Judaism Musical and Unmusical. Michael P. Steinberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 270 pp. ISBN 978-0-2267-7195-3

Reviewed by Tina Frühauf

In Judaism Musical and Unmusical, Michael P. Steinberg takes the reader on a journey through predominantly but not exclusively Central European Jewish history and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at times privileging music as a focal point of cultural discourse. The eight essays in this volume, most of which have been published before, are loosely connected musings about the different facets of modernity and Judentum, and involve the concepts of memory, secularity, and aesthetics, among others. In each chapter Steinberg weaves different threads together, from art to psychoanalysis, from architecture to music. Steinberg’s book, which in a larger sense is a discourse about identity and Judaism, begins with an essay on Edward Said and his propositions of Jewish identity, and follows with individual case studies of known intellectuals and their work. Steinberg traces the subject of Judaism in Sigmund Freud’s late classic Moses and Monotheism and in the writings of Henry James, Eduard Fuchs, and Walter Benjamin; and he explores the intellectualism of Italian Jewish historian Arnaldo Momigliano. Further chapters center on the artist Charlotte Salomon and her Life? or Theater? and Leonard Bernstein in Vienna. The journey ends in Berlin with a critique of its Jewish Museum and an assessment of some recent scholarship on German Jewish subjects, which cannot compensate for the absence of a full bibliography at the end of the book.

The choice of the book’s title indicates the mosaic structure of its contents from the outset. One would therefore expect it to portray the dialectic between the musical and unmusical, or to build upon Max Weber’s metaphor of unmusicality as pertaining to religion. Instead, the title reveals the struggle of bringing myriad themes together, an issue Steinberg addresses most effectively in his introduction (5-7, 10-11). There, Steinberg states that he uses the “musical” both literally and metaphorically, with the former not necessarily relating to music (11). Both in regard to its musical and unmusical subjects, the book remains on familiar ground with references to Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Gustav Mahler, Franz Rosenzweig, and Arnold Schoenberg. If we trace music through the book, it does not appear as the underlying overall theme, but rather presents itself in various shades, as passing remarks, woven in the text, sometimes used as a reference or analogy.

Most of the musical themes are widely known or have received attention in the recent past, such as the Wagner controversy in Israel stirred by Barenboim and his collaborations on musical and political matters with Said. In his attempt to clarify Barenboim’s identity—he labels Barenboim an Israeli on the one hand, the last Yekke on the other—Steinberg challenges his own claim that identities should not be reduced to categories and that the act of classification is a political decision. Yet Barenboim might be better interpreted as having constructed an identity for himself that is cosmopolitan in the Diogenesian sense as a citizen of the world. Similarly startling is the case of Arnold Schoenberg who, according to Steinberg, “exorcised baroque Vienna from his soul by choosing Protestantism as his religion of object-identification” (39)—his conversion, however, was a mere formality on paper. [1] At times the inweaving of musical references is an enjoyable diversion, such as when Steinberg departs from his musings about Freud to discuss Mozart’s Don Giovanni and its well-known patricide. He borrows the term of Schreckensfanfare (horror fanfare), which refers to the opening of the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, to refer to the opening of Don Giovanni’s overture and the finale. Here, however, the reader will miss a reference to Wagner as the one who aptly coined the term in 1846. All in all, these musical references are slight and hold a symbolic rather than tangible role in supporting Steinberg’s views in his study of Jewish secularity.

In the chapters about Charlotte Salomon and Leonard Bernstein, the “musical” moves from the periphery to the center and serves as the true subject in the larger context of European modernity. There, we approach safer territory as music plays a more concrete role and is addressed in a less abstract way. The essay on Charlotte Salomon and Leben? Oder Theater relates biography and art in a most intimate way, while never denying important outlooks into the larger picture of history of the early twentieth century. Indeed, Salomon’s work depicts the fate of many German Jews. Leben? Oder Theater (Life? Or Theater?) originated between 1940 and 1942 during Salomon’s exile in her grandparents home in the South of France as an autobiographical masterwork that integrates poetry, music, and the visual arts. Subtitled “Ein Singespiel” [sic], Leben? Oder Theater consists of 769 paintings, arranged into acts and scenes, and accompanied by descriptive texts and references to musical works. It would have been interesting to learn that these musical references also included Nazi marching songs; and Solomon’s references to silence also go unmentioned. Many scholars see Solomon’s masterwork as reminiscent of Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Work of Art. Challenging the unnamed followers of this notion, Steinberg confronts this analogy in tandem with Judith Belinfante, Norman Rosenthal and others’ already established hypotheses that Salomon’s work of art represents a reversal of the original Gesamtkunstwerk [2].

Building on earlier studies, most notably Michael Freedland’s Leonard Bernstein (London: Harrap, 1987) and Humphrey Burton’s Leonard Bernstein (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), Steinberg’s all-too short essay “Leonard Bernstein in Vienna” provides insights into the conductor’s presence and reception in the Austrian capital after 1956, when his musical Wonderful Town received its European premiere at the Volksoper. Steinberg neglects to mention that the premiere was not really a success and that for this production Marcel Prawy, an Austrian dramaturg and close friend of Bernstein, translated or rather adapted the piece into German, a detail that might add further explanation to the issue of the musical’s complex reception. Disregarding this complex reception, Steinberg continues to focus on Bernstein’s popularity, which he claims was due to his identity as an American Jew and his “sentimental ecumenicism” evident in his hybrid work Mass. In short, Bernstein was so popular because he bridged the old and the new, the American and the Jewish (here Steinberg wonders whether these are ever interchangeable), the Christian and the Jewish. Bernstein, as Steinberg mentions, embodies ambiguities and contradictions inwardly and outwardly.

The strength of the book lies in the raising of important issues in its framing sections—the introduction and afterword. In the former, Steinberg challenges existing concepts applied in German Jewish historiography and proposes new approaches. Secularity, for example, is “an interpretation of the meaning of the past along with a reinterpretation of the past itself” (3) and as such goes far beyond the concept of assimilation or acculturation. The concept of Judaism, however, only appears to be a compromise for capturing the essence of the German term Judentum (Jewishness, Jewish culture, Jewish experience) to imply a more profound meaning, which includes the tradition of text, law, etc. While these discussions trigger important questions, they also confirm that some terminology is untranslatable and certain definitions can never be absolute or have one single meaning. Earlier questions such as “what is Jewish” and “what is musical” (8) return in the afterword, when Steinberg asks “Why, then, are Jews and music the same?” (222). Using the case of Mahler, Steinberg claims that there is no Jewish music, only “blurred contradictions” (or rather blurred distinctions?) between the musical and unmusical, the Jewish and un-Jewish, and “significant convergences of Jewishness and musicality” (228).

The book’s potency lies in its overall resistance to classification and in challenging existing classifications; it plays with the inherent ambiguities that lie within the concepts of music and Judentum. But while Steinberg questions existing terminology and treats the meaning between the translation from German to English with great care, he also makes some minor slip-ups throughout the book: such as the persistent use of the phrase Kulturbund Deutscher Juden, which for most of its existence was officially known as Jüdischer Kulturbund; or the translation of “Der Jüdische Mensch in Deutschland war isoliert” as “The German Jew was isolated” (120) instead of “The Jew in Germany was isolated”—a slight yet important difference. Both phrases, Jüdischer Kulturbund and “The Jew in Germany was isolated,” show the separation of the German and the Jewish in the ongoing process of a new and forced identity construction, a subject that falls too short in Steinberg’s book.

Steinberg’s engagingly written narrative is lucid, but often wanders in its anecdotal approach (most notably when recalling the 2000 presidential campaign and reminiscing about picking up his then teacher, Momigliano, at the airport), which appears in stark contrast with his academic abstractions. It is the middle ground that would be most interesting for the “musical” and “unmusical” reader, but musicologists might long for greater depth.

[1] For the most recent research on Schoenberg’s identities, see Sabine Feisst’s forthcoming volume, Arnold Schoenberg in America (New York: Oxford, 2010).

[2] Judith Belinfante, Norman Rosenthal, “Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? A 20-Century Song of Innocence and Experience”; introduction to Salomon, Life? or Theatre? (London: Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998), 13.

Tina Frühauf, Brooklyn College