[an error occurred while processing this directive]
case western reserve university



Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

Provided as a service by Case Western Reserve University

Shofar - Book Review Index

Haydn’s Jews, by Caryl Clarke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.  244 pp.  $99.00.

Prior to the twentieth century, the intersection of Jews and classical music brings to mind Wagner (for his antisemitism), the Mendelssohn family, Mahler, and perhaps Halevy’s early Grand Opera La Juive. Dr. Caryl Clarke (whose prior publication has established her a place in Haydn studies) has recently published a new book that takes this intersection back a century, maintaining there was a persistent perception in Haydn’s day that Jewishness was a designation of “Otherness.” Cultural exoticism—think alla Turca—in Haydn’s time included the resident Other (the Jew) as well as the non-resident Other (peoples from Turkey and farther East). While her book’s title suggests a focused topic relating the resident Other’s stage portrayal and reception, she weaves a multitude of tangents into her research and writing. At times these are intriguing; at times they seem self-indulgent, straining the reader’s stamina to remember her main topic.

The Introduction, an important component of this book, sets the stage and provides a relevant overview. This said, I recommend reading the Introduction and concluding Apologia as a unit. The reader who embarks upon the central chapters having read her opening questions and her conclusions together will likely fare better in the detail of her supporting arguments. In the Introduction, Dr. Clark raises some intriguing questions and contends that Haydn was most likely familiar “with the lexicon of Jewish theatrical representation and that he exploited the comic potential of this well-known stage stereotype in two works dating from the 1750s and 1760s,” referring to his (now lost) apprentice-era opera Der krumme Teufel, and his early Esterháza opera Lo speziale.

Her desire “to uncover possible dialogues and interconnectivities within and between Gentile and Jewish communities,” while acknowledging that many of her arguments “rest primarily on circumstantial evidence,” leaves us excited to discover that ethnic conflict and stereotype—now accepted as integral to certain music in the nineteenth century—may be proven or disproven to have been an issue a century earlier.

Clark builds her case for the intersection of Jew and (Catholic) Austrian at multiple levels, beginning in Chapter 1 with cultural context, or the ways Jews were represented on stage prior to and during Haydn’s early life. What eventually comes to light is that music most likely made the stage stereotype of the Jew—represented sometimes as Fool (Bernardon), sometimes as syphilitic, limping devil—more intense by accentuating the visual and vocal codes already present in the plays of the day. Chapter 2 initiates a detailed discussion of the Jewish ghetto in Eisenstadt, postulating that Haydn may well have acquired considerable familiarity with its space and population as he walked to work and to the apothecary for medicines to treat his chronic gastritis.

Clark then discusses his Missa brevis St. Joannis de Deo, composed particularly for the Barmherzige Brüder, who ran a hospital and almshouse on the periphery of Eisenstadt. Catholic church history intersects Jewish locale, and Clark postulates that, in a Missa brevis, the telescoping of text (singing multiple lines of the Creed polyphonically at once) and omission of certain liturgical lines of the full Mass (most notably the lines stating Jesus is the Son of God) may point to these Masses being used as “conversion Masses” for Jews in attendance who were not quite “ready” for the full Christian doctrine. Issues of speculation arise here, all of which may be moot, however, since the Mass is not an operatic stage work, and thus is really not on point.

A discussion of early operas at the newly built Esterháza in the 1760s sets the context for a discussion of Haydn’s opera Lo Speziale (The Apothecary) in Chapter 3, in which the main focus is upon the elements of ethnic coding found in both libretto and score that make a case for the lead character, Sempronio, being a pejorative caricature of the local Jewish pharmacist. This is the crux of her book, and she marshals a variety of points to support her thesis, ranging from Haydn’s use of specific instrumentation and Sempronio’s tenor voice range to text paint the nasal character of Jewish dialect, to librettist Goldoni’s division of certain text lines between multiple characters for comic effect as words are heard erroneously and misunderstood (Clark relates this to the Austrian concept of Mauscheln—to behave or speak like a Jew, using a mixture of Germanic, Hebraic, and Yiddish words), and implications of hyper-sexuality in Jews through dotted rhythms in music and through costume choices (a black long-style wig may equal an “uncut phallus” with its attendant circumcision anxiety).

Some of the readership will react with interest. Others may wonder 1) why some of these characteristics don’t fall equally well under the heading of opera buffa genre style instead of Jewish mockery, or 2) why Haydn’s instrumentation necessarily underscores Jewishness when he only had oboes and flutes to work with at Esterháza if he wished to score a soprano register timbre other than strings, or 3) do black wigs or dotted rhythms really send coded signals of hyper-sexuality to an audience, or are they more just tools of the compositional and costume trade in Haydn’s time?

Other readers may simply wish something “positive and Jewish” to surface in the text instead of reading: “[A]mple textual and musical evidence remains to distinguish his [Sempronio’s] Otherness. The apothecary’s blindness, deafness, distorted view of life, arrogance, deceitfulness, egoism, pseudo-learnedness, effeminate voice, unintelligible chattering, shuffling gait, Schlemiel-like qualities, economic opportunism, and sexual perversion—all signify his ethnic Otherness. Condemned by voice, body, gesture, and action, the apothecary is doomed to fail. . . .” To me, the one-sidedness of Jewish stage portrayal, according to Clark, becomes periodically uncomfortable.

Chapter 4 takes us to the late 1890s, when the book’s title Haydn’s Jews extends to cover the two Jewish musicians (Hirschfeld and Mahler) who recreated Lo speziale into a German opera (Der Apotheker) and produced it with varying success. Issues of coding arise again in letters between Mahler and Hirschfeld. I am left feeling that, for example, a discussion of ethnic coding in Wagner’s character Mime makes sense, since Cosima Wagner, herself, called Mime “ein Jüdschen.” Without superb evidence, however, discussions of coding tread dangerously close to (if not within) the realm of speculation and surmise.

Haydn’s Jews raises many questions, answers some, struggles with others, and does its best with the ones that cannot be answered. The research is careful, the footnotes and bibliography extensive, yet the topic is rather more broad-reaching than the jacket cover would lead one to expect. The tone is scholarly throughout, and the book’s appearance and physical quality are unimpeachable. It is some of Clark’s speculative positions, some of the musical examples she chooses to illustrate her points, and some of the extended off-topic research that causes me to feel this book has weaknesses as well as strengths. And if Haydn indeed created caricatures, not merely drawn from a comic opera tradition, but purposely to “code” Sempronio negatively as Jewish in as many ways as Clark suggests, then surely I am not alone in being relieved that he soon and quickly followed his era’s cultural shift away from such depictions after his early years at Esterháza.

Jonathan Sturm

Iowa State University