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Although he takes his title from Wagner’s notorious essay, David Conway is far more objective. He asks, ‘Why did the Jews suddenly appear in the musical professions from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards … meeting with such success as to hold notable positions in almost all branches … including management, publishing and patronage?’ In answering this question, the author, an honorary research fellow in Hebrew and Jewish studies at University College London, examines the careers of Jewish musical professionals in five societies – the Netherlands, England, Austria, Germany and France – up to about 1850. Biographies of numerous musicians are provided, including the composers Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Moscheles, Alkan and Halévy, Hiller, Joachim, the singers Michael Leoni and John Braham.

In one particularly interesting section Conway compares Mendelssohn to Shostakovich, finding parallels between their respective relationships with Jewishness and Communism. Sub-sections include ‘Handel and the Jews’, ‘Jewish musicians in Beethoven’s Vienna’, ‘The supremacy of Meyerbeer’, and ‘Alkan: “I sleep but my heart waketh”’. Each of the sections dealing with the five nations mentioned above is prefaced by some historical context – such as ‘Re-entry of Jews to England’, ‘Vienna’s Second Society’, ‘Paris and “Les français juifs”’. Music publishers’ careers also provide fascinating subjects.

In his final chapter the author revisits Wagner’s spiteful rant, reassessing it as ‘some way below its overhyped status as a milestone on the road to twentieth-century genocide’. ‘Perhaps … opportunism had been more a motive than deep-rooted principle; … for many years after this, the topic of Jews more or less vanishes from his writings’.

Near the end of his thoroughly engrossing book, recommended to both musician and historian, Conway neatly concludes that ‘despite himself, Wagner in Jewry in Music ironically stands witness to the notable contribution that Jews had made in his lifetime to the development of western musical culture.’

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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