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An Overview Of Well Known Composers Of Jewish Descent

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Throughout our history persecutions of religious minorities has been commonplace in our society. Even now as we think of ourselves as enlightened individuals empowered by our circumstances, to achieve what many people would consider being perfect human beings persecution on our planet continues. Although there has always been something every single humans existent that has stayed constant. Music has been something which has stayed constant in every single human’s existence no matter what. Muis has been a part of people’s lives since the dawn of man. Music and religion also have a large connection with each other, music takes a large part in almost every single religious ceremony known to man. In the Jewish religion music takes a large part in the form of ceremony as well as folk song. The Jewish religion has been a religion which has been under unprecedented persecution by others for thousands of years. Many famous classical composers have not been able to accept their Jewish heritage or religion out of fear of persecution especially during the romantic era and our current society. Throughout the early 1800s Jewish musicians were regarded as virtuoso performers not so much as virtuoso composers. But, in the 1830’s all that changed when in Germany the two most famous composers of that time Felix Medelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer were Jewish. Although in order for these men to even become composers at all there was a large societal shift to even give these men the opportunity to become the composers they wanted to become. “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”. What Ivry is referring to is that in Germany at that time, the wealth of many large Jewish families in Berlin were able to use money in order to assimilate into the gentry of the city. From there the focus of providing that lifestyle for their children became another large part of their lifestyles. For example, Meyerbeer enjoyed the same musical prodigy style upbringing which was enjoyed by Mozart. Although later in life there reputations and music was not free from anti-semitisim. They were highly criticized by, German Nationalist composers Wagner and Schumman for their music not being German enough thus they were not German. This proves that in Germany at that time eventhough a composer’s music is loved and adhored there reputations are still not free from anti-semitism.

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Another example of Jewish composers would be here in America, where at the turn of the century Jewish Mmerican composers began to be commonplace in our society. One of the most famous Jewish American composers would be Aaron Copland. Copland’s music today is some of the most famous American classical compositions ever written from his depictions of natural settings of the Appalachian Mountains in the “Appalachian Spring” to the heavy chords of “Fanfare for the Common Man” Copland’s music beautifully depicts America. Although he was not free from the Anti-semitism due too his religion “anti-Semitic racial typing was perhaps the most powerful, linking enduring representations of composers like Aaron Copland, Lazare Saminsky, and Louis Gruenberg with the question, to paraphrase Richard Taruskin: ‘Who can truly represent – that is, has the right to represent – America, a nation of immigrants, in music?”’. This continues to show the struggle of which these well known composers had to endure through their lives due to their religion. Mundy explains how in 1923 with the founding of the American League of Composers did not segregate against Jewish composers, yet the membership did come with a large amount of anti semitism attached to it which made difficulties in life for the composers. Even Copland who was adored by the public and an executive on the board still faced a large amount of anit-semitism from fellow composers within the league. Another American composer who played a crucial role in the rise of Jewish America Composers would Leonard Bernstien. Bernstien became a man who could only be described as a legend “Only Leonard Bernstein could have brought about such a dramatic vindication of Jewishness, in the erstwhile heartland of anti-Semitism”. Bernstien’s talents were known across the globe. Bernstien embraced being Jewish as a lot of his songs in some of his larger plays expressed his ideas of Jewish Liberalism. But, there is one last well known Jewish American Composer and that would be George Gershwin. Gershwin’s early life was spent obsessing over Yiddish folk tunes which helped influence his music with elements he found in that music. “In the vast Gershwin Collection in the Library, there is but one composition on a ‘Jewish theme,’ the sprightly ditty, Mischa, Yascha, Toscha, Sascha”. This just goes to show how Gershwin’s music used the presence of his religion. One characteristic that all of these Jewsish American composers had in common is they were children of immigrants and that they carried their religion with honor and integrity. This continues to help to show how society in America is unique where 3 of its most famous composers in the history of the country are Jewish yet they face anti-semitcism. There are also a few more composers who were from Jewsih heritage, whose Jewsih heritage has not untied them from their popularity. Gustav Mahler was born and raised in a Jewsih household from Jewish parents.

Although he later in life did convert to Catholicism, but this was unfortunately not by choice, “The apex of conducting posts was the directorship of the Vienna State Opera, an imperial appointment that, by law, was not available to a Jew. In 1897, after Mahler converted to Catholicism (he was neither an observant Jew nor an observant Catholic), he was appointed to the post two months later. However, anti-Semitic critics continued their attacks on him and his music”. This quote is from an article that discusses exactly what happened which forced Mahler to convert. Although today it is considered that even though Mahler converted and died as Catholic, he is still considered a Jewish composer and that his music was and is “inherently” Jewish. Another composer with Jewish heritage is Jerry Goldsmith, Goldsmith was a son of Jewish Romanian parents. Goldsmith’s film scores can be heard in a wide variety of films. Goldsmith tied his heritage to his film scores as well, “The Academy Award-winning composer, known for his modernist compositional techniques and avant-garde orchestration choices, used the shofar outside of the more traditional biblical narratives, incorporating its use into science fiction films such as Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) and Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)”. Goldsmith went as far as to tie in the use of the Shofar too his scores. Goldsmith and Mahler although they do not have a lot alike in the content of their music, they do in fact show there religion in there music that they both have Jewish heritage as well as when we here there music we do not necessarily tie it too Judaism. Throughout modern history there has been persecution against our fellow humans. We have entered now today a society which allows persecution against others. Even as Jewish composers were being persecuted, they were still able to compose some of the most beautiful, grand, and intense music known to man. When we hear film scores we do not ask ourselves what religion is the composer, instead we enjoy the film. We should not tie religion to impact our opinion of a composer or there compositions. Rather all music which is composed should be embraced, because either way it is a piece of art enjoyed by many. Now more than ever we should enjoy every bit of beauty in our lives regardless as to when, where, and by who it came from.

Works Cited

  1. Friedmann, Jonathan L., and Joel D. Gereboff. Qol Tamid: the Shofar in Ritual, History, and Culture. Claremont Press, 2017. Ivery, Benjamin. “When Jews’s Became Germany’s Greatest Composers.” Haaertz, Haaertz, 25 Mar. 2012, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/1.5208090
  2. Ivry, Benjamin. “’Dreyfus’ of the Classical Music World.” Forward, Forward, 24 Mar. 2024, https://forward.com/culture/153449/dreyfus-of-the-classical-music-world/. Karp, Abraham J. “‘Break Forth in Melody & Song’: George Gershwin.” Jewish Virtual Library, Library of Congress, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/george-gershwin-judaic-treasures.
  3. Kirsch, Adam Kirs. “LEONARD BERNSTEIN, THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND OF THE JEWISH MAESTRO.” Tablet, Tablet Magazine, 4 Nov. 2013, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/151212/leonard-bernstein-letters.
  4. Mundy, Rachel. The Musical Quarterly. 1st ed., vol. 96, Oxford University Press, 2013. Rakatansky, Herbert. “Is Gustav Mahler’s Music Inherently Jewish?” The Jewish Voice and Herald, The Jewish Voice and Herald, 15 Apr. 2011, http://ri-philharmonic.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Public/Mahler.V&H.pdf.
01 February 2021

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