Volume XI

Book review: Hernan Tesler-Mabé, Mahler’s Forgotten Conductor

Hernan Tesler-Mabé,  Mahler’s Forgotten Conductor: Heinz Unger and His Search for Jewish Meaning, 1895−1965. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

Biographical narratives are often based on the idea of historical influence: they aim at demonstrating how individuals altered the course of history (“made history”) and how they were affected by it. Yet the concept of historical “influence” does not emanate from the stratum of historical facts; rather, it is a construct that is imposed upon historical knowledge while assuming a distinction between particular agencies and general historical trajectories. Hernan Tesler-Mabé’s Mahler’s Forgotten Conductor: Heinz Unger and His Search for Jewish Meaning, 1895−1965 seems to question this assumption. Taking his cue from Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1980 [1976]) — which explores popular culture in sixteenth-century Italy through the eyes of a common miller — Tesler-Mabé sets out to write a “contextual history” [sic.] in which a “single historical subject can open up an entire universe of understanding that otherwise would have remained unexplored” (5). This means that the differentiation between the personal history of a protagonist and a generalized historical context is replaced by the idea of historical embodiment; the historical subject, in turn, is construed as a site whose actions, demeanors, and dispositions weaves a web of mediators and contiguities. Untangling the knots of that web constitutes the act of historization.

The intention of producing the microhistory of Heinz Unger can certainly add significant insights into what the author labels “the search for Jewish meaning” in his title. After all, Unger’s story involves a personal and cultural journey that begins with the emancipated and assimilated Jewish communities of the Old World and ends with the integration into the formerly East European Jewish communities of the New World. But as Tesler-Mabé clarifies, Unger’s Jewishness should not be perceived in relation to that of figures like Gershom Scholem and Franz Rosenzweig, who formulated their German-Jewish identity within “the traditional bounds of intellectual history.” Unger, he writes, demonstrates the “complex, non-monolithic nature” of the German-Jewish experience that lies in the “interaction with and negotiation of ideologies, trends, and personalities” (5). And thus, it would seem that this chronicle of Unger’s life promulgates a non-identarian perception of Jewishness as a lived experience that entails a flux of religious, national, and cultural configurations.

But inasmuch as this biography is underpinned by historical interest, it also aspires to commemorate a forgotten artist. Justifiably or not, Unger did not gain international fame during his lifetime. Shortly after his career took off, he was forced to leave Germany yet did not develop any long-lasting position in any of the countries he lived in afterwards. Unger also received scant attention from future generation; this neglect was sustained not only by his limited success, but also by the fact that he hardly recorded during his lifetime. According to Tesler-Mabé, neglecting Unger’s artistic achievements is a historical wrong that should be righted and he therefore explicitly aims at restoring Unger’s “professional achievements to their rightful place in the public consciousness” (3).

And this puts Tesler-Mabé on a problematic path. Even if the intentions of rehabilitation and contextualization can be combined — which is doubtful — the entanglement of these intentions in Mahler’s Forgotten Conductor unfortunately undermines its critical and historical value. On the one hand, the book provides the reader with numerous accounts of Unger’s so-called accomplishments, including countless flattering citations of contemporaneous critics and references to testimonials of Unger and his wife — and devotes almost half its pages to a long list of Unger’s known concerts of performances. On the other hand, Tesler-Mabé does not delve into the more specific contexts pertaining to Unger or discuss the broader implications of his findings. Regarding Unger’s Canadian experiences, for example, Tesler-Mabé briefly discusses the precarious position of German-Jews in the context of Canadian Jewry in general, yet he does not clarify how this specifically bears on Unger. The assertion that Jewishness played a key role in Unger’s life in Canada is insufficiently backed by historical facts that could attest to the possible roles, functions, and the effects of Jewishness in his personal conduct and professional environments. In this regard, the book fails to produce the contextual history it sets out to provide. Eagerly striving to establish the artistic importance of Unger’s work, the book does not stray from the path of Unger’s professional Odyssey; yet in doing so, it often projects simplistic and uncritical perception of Unger’s figure.

Since the scope of this review does not allow to address the multitude of factors affected by the conflict of commemoration and contextualization, it will suffice here to focus on the role the figure of Mahler plays in Tesler-Mabé’s narrative. Mahler surely looms large in Unger’s history: Unger decided to “devote his life to music making” after hearing Mahler’s Lied von der Erde; he participated in the Mahler-fest held in Amsterdam in 1920; and he was appointed as a member on the honorary board of directors of the Gustav Mahler Society of America (19, 21, 79). Moreover, Unger nurtured his reputation as a Mahler specialist throughout his career — from the debut concerts whose programs revolved mainly around Mahler’s music to the repeated efforts to perform Mahler in Canada. But Unger’s attachment to Mahler, according to Tesler-Mabé, is not only a musical and personal issue. Mahler, he argues, deeply affected Unger because he musically expressed a shared German-Jewish experience of “highly destabilizing social and cultural reality” (12). Unger, in other words, seems to have perceived Mahler’s music as a site of Jewishness, and for this reason, his increasing allegiance to Mahler and the dissemination of his music is interpreted a performance of his Jewish identity (8).

In defining Mahler’s music as a “site of formation and maintenance of Jewish identity”, Unger’s biography arguably abandons the “frustrating model” of categorical inclusion or exclusion from Jewishness and embrace the idea that “all spaces represented different yet still equal negotiations of Jewish identity” (11). It follows, then, that Mahler’s work is construed as a part of a “more broad-minded and inclusive” sphere of Jewish music because it expresses the cultural reality experienced by Jews in this period and functioned as “a form and reflection” of Jewish identity (11). But while Tesler-Mabé proclaims a non-essentialist and critical approach toward Jewishness, his analysis proves otherwise.

To avoid essentialist modes of thinking it is necessary to adopt elastic, mutable, and contingent formulations that transcend categories like Jewish identity and Jewish music (with Jewish being an obstinate adjective). Identity, in such a framework, should carry scare quotes as it conveys a disarrayed constellation of actions, situations, and experiences placed in specific contexts. Similarly, the locus of Jewish music should be relocated in the specific configurations in which it is performed and the functions it fulfills. Following this, the issue at hand is not whether Mahler fulfilled the function of Jewish self-positioning for Unger, but how Unger positioned himself as a Jew through Mahler. And so we may ask: how did Unger’s allegiance to Mahler affected the way he was perceived? What links did he try to establish between Mahler’s music and potential Jewish venues? Such questions do not animate Tesler-Mabé’s book nor are they even addressed.

Whereas the author aspires to position Unger, Mahler, and the performance of Jewishness within an intricate network, he neutralizes that very network by fixing the position of its constituents. In a rather tautological manner, Mahler’s music becomes a site of Jewishness because it was performed by Jews such as Unger, and Unger performed his Jewishness because he conducted Mahler. But as Adam J. Sacks sensibly pointed out, Mahler also straddles the ground between romanticism and modernism and, following the revival of his oeuvre in the sixties, has also come to embody tropes like the “psychologically therapeutic,” the “torment of pathology,” and “the kitsch of sacrificial transcendence.” (Sacks 2013, 113). These aspects are excluded from Tesler-Mabé’s view, most likely because they extend beyond the performance of Jewishness. But Mahler probably played a role in Unger’s attempt to situate himself as a modernist, especially in the fairly peripheral context of Toronto in the fifties and sixties. By the same token, it is certainly possible that the adherence to Mahler in North American contexts also solidified Unger’s self-positioning as German, and not only in relation to Jewish communities, but also to Canadians in general.

That being said, the fixation of Mahler’s figure in relation to Jewishness is by no means unintentional; it serves a central purpose in the broader conflict of commemorating and contextualizing Unger. After all, the polite praises of unknown critics in local publications in addition to the emotional testimonials of the Ungers are not enough to establish the Jewish significance and the artistic importance of Unger’s work. To do so, Unger needs to be backed by a figure that is “greater than life,” one that “made history”. Mahler appears to play that role wherein he functions as a monolithic myth that bestows Jewish meaning and tragic significance upon Unger. The opening lines of the book demonstrate this mythization most lucidly when Tesler-Mabé equates the “three blows of fate” the hit Mahler — which were allegedly represented by the three hammer blows in the finale of his Sixth Symphony — and the supposedly key three misfortunes of Unger (Mahler-Werfel 1990 [1971], 70; Tesler-Mabé 2020, 3). But there is nothing tragic about Mahler’s “blows of faith” just as there is nothing historical in Alma Mahler’s description of them. These blows of faith are part of the Mahler myth, which relies on history to the extent that it serves to idolize Mahler and is projected as a metaphysical aura upon the historical narrative of Unger.

Still, is there something wrong with idolizing Unger? If we acknowledge that historicization unavoidably constructs a narrative, why cannot it be heroic? It can, but not in a context whose mode of narration overlooks the figure it commemorates and the history it seeks to depict. Unger, so it seems, becomes part of an agenda to validate Canadian and Jewish-Canadian culture by placing it in an international arena in which he is casted as the Canadian counterpart of Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and John Barbirolli. Only that Toronto, especially at the time, is not New-York, and Unger is certainly no Bernstein. In this fictitious international competition, Unger loses. Based on the information Tesler-Mabé provides, Unger’s emigration to Canada was the stage on which Unger’s international career started to falter. In this local, Unger could not land any substantial position and was therefore impelled to conduct small community orchestras and later on a provisional orchestra organized by his “supporters” (63). These venues, it should also be added, were inherently related to the local Jewish community who sought to establish its own cultural presence. Likewise, Unger’s guest performances with more established orchestras dwindled over time and were usually restricted to the Canadian Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the CBC Symphony Orchestra.

Paradoxically, Unger’s marginality is doubled the more Tesler-Mabé situates him in relation to world-renowned conductors. This naturally defeats the purpose of studying Unger’s life since it glosses over some of the unique facets of his story, especially the confrontation of the romanticized aspirations of a German-Jewish conductor with the music market of post-World War II and the north-American cultural environment. In this regard, Tesler-Mabé surely deserves credit for shedding new light on the way in which Unger promoted the dissemination of European art within small communities in Canada, his advancement of non-professional communal musical production, or his negotiation of artistic modernism within relatively conservative environments. Yet to give these experiences the due attention one must rise above comparisons with conductors who left their mark on the international stage and situate Unger at the center of his stage. Tesler-Mabé does not do so; instead, he inadvertently renders Unger a provincial figure, a forgotten composer that stands in the shadow of international conductors while conducting a holy quest for Jewish meaning under the auspices of a Mahlerian titan.

References

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1980. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Centur. Miller. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mahler-Werfel, Alma. 1990 [1971]. Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters. Trans. Basil Creighton. London: Time Warner Books.

Sacks, Adam J. 2013. “Toward an Expansion of the Critique of the Mahler Revival.” New German Critique 40/2: 113–36.

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Author: Clara Wenz
Published online: 06.29.20
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Drawing on fieldwork undertaken in Beirut and Jerusalem, this article chronicles the present and past lives of a historical record of the Hebrew paraliturgical hymn “Yom Yom Odeh”. The record was released by the Lebanese Baidaphon company in the early 1920s featuring Ḥazzan Rafoul Tabbach. Since encountering it at a music archive in Lebanon and trying to find out more about its origins, I have played my digital recording of it to a variety of different people, including Syrian musicians, Lebanese record specialists as well as members of the Mizrahi community in Jerusalem. Within this context, the recording mediated and actualized memories of a cross-territorial, Arab-Jewish landscape and of musical exchanges that among other things saw the emergence of “Yom Yom Odeh”; at the same time, the recording provoked reactions that betray deep ideological divisions by which this landscape is scarred to the present day. Whether concerns about Jewish musicians’ national authenticity, my own anxiety about the song’s muted sound on my mobile phone, or nostalgic evocations of a city never seen, the different reactions that “Yom Yom Odeh” elicited capture tensions that arise from the song’s defiance to being constrained to the paragons of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict.

Author: Oren Roman, Eliyahu Schleifer
Published online: 01.19.20
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Niggun ʽAkedah is an Ashkenazi liturgical melody set to penitential poems referring to the Biblical episode of the binding of Isaac. Our study on the central role this episode played in medieval and early modern Ashkenazi Jewish culture reveals that, alongside a vast literary corpus in Hebrew and in Yiddish, there is a musical expression firmly entrenched with texts addressing this multifaceted religious theme.

Author: רות הכהן־פינצ'ובר
Published online: 11.26.20
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Sounds of Job in the American Midwest: A Serious “Jewish” Man vs. a “Christian” Tree of Life

Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower)

The article discusses the soundtracks of two “Joban” movies whose plots take place in the 1950s and 60s in the American Midwest. The first film, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009), is “Jewish” in the sense that its protagonists are active members of a practicing Jewish community in a Minnesota suburbia. The second, Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) is “Christian,” as it centers on a family who are members of a Catholic community in Texas. Both movies are autobiographical, as their authors attest. The article takes as its point of departure the long legacy of the Book of Job’s reception in each of the respective religious communities as well as their traditional contrasting approaches to questions of noise and harmony. It seeks to show the critical role played by the sonic dimension of the movies for fathoming their deeper meaning vis-à-vis their Joban orientation.  

The article hinges on possible interpretations of Job 38, 7: “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” which Malick took as a motto for his movie: Did the stars cum sons of God sing and shout in harmony, or did they produce noise? In theological terms, does the Book of Job, its finale notwithstanding, point towards salvation or disillusionment? And to what sort of salvation or disillusionment does it point, when viewed in terms of the movies’ retrospective gaze at the America of their childhood time?

In A Serious Man the major Joban figure, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, is battered by a series of inflictions. Searching for a theological understanding of their meaning, he seeks out the council of three different rabbis - a modern version of Job’s three comforters. The music in his world, mainly diegetic and unequivocally non-celestial, derives from folk, liturgical, and popular genres. Yet, whether listening to music or producing it, the protagonists, I argue, mainly ventriloquized it, like a Dybbuk (a figure that features in the film’s opening episode). In their attempts to hide their purposes or conceal desires and agonies, all are possessed by certain spectral forces that speak or are heard through them. Sound thus points to what remains latent: a profound rupture from a troubled Jewish past, a rift between generations, phony piety, and above all, a deeply entrenched dissimulating social behaviour.

Of the three rabbis, only the oldest holds a key to understanding the root of Larry’s tragedies. To the ears of Larry’s bar-mitzvah son, the rabbi quotes the song’s lyrics the latter avidly consumes – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love: “When the truth is found / To be lies / And all the joy / Within you dies.” Skipping the haunting refrain, the movie suggests that Larry, deprived of love, is the victim of other people’s bad faith (Sartre) and immoral actions. Fate, or God for that matter, is only marginally involved. Disillusioned and earthbound through and through, the movie’s final intertextual reference, I suggest, gives us a clue as to where its authors seek deliverance: somewhere over the rainbow - in an enchanted land of Oz – but not the one Job dwells in.

In Tree of Life the Joban lot is distributed among all family members, as all are afflicted by the death of the second son. Reflecting back on his childhood memories, the oldest son, decades later, wishes to work through this past that weighs so heavily on him. Grace vs. Nature, figured through a mother’s love and a father’s arbitrary law, respectively, are the major forces at work in this small universe. I argue that the rich soundtrack divides itself accordingly. Wavering between non-diegetic sound that turns diegetic, and vice versa, it dichotomizes Catholic to Protestant music from a J. S. Bach fugue to a Zbigniew Preisner Lachrymose. Postwar latency (Gumbrecht) prevails here, as it does in the Coen film, rooted in military traumas, professional failure, and an unspoken chasm between parents who unable to cope with their turbulent adolescent son. It likewise produces bad faith. Unlike the Coen film, however, here God’s presence is beyond doubt, and though He hides Himself, He is sought by the protagonists through passionate whispers. (God’s traces can be recognized in an evolutionary version of Whirlwind Revelation [Job 38-41]: His sublime Creation dazzles our eyes and caresses our ears, in the movie’s second prelude.)

In the end, as I interpret it, Grace prevails, and an “Agnus Dei” son is sacrificed by a mother-pieta to Berlioz’s purgatorial sounds. Malick, a frustrated philosopher, in this cinematic “Assumption” of the virgin-like mother, joins forces with Pope Pius XII’s 1950 dogmatization of Virgin Mary’s divine status. (A divination that Carl Jung saw as God’s ultimate answer to Job.) In the movie, a postmortem reconciliation reaches out to embrace all, enabling the prodigal adult son to restart his life.

The sublime vs. the grotesque; a divine mother sacrificing her son vs. a domestic deity (“Hashem”) who becomes metaphysically irrelevant – these two films move in opposite directions. The respective, concluding musical gesture in each – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love" vs. Berlioz’ “Agnus Dei” – captures it all. Taken as a whole, the films thus artistically express significant trends in Jewish and Christian theologies, and wittingly or unwittingly, write new chapters in each.

The article is a chapter from a book manuscript in progress, on Job’s sonic adventures.

Author: Yosef Goldenberg
Published online: 09.16.20
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Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics makes public a forgotten source from the collection of the Latvian musician Emilis Melngailis (1874–1954), a devoted collector and scholar of folk songs. In addition to the Latvian folk songs Melngailis published in thirteen volumes, he devoted attention to the collection of songs from minority communities which inhabited Latvia, namely, Jews, Roma, Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, Belarussians, Latgalians, Livornians, and Estonians (p. xiv). Kevin Karnes took upon himself the daunting task of editing the Jewish items found in two notebooks from Melngailis’s collection (nos. 65 and 74). Melngailis started collecting Jewish songs in 1899 in Keidan (Lithuania), and continued this task in the 1920s and 1930s in Latvia after a long stay in Uzbekistan. (In 2015 The Archive of Latvian Folklore made the entire Melngailis collection available, including all of his 104 notebooks).

Author: David Conway
Published online: 12.07.20
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If you want a bog-standard show-biz biography of Irving Berlin — chattily written, without enthusiasm for challenging any of the myths, giving its hero the benefit of the doubt in awkward situations (of which there are many), not showing much in the way of original research, and full of phrases (such as “in all likelihood’’, “perhaps he would have noted” and others) that give rise to authorial rambling and invention — this is maybe the book for you. 

Author: Dan Deutsch
Published online: 12.01.20
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Biographical narratives are often based on the idea of historical influence: they aim at demonstrating how individuals altered the course of history (“made history”) and how they were affected by it. Yet the concept of historical “influence” does not emanate from the stratum of historical facts; rather, it is a construct that is imposed upon historical knowledge while assuming a distinction between particular agencies and general historical trajectories. Hernan Tesler-Mabé’s Mahler’s Forgotten Conductor: Heinz Unger and His Search for Jewish Meaning, 1895−1965 seems to question this assumption. Taking his cue from Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1980 [1976]) — which explores popular culture in sixteenth-century Italy through the eyes of a common miller — Tesler-Mabé sets out to write a “contextual history” [sic.] in which a “single historical subject can open up an entire universe of understanding that otherwise would have remained unexplored” (5). This means that the differentiation between the personal history of a protagonist and a generalized historical context is replaced by the idea of historical embodiment; the historical subject, in turn, is construed as a site whose actions, demeanors, and dispositions weaves a web of mediators and contiguities. Untangling the knots of that web constitutes the act of historization.