When Jews Became Germany’s Greatest Composers

Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer arrive after centuries of anti-Semitism; new book explains how Jews became exemplary leaders in musical society.

Benjamin Ivry
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Benjamin Ivry

The sudden proliferation of Jewish composers in the mid-19th century was unprecedented in the history of classical music. Until then, Jews had been limited to the role of virtuoso performers, but that all changed when Germany’s two most famous composers were of Jewish origin.

These two were Felix Mendelssohn, whose most prominent public manifestation was the oratorio “Elijah” (1846), and Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), the prolific composer of the operas “Robert le diable” (1831), “Les Huguenots” (1836) and “Le prophète” (1849). David Conway’s “Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner,” published by Cambridge University Press in January, explains how Jews became such exemplary leaders in musical society.

A lithograph of Jewish German composer ‪Giacomo Meyerbeer by Josef Kriehuber, 1847.Credit: Wikipedia

Conway explains that in the 17th century, the Ashkenazi synagogue of Altona, Germany, forbade its congregants from attending the opera. Only toward the end of the 18th century did wealthy Berlin families attempt to “buy into Gentile culture as part of a process of entry to European society” by giving their children music lessons and emulating an “aristocratic style of education.” Among such beneficiaries were Mendelssohn’s great-aunt, Sarah Itzig Levy, and Meyerbeer’s mother, Amalia Liebmann Meyer Wulff.

An unprecedented degree of public acceptance was required in order for German Jews to gain prominence in the quintessentially social role of composer. Wealth and societal standing were essential elements of this acceptance. Thus, when the 11-year-old Meyerbeer’s family had him pose for a formal oil portrait standing next to a piano, it was to place this child musical prodigy in the tradition of Mozart but also to underline his family’s social position. Unlike the young Mozart, however, Meyerbeer performed in public not to earn money but to make his family proud. He also made German Jews proud that one of their own could attain such prodigious artistry.

Read more at the Forward.

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