Photo Credit: Jewish Press

On December 15, 2020, Israel introduced a special stamp to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), which features his characteristic stern, serious expression and burning gaze. The score to the left of the stamp is the opening motif of the 1st movement of his Symphony No.5, Op.67.

Stamp issued by the Israel in honor of Beethoven’s 250th birthday.

According to the Israeli Postal Authority, “The trajectory of Beethoven’s life and works is comparable to the Israeli experience of overcoming hurdles and crises, showing ambitiousness and uniqueness, creativity and innovation to create a country from its inception in a land with limited material and physical resources. All whilst marching forward with confidence and faith in the human spirit, like Beethoven, to become a leading global force.”

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Although the 5th Symphony unquestionably remains one of Beethoven’s seminal and best-known works, it is interesting that the Postal Authority chose it over the String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131, which he composed in 1826. The Quartet was a personal favorite of Beethoven and – of particular interest to the Jewish world – there is little doubt that the adagio in its 6th movement was taken from the long-established Kol Nidre melody sung in the Ashkenazi tradition.

Critic Norman Lebrecht recently observed that various productions of the Quartet emphasize the Kol Nidre association to varying degrees. The most “Jewish-sounding” of all is the 1961 Budapest String Quartet’s version of this piece, and the Juilliard Quartet version makes the association wholly unambiguous, but the Amadeus Quartet plays the 6th movement as if wholly unaware of its connection to Kol Nidre, and other orchestras seem to go to extraordinary lengths to mute entirely the Jewish nature of the 6th movement.

By Beethoven’s time, Kol Nidre was perhaps the best-known melody in the Jewish cantorial oeuvre, and it was likely known even to many non-Jews in Vienna, particularly musicians. How and why Beethoven decided to incorporate the prayer into his most important string quartet is an enigma, which nonetheless continues to be examined and discussed by musicologists.

It is unknown whether he ever actually attended a synagogue, or heard it sung in one but, if he did, it would had to have been years before he wrote the Quartet because he was completely deaf by that point in time.

Yiddish Beethoven card, circa 1920s.

Some musicologists suggest that Beethoven’s interest in Jewish music may have been related to the fact that he was dating a Jewish woman, Rahel Antonie Friederike Levin, when he wrote the piece. Rahel became friendly with the daughters of Moses Mendelssohn and went on to host one of the most famous 19th century salons in Berlin.

In 1814, she married the biographer Karl August Varnhagen after converting to Christianity (but only after her mother’s death) and, though she was a self-hating Jew who believed that “it is so disgusting to be a Jew,” the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) notes that “she always showed the greatest interest in her former coreligionists, endeavoring by word and deed to better their position, especially during the anti-Semitic outburst in Germany in 1819.”

As the story goes, the relationship with Beethoven was terminated by Rahel’s father, a wealthy jeweler who ruled his family dictatorially and may have been unhappy about his daughter’s relationship with a non-Jew – although, ironically, she ended up marrying a non-Jew anyway, albeit one not nearly as renowned as Beethoven.

Although the story of the Rahel-Kol Nirei connection persists, most scholars dismiss it as being of dubious authenticity. Nonetheless, there can be no question that Beethoven had some sort of relationship with Rahel and that he corresponded with her, including via one famous July 3, 1812 letter in which he confirmed a meeting with his “Immortal Beloved,” a reference to another one of Beethoven’s romantic interests. (One of his most renowned and discussed letters is a beautiful and passionate July 7, 1812 missive he wrote to this mysterious woman).

At the time of the quartet’s composition, Beethoven had become interested in the music of George Handel’s Saul (1738), which led him to study early Hebrew music. A dramatic oratorio in three acts based upon Samuel I, Saul tells the tale of the first Jewish king’s relationship with David that begins with high regard, which ultimately turns to envy and then to a hatred that leads to his demise and to the institution of the Davidic dynasty. The most well-known part of the choral work is Handel’s remarkable “Dead March,” a funeral anthem for Saul and his son, Jonathan.

Most contemporary music historians, however, surmise that the origins of Beethoven’s interest in Jewish music likely began when he was approached by the Viennese Jewish community to compose a cantata for the dedication of a new Reform Temple in the Seitenstettengasse.

Although Beethoven was born and raised in Bonn, most of his life and career unfolded in Vienna, which not only placed him in the cultural epicenter of Europe at the time but also exposed him to the unique historical and social conditions of the city’s Jews. At the turn of the 19th century, there were a few hundred Jews in Vienna, but no Jewish community was officially recognized in the city until it was occupied by French forces in 1809.

By 1825, there were still only about 2,000 Jews in Vienna, but the community, led by a number of very wealthy Jews, built a Reform Temple at Seitenstettengasse and retained the renowned cantor and composer Salomon Sulzer. As “the father of the modern cantorate,” Sulzer is perhaps best known for “modernizing” the cantorial ritual, introducing a choir into it, and publishing Shir Tzion, which established models for the musical service that was incorporated into nearly all the Temples across the world. Among his admirers was Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert provided Hebrew Psalm compositions for the Temple’s Friday night services, including Tov Lehodot for the temple choir.

Although Beethoven ultimately declined the commission, it is broadly believed he was offered it at the very time that he was writing his “Kol Nidre Quartet.”

* * * * *

Original signed sketch of Beethoven by Gur-Arie – a worthier image for the Israel Beethoven stamp?

Another image that the Israeli Postage authority could have used for its Beethoven stamp is the classic representation of the composer by Meir Gur-Arie shown here. Born Meir Horodetsky (1891-1951), he studied at the Lodz Art School (1907-09) before making aliyah to Eretz Yisrael (1909), where he became a leading Bezalel artist.

After studying at the Bezalel School of Art (1909-11), he taught painting and ivory carving there (1911-29). A member of the “Menorah group,” he and Zev Raban opened the Menora workshop (1913) and later established the “Workshop for Industrial Design” (1923). His work, which remains highly popular, is exhibited worldwide, including at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.

Although Beethoven had many Jewish friends and supporters, his letters are replete with rank anti-Semitism. The first composer to attain financial independence by taking personal control of his publishing arrangements, he appears to have borne particular anti-Semitic animus toward his German publisher, Adolf Martin (nee Aaron Moses) Schlesinger, and his son, Moritz (Maurice) Schlesinger, who ran the Paris-based branch of Schlesinger family publishing business.

Beethoven with Manuscript for Missa Solemis (detail, 1820) by Joseph Karl Stieler, – the only portrait for which Beethoven sat in his lifetime. Beethoven hated posing for paintings and, even for the Stieler work, his patience ran out after a few sittings and the artist had to complete the work from memory.

For example, Beethoven wrote to German publisher C. F. Peters to ask him to publish his Missa Solemnis (from which, ironically, he borrowed a motif for use in the second movement of the Quartet) because “in no circumstances will Schlesinger ever get anything more from me, because he too has played me a Jewish trick” and he was allegedly cheated with “such insulting niggardliness, the like of which I have never experienced.”

Beethoven agreed with Peters that “a Christian Mass composed by Beethoven cannot come into the hands of a Jew, and especially such a Jew.”

In an 1823 correspondence, Beethoven did not mince words, calling Schlesinger “a beach peddler and rag-and-bone Jew.” And in his negotiations with Kappelmeister Hofmeister, another publisher, he expressed optimism that a deal would ultimately be struck because the publisher was “neither Jew nor Italian.”

Beethoven an anti-Semite? In the immortal words of Chuck Berry, “Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

* * * * *

One of Beethoven’s works – his Ninth Symphony (1824), arguably the principal musical composition of western civilization – was the predicate for the creation of one of the best-known Yiddish poems of all time, Alle Mentchen Zaynen Brider (“All People are Brothers”), by Isaac Leib Peretz.

The first major composer to include a choral movement in a symphony, Beethoven famously set the “Song of Joy” – his celebrated last movement of the Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony – to the words of Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “An die Freude,” the essence of which was a general proclamation of the inevitable attainment of the unity of all men.

For centuries, the Ninth has been adopted by various political movements and ideologies to communicate political power and ideology. It became a symbol of nationalism through World War I, when it became entrenched in the German psyche as a symbol of the fatherland’s aggression, and during World War II, when Beethoven became a national hero of the Third Reich.

The Nazis went through laughable contortions to convince the German public not only that Beethoven was sympathetic to Nazi race ideology but also that he used his music – specifically including his Ninth Symphony with the Schiller poem – as a means to express such views.

The Ninth Symphony was also embraced by Stalin, who directed Soviet orchestras to tour the breadth of the land to perform it. Sadly, to some people, the Nazi crematoria and Soviet work camps have forever transformed the great Ninth into just another example of unabashed Nazi and Stalinist propaganda.

Peretz signed image.

Peretz (1852-1915), along with Shalom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Seforim, was one of the key founders of modern Yiddish literature, but he was also an important figure in Hebrew literature to which he introduced new literary forms and adapted the short story and the symbolic drama. In his polemical writings in Yiddish and Hebrew, he defended the Jews against anti-Semitic vilification, persistently fought for the national Jewish revival, and often wrote of his love for Hebrew and for Eretz Yisrael.

Peretz rewrote Schiller’s text to the Ninth Symphony not as a mere translation but, rather, in the words of one commentator, as “a sardonic rejoinder to Schiller’s paean to universal enlightenment in which Peretz is shouting at the hypocrisy of a Europe that sings the Ode to the tune of Beethoven but neglects its meaning.”

Peretz viewed this “paean to universal enlightenment” as an exercise in rank hypocrisy by a Europe awash with anti-Semitism and nationalism. Peretz’s version asserts that the brotherhood of man is not some far-off goal to be achieved one day but, rather, an inherent characteristic of the human condition.

While the Nazis hypocritically adopted the original version of the Ninth Symphony with Schiller’s “humanitarian” text, their Jewish victims lovingly embraced Peretz’s version. For example, when the Nazis in the Radom Ghetto permitted Jewish performances for a time, the Jewish chorus sang Peretz’s Ode to Joy.

Israel Peretz stamp and two labels.

It was also the song of choice by children’s choir in Auschwitz, which sang it in close proximity to the crematoria. The sarcasm and scorn underscoring Peretz’s lyric and the beauty of Beethoven’s stirring music combined to create a survival mechanism for the children, and for adult victims as well, and it became a sort of unofficial Jewish anthem in concentration camps across Europe.

Thus, ironically, the political appropriation of the beloved Ninth Symphony by so many diverse groups – including totalitarians and their subjugated masses; National Socialists on the right and communist governments on the left; the “Thousand Year Reich” and its Jewish victims, Soviets leaders and their citizens incarcerated in their gulags, etc. – has turned it into a mere shadow of the commanding political icon it once was.

Yet, I have always maintained that music is meant to stand on its own terms and, notwithstanding the “dark politics” historically associated with it, the glory and beauty of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – whether with the original Schiller version or Peretz’s Yiddish form – will stand for all time.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.