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Reading Mahler:  German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Carl Niekerk.  Rochester, NY:  Camden House, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-5711-3467-7

Reviewed by John J. SheinbaumReading Mahler

For a composer once considered to be on the margins of the Germanic symphonic tradition, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) now enjoys an enormous discography, an ever-expanding corpus of biographical and musicological scholarship, and nothing short of a cult of followers ready to discuss and debate any detail that might suggest new paths to interpreting his lengthy and emotionally involving works.[1]  Carl Niekerk’s Reading Mahler is a notable addition to the composer’s bibliography because it counters conventional images of Mahler as a “nostalgic modernist” or a “neoromanticist” derived from the first-person recollections of the composer’s wife, Alma, and the conductor Bruno Walter. Niekerk instead places Mahler at the head of the “avant-garde” generation of composers that followed (212).  This is a Mahler concerned with nothing less than “reinventing the German cultural tradition” in a way distinct from the nationalist models most closely associated with the influential anti-Semitic opera composer Richard Wagner (218).  For Niekerk, then, Mahler’s “Jewishness is of importance, even though he said little about it in public” (12), and even though it plays little more than a background role in philosopher Theodor Adorno’s essential monograph on the composer.[2]  His reconsideration of Mahler thus encompasses much more than musical issues per se.  Niekerk aims to place Mahler securely within the intellectual context of his time by focusing on the texts that may have been formative in his thinking, and that often played direct roles in the construction of his songs and symphonies. Read the rest of this entry »

The Naming. Galeet Dardashti. Galeet Dardashti, 2010.

Reviewed by Sarah Imhoff

In the Genesis creation account God speaks and the world springs into existence, light and dark, water and sky, earth and seas. The voice is coextensive with creation. Galeet Dardashti’s new recording The Naming can claim no such miraculous speech acts, but her music recalls both the creative power of the voice and a near-divine ability to bring women to life.

Dardashti’s Persian-Jewish heritage and academic training come together in a beautiful and yet theologically provocative recording. The music is at once traditional and radical: the first song begins with the prayer for laying tefillin but in a woman’s voice, while “Dinah” incorporates a traditional Moroccan piyyut, and “Sarah/Hagar” includes recent Hebrew and Arabic headlines about political violence. At times Dardashti employs a Mizrahi cantorial style, to which her rich voice brings depth and emotion. Even her own personal lineage leaves an imprint on the sound: her father, cantor Farid Dardashti, sings in “Endora.” Perhaps the most striking moments in the recording, however, are in the songs composed of biblical verses. Their radical character lies not simply in the verses themselves, but rather in Dardashti’s midrashic construction of the songs: the presence, absence, order, and juxtaposition of verses can ultimately be read as bold reinterpretations of the power, the agency, and the simple humanity of the biblical women. Read the rest of this entry »

Working With Bernstein: A Memoir. Jack Gottlieb.  New York: Amadeus Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-5746-7186-5

Reviewed by Barry Seldes Working with Bernstein

In 1958, Leonard Bernstein, recently appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, hired as his assistant Jack Gottlieb, a composer with a Ph.D dissertation on Bernstein’s music.  Gottlieb’s job description seemed indeterminate: from vetter of compositions sent to Bernstein for potential performance to general “gopher.” In this latter capacity, Gottlieb traveled the globe with the peripatetic maestro, seeing to Bernstein’s toiletries, packing his bags, managing transportation, and otherwise working hard but, in Bernstein’s company, having a thoroughly good time.  Apparently Gottlieb performed splendidly, and, save for four years when he took a position teaching composition, he remained at Bernstein’s side until Bernstein’s death in 1990. No doubt, the friendship that ensued was cemented by shared Jewish faith and Gottlieb’s extraordinary competence in understanding Bernstein’s music. Indeed, Bernstein would come to entrust Gottlieb with writing the program notes and commentaries to accompany the published scores, recordings and performances of Bernstein’s own music. Now Gottlieb, some twenty years after Bernstein’s death, has written this work, Part I of which is a memoir of his experiences with Bernstein, and Part II of which contains his collected program notes and commentaries. Read the rest of this entry »

The Schenker Project: Culture, Race and Music Theory in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.  Nicolas Cook.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007. xi + 355 pp.  ISBN 978-0-1997-4429-9

Reviewed by Alison Rose

The cultural developments of fin-de-siècle Vienna have been the subject of several historical monographs. Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna, originally published in 1973, was followed by Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture in 1980. Works by Marsha Rozenblit, Steven Beller, and Robert Wistrich focused attention on the Jews of Vienna, emphasizing the importance of the Jewish contribution to Viennese culture. One thing that these works hold in common is their inclusion of Viennese Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and omission of his contemporary, Viennese Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker.  This is all the more perplexing when one considers how influential Schenkerian theory was to become in the United States. Schenker, unlike Schoenberg, did not convert to Christianity: he remained a loyal (if concealed) Jew throughout his life, and he somewhat oddly seems to have embraced both his Jewishness and German nationalism.  Nicolas Cook’s book provides some hints as to how this worldview developed, and more importantly, it restores Schenker to his rightful place in fin-de-siècle Viennese culture. However, the book falls short of accounting for the rather peculiar omission of Schenker from most previous studies on the period. Read the rest of this entry »