S[choenberg] is no longer in Berlin: it would be a colossal triumph for me.” (Taruskin does mention the production of Wozzeck in Italy in 1942, but wrongly locates it at La Scala rather than at the Rome Opera.)

The most glaring weakness in Taruskin’s arguments, nevertheless, is his failure to mention the biblical beliefs behind, and so much more important than, the shallow politics of this century’s two greatest composers of religious music. Admittedly, Stravinsky’s denominational connections are not always clear, the Russian Orthodox musician confounding everyone by composing both Russian and Latin liturgical music, an anthem for the Anglican hymnal, and a sacred cantata in Hebrew.

The Jewish world began to fascinate Stravinsky in St. Petersburg in early childhood, in the religious observances of the family in the apartment below and the mysteries of the synagogue across the canal from his home. Later, during ten summers in the Ukraine (both of his parents were born there, within the Jewish Pale of Settlement), he lived next to a shtetl and was on affectionate terms with his neighbors. In France, between the wars, his closest associates, Arthur Lourie, musical secretary and spokesman, Samuel Dushkin, with whom he logged tens of thousands of miles on concert tours, and Roland Manuel (Lévy), to whom he entrusted the expression of his artistic philosophy in Poétique Musical, were Jews. In America, Stravinsky’s “inner musical circle”—Sol Babitz, Ingolf (Marcus) Dahl, Claudio Spies, Lawrence Morton—was almost entirely Jewish. This, obviously, is not the “philo-Semitism” that many Jews see as the simple inversion of the non-Jew who prefers the society, traditions, and culture of Jews and is therefore an anti-Semite in disguise unknown to him or herself.

To turn to the other, more permanently valuable article, “Arnold Schoenberg and Albert Einstein: Their Relationship and Views on Zionism,” E. Randol Schoenberg, the composer’s grandson, has recorded in engrossing detail the different paths by which the two men reached the decision that their dedication to Jewish affairs would take second place only to their scientific and musical work. But while Einstein’s role is part of contemporary history, Schoenberg’s involvement was hitherto unknown. Told from Schoenberg’s side, this new version subjects Einstein’s changing political positions to bitter criticism, notably in a polemic, “Einstein’s Mistaken Politics,” published here for the first time.

In 1914 the political views of the two men could hardly have been further apart. Einstein, antimilitarist, virtually alone among German scientists in opposing the war, signed a “Manifesto to Europeans” advocating “internationalism, pacifism and socialism.” Schoenberg, pro-war and serving in the Austrian army for part of it, claimed to be a monarchist as late as 1950. He soon discovered that the war “was being waged not only against foreign enemies, however, but at least as heavily against inner ones. And to the latter belonged…the Jews” (letter to Dr. Stephen Wise, New York, May 12, 1934). So, too, in 1929 Einstein recalled that “when I came to Germany [from Zurich] fifteen years ago, I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew. I owe this discovery more to gentiles than to Jews.”

By 1921 Einstein’s experience of anti-Semitism had attracted him to the Zionist movement. Early in the year he predicted that he would “be forced to leave Germany within 10 years.” In late March, in company with Chaim Weizmann, he departed on a two-month tour in America, where “I first discovered the Jewish people,” and where he was to become Zionism’s most famous advocate. But Einstein’s subsequent political career, beginning with his flight to Holland after the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, is as well known as Schoenberg’s has been obscure.

At the beginning of 1925, Schoenberg, who had also suffered his share of anti-Semitism, wrote to Einstein requesting a meeting to discuss Zionism. The letter was not answered. Understandably. Schoenberg began with a protracted account of his “position in German artistic life,” including the complaint that a Berlin musicologist listed him not in order of importance but alphabetically.

“Though I am considered, at least abroad, to be the leading German composer,” Schoenberg writes, the Germans are ready to relinquish predominance in music if they can avoid linking him to it, and “in their hatred of me, the Jews and the Swastika bearers are of one mind.” He then digresses on an unexplained connection between the musical art of the Netherlands and the Talmud and cabala until, in the next-to-last paragraph, Zionism is mentioned only in order to say that he “deviates” from its “propaganda.” Einstein must have thought his correspondent deranged. Schoenberg, greatly offended by the snub, wrote to a friend: “I had to swallow a very terrestrial treatment from this astronomer who sees far too distantly but overlooks what is close at hand.”

Whereas Einstein rejected all forms of aggression and of nationalism—for him, Jewish internationality was its nationality—Schoenberg approached “the Jewish problem” militantly: “The re-establishment of a Jewish state can come about only in the manner that has characterized similar events throughout history: not through words but through the success of arms”; and Schoenberg feared that during the Diaspora the Jews had lost their “fighting spirit.” Einstein, it is important to remember, warned against “the establishment of a Jewish state without the agreement of the Arabs.”

Schoenberg wrote again in 1930, seeking Einstein’s support for a testimonial honoring the architect Adolf Loos, and without referring to the “Jewish problem.” This time Einstein responded but did not comply, on grounds that he was insufficiently acquainted with Loos’s work and felt too distant from it to make a judgment. Schoenberg drafted an irate answer, but wrote instead to Loos’s wife: “Loos has in his field at least the same importance as I do in mine. And you know perhaps that I pride myself in having shown mankind the way for musical creativity for at least the next hundred years.”

Both Schoenberg and Einstein avoided Berlin as much as possible in 1931–1932, and in the latter year Einstein decided to leave Germany permanently. By this time his every word on the political situation was receiving world publicity and, of course, total distortion in the German press. The imprudence of his criticisms of Germany greatly disturbed Schoenberg—“he must surely…have learned that they have given occasion for far-reaching revenge action against innocent people”—“hostages at risk,” Stefan Zweig called them in a letter to Romain Rolland, refusing to join a protest—and the anti-German boycott of 1932 horrified the composer. The Zionists admit that they cannot help the German Jews, he wrote, but “Mr. Einstein is endangering the lives of the Jews who have had to remain. Does he not consider what consequences the Boycott-decision can have for the Jews in Germany?”

In mid-summer 1933, Schoenberg confided in a letter to Anton Webern that “Zionist affairs are more important for me than my art…. I am decided…to work in the future solely for the national state of Jewry.” The resolve was carried out, without the sacrifice of his art, until the creation of the state of Israel. But while Schoenberg thought that Jewish unity could be achieved only through “devotion to a single, abstract idea,” the idea of the one God, Einstein felt no ties at all with the faith of his fathers. Years before, when his wife and children had “turned Catholic,” he wrote to a friend: “It’s all the same to me.”

One of Schoenberg’s main tenets was that anti-Semitism should not be opposed, and his grandson emphasizes that “the fight against anti-Semitism rather than for Judaism” was always the main disagreement between Schoenberg and other Zionists. “To oppose anti-Semitism is nonsense,” one of the composer’s notes reads,

and the only Jews who could want to do this seriously are those who want to stabilize the conditions of Diaspora into infinity…. Anti-Semitism is the natural and necessary answer for the claim “chosen people.” To fight anti-Semitism is…like fighting envy. Mr. Einstein does not have the courage to see anti-Semitism as a given reality, to put up with it…something which it was not possible to eliminate in the whole history of mankind.

In 1920 Einstein expressed some of the same opinion: “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our existence as a race.” But by the early 1930s he had understood the necessity of fighting Germany—an about-face from his pacifism that momentarily undermined his credibility. Schoenberg quickly seized on this: “Mr. Einstein is a kind of Janus face…. He is against war in general, but for one against Germany.” But when Schoenberg eventually understood that the survival of civilization was at stake, he supported Einstein’s call for preparation against German rearmament.

On October 7, 1932, Einstein sailed for the United States to take up the position that he was to hold for the rest of his life at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and it was at Princeton, when Einstein and his wife attended Schoenberg’s “Twelve Tone Lecture,” March 6, 1934, that the two men finally met. A few weeks later, on April 1, the composer and the physicist were photographed together after a Carnegie Hall concert to raise money for the Settlement of German-Jewish Children in Palestine and the New York Zionist Region, and honoring Einstein—a “Tribute of Music to Science.”

One more exchange of letters took place, with results similar to the appeal on behalf of Loos. In August 1938, Schoenberg sent a rambling letter seeking a recommendation for a professorship in astrology (to Einstein!!) for his friend Oskar Adler, violinist, physician, and professional astrologer. Einstein answered briefly that he had read Adler’s book and considered it “so well written that it presents a real danger for immature intellects,” suggested that Schoenberg and his friends should “try to find means of support for him as a musician,” yet offered to write on Adler’s behalf “if in so doing I don’t have to indirectly support astrology.” The great composer’s grandson does not tell us what happened.

The essay’s most arresting remark is one of Einstein’s, dated 1936: “The intellectual decline brought on by a shallow materialism is a far greater menace to the survival of Jewry than numerous external foes who threaten its existence with violence.”


The Stravinsky Beat April 27, 1989

Einstein & the Jews May 18, 1989

'Jews and Geniuses': An Exchange June 15, 1989

  1. 1

    E. Randol Schoenberg, “Arnold Schoenberg and Albert Einstein: Their Relationship and Views on Zionism,” The Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, Vol. X, No. 2 (November, 1987). 

  2. 2

    Richard Taruskin, “The Dark Side of Modern Music: The Sins of Toscanini, Stravinsky, Schoenberg,” The New Republic (September 5, 1988). 

  3. 3

    Norton, 1988.