Jewish Composers and Performers

Is there a Jewish instrument? It would have to be the shofar, sounded during the month of Elul, during Rosh Hashanah services, and at the end of Yom Kippur. Is there a modern instrument that is a descendant of the shofar? The trumpet comes to mind, or perhaps the trombone or the tuba. Are Jews famous for playing brasses? Not particularly, although when we consider the world of klezmer music, we have trumpeter Frank London. When we get to woodwinds, the clarinet seems to be a candidate, both in classical and klezmer music, although the clarinet is a relatively recent instrument, attributed to Johann Christopher Denner and invented in Nuremberg in about 1690.1 The most famous clarinetist, noted for both swing and classical music, is probably Benny Goodman.

The voice is a universal instrument, and there certainly is a tradition of cantorial singing. Back in the 20th century, there were quite a few Jewish opera stars at the Metropolitan Opera, Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, and Beverly Sills among them. One tenor, Richard Tucker, also had a career as a cantor.2

But it is among violinists that Jews are particularly numerous: Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Yitzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Leonid Kogan, Nathan Millstein, David Oistrakh, Maxim Vengerov — to name only a few. Erica Morini, perhaps the most famous woman violinist of the first half of the 20th century, was Jewish. My father saw her perform in Cracow when he was a young man. I saw her perform at Carnegie Hall when I was a young man. For most of the 20th century, Jews seemed to dominate the ranks of top violinists. My wife has told me about a riddle she heard some decades ago: What is the world's shortest book? Answer: The Book of Non-Jewish Violinists.

Times have changed. In recent years, Asians have joined the ranks of violinists: Cho-Liang Lin, born in Taiwan and an American citizen; Sarah Chang, born in Philadelphia to Korean parents; Midori, born in Japan but now a resident of New York City. There is no longer a clear Jewish majority of renowned violinists, but Yitzhak Perlman seems to be the most respected and loved violinist performing today.

Why should Jews be especially prominent among violinists? There is no clear answer. Perhaps string instruments are most capable of changes in tone, most like the voice. Perhaps violins reflect emotion, especially grief, more easily. We should remember, however, that those who play and love different instruments will argue that their own favorite instrument can convey the greatest range of emotion. Are violins popular among a wandering people because they are portable? Probably not. Most wind instruments are equally portable.

Even more numerous among Jews than famous violinists are famous pianists: Artur Schnabel, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Wanda Landowska (a harpsichordist but also a pianist), Rudolf Serkin, Andras Schiff, Evgeny Kissin, Yefim Bronfman, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, Bennett Lerner — I have named only a few. Despite their numbers, Jewish pianists seem to be a proportionately smaller group than Jewish violinists. The world recognizes the names of more pianists than of violinists. As is the case with violinists, in recent years Asian pianists have become famous as well: Helen Huang, born in Japan to Chinese parents; Lang Lang, born in Shenyang, China.

What about composers? Jews are less prominent. When I was growing up, Felix Mendelssohn was always considered the most important Jewish composer. Whether he should be counted as Jewish is a debatable point, since his parents decided that the family should convert to Lutheranism when Felix was a child. Mendelssohn's music is well known and generally well liked, but he is rarely if ever listed among the top five or even top ten composers of history.

Nowadays, things are a bit different. Gustav Mahler has replaced Mendelssohn as the most admired Jewish composer. Every year, radio station WQXR asks its listeners to vote for their favorite compositions. In the 2001-2002 poll, compositions by Beethoven won five of the top ten places. Mahler's second symphony was number 9 on the list. Vivaldi, Bach, and Dvorak were ahead of Mahler, who, amazingly, outranked Rachmaninoff (#10) and even Mozart (#11), to say nothing of Verdi (#14), Puccini (#16) and Brahms (#17).

A year later, Mahler did not do quite so well. In the 2002-2003 poll, Mahler's second had dropped to number 11 on the list, although there were two other Mahler symphonies in the top 40, his first and fifth. Despite this slight drop, Mahler's long and complex compositions remain strikingly popular, much more so than the more accessible music of Mendelssohn.

Mahler too was a convert to Christianity; he had to become a Catholic to secure the position of director of the Vienna Court Opera.3 Composers, it seems, are more likely to be integrated into the societies of the countries where they grow up. Performers, a peripatetic lot, may be at home everwhere or nowhere. The best-known Jewish composer of the 17th century is Salamone de'Rossi of Mantua, now in Italy. The dukes of Mantua had allowed a number of Jewish musicians to perform and create in the 16th century, and Rossi was part of a tradition, which ended when the Austrian army sacked Mantua in 1628-30.4 It makes sense that Rossi came from a community where Jewish musicians were at home.

The countries where Jews were most integrated in the early 19th century were probably first France and then Germany. Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jacques Offenbach were born in Germany but lived in France. Jacques Halévy was born and lived in France. If the populous Jewish communities of eastern Europe were producing composers at this time, we haven't heard of them. Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was the first Russian Jewish composer to become world famous, although nowhere as famous as Mendelssohn (1809-1847) or even Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Incidentally, Rubinstein was the model for the assimilationist German Jewish musician Klesmer (what an appropriate name) in George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda.5 When we get to the 20th century, Jewish composers are likely to be Americans: George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein. Darius Milhaud was French. Paul Ben-Haim is Israeli; perhaps Israel will produce great composers in the 21st century.

What is greatness? It is easier to agree about fame than about genius. I find Mozart the greatest composer. Almost everyone feels that Mozart is great, but nobody can explain how. Critics talk about originality, complexity, and profundity. This doesn't explain Mozart. Music may be wonderful because it plumbs emotional depths. But emotional heights can be as thrilling as emotional depths. It is perhaps harder to write great happy music than great tragic music. As for originality, Mozart was one of the least innovative composers who ever lived. His music was significantly less experimental than Haydn's, for example. Mozart was original in only one way: his greatness.

My own candidate for the greatest Jewish composer is Offenbach. I find the cancan music in Orpheus in the Underworld thrilling, although it is neither deep nor complex nor particularly original. Orpheus in the Underworld, a comic opera with lots of spoken dialogue and lots of jokes that may have been funny once but are now incomprehenible, does not stand up as a dramatic work. As for the version of the cancan found in the ballet Gaîté parisienne, arranged by Manuel Rosenthal, it lacks the spark and excitement of the original Offenbach score. To others, it may not be great, but Orpheus in the Underworld sweeps me off my feet. What else can greatness mean?

The French movie composer Michel Legrand agrees with me: "I have always loved Offenbach, so inventive, so droll, with splendid harmonies."6 Legrand's play Amour opened on Broadway on October 20, 2002, and has since closed.

Tragedy can be understood in every generation; comedy is linked to a particular time and place. Music, however, can last longer than comedy. Offenbach's cancan has a liveliness also found in Rossini — especially the Lone Ranger theme from the William Tell overture — and in klezmer music. Whatever greatness may be, it includes music that lifts the spirits.

Light opera, operetta, musical comedy — are they the same thing? Jewish composers have stood out in this genre. Richard Rodgers, whether half of the pair Rodgers and Hart or the later team Rodgers and Hammerstein, is a champion composer of musical comedy. So is Frederick Loewe, who worked with his librettist Alan Jay Lerner to write My Fair Lady and other distinguished musical comedies. I don't know whether Leonard Bernstein's Candide should be considered an opera or a Broadway show, but whatever it is, it is a work of genius. Jewish composers have excelled as composers of operetta.

In the first half of the 20th century, Irving Berlin was perhaps the best known composer of American popular music. Then came rock and roll, an inspired and powerful form of popular music that was played everywhere and respected nowhere. American Jews, as integrated as any Jewish community in history has ever been, might have been expected to produce big names in rock and roll, especially since rock and roll, which combines elements of rhythm and blues with country and western, is the most integrated form of popular music in America. Jewish composers are underrepresented when it comes to rock and roll, although we do have Paul Simon, among others. Bob Dylan's music is sometimes called "folk rock," but it has little in common with traditional rock and roll.

Minimalist music is the classical analog of rock and roll. It shares with rock and roll a strict regularity of rhythm and, as its name suggests, the repetition and exploration of a small - minimal - number of melodies. Philip Glass and Steve Reich are two Jewish composers whose careers are built on minimalism. The Jewish creative energy that did not go into rock and roll found its home in minimalism.

Why are there famous English composers of the 18th century but not of the 19th? Why did opera begin in Italy and thrive there as nowhere else? Why haven't German composers since 1955 dominated classical music the way they did for the previous three centuries? We don't know the answer. And we don't know why Jews are so numerous among the world's great violinists.



1. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3rd edition, vol. 1, p. 656.

2. For further discussion, see Leonard J. Leff, "A Question of Identity," Opera News, December 2002, pp. 34-39.

3. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 11, column 726.

4. Ibid., vol. 14, column 318.

5. Edmund White, "The Great Issues: George Eliot, Zionism and the Novel," TLS, January 18, 2002, p. 6.

6. Cited by Alan Riding, "The Real Paradox: Musical Comedy Made in France," "Arts and Leisure," The New York Times, October 20, 2002.

A version of this essay appeared in Midstream, Vol. XXXXIX, No. 2,
February/March 2003.