Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Illustrated libretto and notes from La Juive.

Composer, teacher and essayist Fromental Halévy’s (1802 – 1883) innovative, demanding and captivating work included more than 30 grand operas, and his music captured the romantic and contentious spirit of his time. In effect the composer laureate of France, he was hailed by his contemporaries, including Wagner, a notoriously virulent antisemite, and one of his students at the Paris Conservatoire was Georges Bizet, who married his youngest daughter, Geneviève.



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Halévy’s seminal work, La Juive (“The Jewess,”1835), essentially a “one-hit wonder” for him that became one of the cornerstones of the French repertory for a century, was one of the grandest of grand operas and included a formal ballet, major choruses, and spectacular processions and celebrations. Its popularity was such that Arturo Toscanini appealed to Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt to sing the leading role in the opera for an incredible payday – which Rosenblatt declined, telling the conductor that he would only use his vocal gift for the glory of G-d and in service to his religion. Many music historians argue that the fact that the opera’s fall from grace coincided with the rise of antisemitism and the Third Reich is no mere coincidence; rather, audiences had become uncomfortable with Halévy’s unambiguous branding of Christian hate for Jews and his stereotyping of the opera’s Jewish characters.


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The story of La Juive begins with the tale of Eléazar, an Orthodox Jewish goldsmith in Constance in 1414 who harbors great enmity for Christians, who had burned his two sons at the stake in Rome. When he is threatened by an angry crowd for working on a Christian holy day, Cardinal Brogni steps in to save him, hoping that by extending forgiveness to Eléazar he might inspire Jews to become Christians.

Eléazar’s adopted daughter, Rachel, falls in love with Prince Léopold, a Christian who is posing as Samuel, a Jewish artist, and when the throng returns to attack Eléazar, “Samuel” orders his troops to let him be. Rachel invites “Samuel” to participate in her family’s Passover seder – perhaps the first time that a non-Jewish audience saw Jews celebrating one of their holy days with their family with nary a sign of Christian blood used to bake the matzot. When she becomes concerned when “Samuel” refuses to eat matza, he admits that he is a Christian, but he withholds his true identity as a prince and that he is married to Princess Eudoxie. When a knock on the door frightens the Jews and they hurry to conceal every sign of the seder before sneaking out the back, Eléazar orders the prince to remain. The visitor is Princess Eudoxie, who has come to purchase a valuable jewel as a present for her husband, whom she does not recognize because of his disguise, and after she agrees to pay an exorbitant sum to the Jew for the jewel, Eléazar promises to bring it to the princess the next evening.

Rachel reminds Léopold that, under the law of the realm, she would be put to death were it discovered that she loved a Christian, but he apologizes, explaining that his love for her is so great that he was left with no choice. The smitten girl is about to elope with her dashing suitor when they are caught by Eléazar who, upon learning that Léopold is Christian, becomes infuriated that Léopold, a guest in his home, dared to “take advantage” of his daughter. When Rachel intervenes and assumes equal blame, Eléazar, moved by his daughter’s heartfelt pleas, consents to the marriage, but now the feckless Léopold announces that he refuses to marry a Jew.

Rachel, still unaware of the prince’s true identity, follows him to the palace hoping to learn more, and she convinces Eudoxie to take her on as a servant. When Eléazar arrives at the palace to deliver Eudoxie’s jewel and she presents the gift to her husband, now clad in his princely finery, Rachel suddenly recognizes him as Samuel and she betrays the prince, proclaiming that the law mandates his death because he had “commerce” (i.e., relations) with a Jewess. When Léopold declines to defend himself, Cardinal Brogni assumes the truth of Rachel’s allegations and orders the arrest and imprisonment of Rachel, Eléazar and Léopold.

Princess Eudoxie visits Rachel in prison and persuades her to withdraw her allegations against Léopold, and the Cardinal agrees to commute Léopold’s sentence and to spare Rachel and Eléazar – but only if she and her father convert to Christianity. Eléazar, who stubbornly resists, plans his revenge against Brogni through disclosure of a long-suppressed truth: he informs the Cardinal that the fire in the prelate’s home years ago did not kill his infant daughter, as he had long believed. Rather, she had been saved by a Jew; Eléazar was the only person who could help him find his long-lost daughter, and killing him would mean that the Cardinal would lose his daughter forever. However, when Eléazar realizes that by taking this tack he was essentially condemning Rachel to death, he reconsiders and discloses to Brogni that Rachel is actually the Cardinal’s daughter and, as such, is Christian, not Jewish. [Ironic that Halévy’s titular “Jewess” turned out to be a gentile.]

But Eléazar reconsiders yet again when he hears the cries of a pogrom in the streets and decides that G-d wants him to bear witness to the G-d of Israel by dying together with his beloved daughter. As the executioner steps forward, Eléazar tells Rachel she can save herself by converting, but she proudly refuses, is led away, and is boiled to death in a caldron. She is followed in short order by her father, who climbs to his own death, and the opera ends with a chorus of monks, soldiers and the people singing “It is done, and we are avenged on the Jews!”

La Juive uses the antisemitic violence of the medieval period, both through forcible conversion and murder, as a backdrop to the tragic romance between Léopold and Rachel. The central theme of the opera is the necessity of Jews to assimilate into Christian society and the dangers – indeed, the futility – of resisting such assimilation. Halévy was among the millions of misguided Jewish souls who believed that assimilation would protect them from antisemitism, only to learn later during the Holocaust just how wrong they were since they were still very much Jewish in Hitler’s eyes.

Halévy promotes cliched literary Jewish stereotypes, starting with Eléazar, the wealthy, unsympathetic, and insubordinate fanatically observant Jew who apparently deserves his fate for his obstinate refusal to convert. Even Rachel, the assimilated and compliant Jew who considers running away with her Christian prince and who, unlike her father, grapples with her Jewish identity, suddenly becomes an unsympathetic character in Halévy’s eyes when she ultimately refuses conversion. This underscores Halévy’s own belief that it is necessary for the Jews to convert and assimilate so as to gain full citizenship status and his incredibly witless claim that, through La Juive, he was seeking to increase awareness of Jewish history and to combat religious narrow-mindedness.

Halévy’s actions within the Jewish community were generally consistent with the approach of Reform Judaism; indeed, throughout La Juive, he seems to conspicuously duck opportunities to present authentic Judaism in favor of Reform Judaism. For example, the seder scene is a clear reflection of nineteenth-century Reform culture and not a traditional seder. In fact, although he did write Jewish music and was highly influential in westernizing synagogue music – including Psalm 100 (Mizmor L’Todah); Psalm 115 (Hashem Zicharau, Yevarech); Psalm 118 (Min Hametzar); Psalm 130 (Mimaakim); and three prayers (the Shema, Vayehi Binsoa Ha-Aron, and Yigdal) – there is not the slightest trace of Jewish melody in the entire opera, including notably the seder scene. As one critic cogently noted: “Any connection between the Jews of La Juive and those in either the real world or in history must be regarded as purely coincidental.”

Halévy’s own familial religious conflicts appear to manifest themselves in La Juive. Much like Eléazar and Rachel, his immediate family members took different tacks in their maintenance/reformation of Jewish culture, practices and traditions. His father, Elie (1760 – 1826), the son of an Orthodox rabbi in Germany, was a renowned Talmudic scholar and cantor, and a nationally renowned Hebrew poet who earned a place in Jewish history as secretary-translator of the Parisian Jewish Community and as co-founder of L’Israélite Français, the first Jewish journal published in France. Elie sought to give both his sons, Fromental and Léon, a well-rounded secular and religious education but, although the boys did attend a traditional cheder, Elie bucked the trend in the Jewish community by sending them to a French school rather than a Jewish school.

The two brothers were very involved in Jewish life throughout their adulthood. Léon, who converted to Catholicism when he intermarried, nonetheless was the first French Jew to write A History of the Jews. Fromental, in turn, did marry Hannah Rodrigues, a fellow Jew from a pious family (he was flabbergasted by her family’s strictly Orthodox Passover observance), but he had a long affair and three illegitimate children with a Catholic woman.

However, notwithstanding his utter lack of Jewish practice and however much assimilated, Halévy never converted, as was a common practice for many Jewish leaders in the arts at the time; more than that, he never shied from his Jewish origins or religious affiliation. Although he privately expressed his disagreement with the “devotees, the pious, the pure” of Judaism, and though his relationship with the Jewish consistorial authorities was distant, he accepted an invitation to participate in the first Singing Commission charged with reorganizing Jewish music.


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In this undated correspondence to conductor/violinist Francois Habaneck, who was the director of the Paris Conservatoire during Halevy’s most productive years, Halévy humorously philosophizes about the work of a composer as opposed to the ease of being the director:

I am staying home tonight to complete the last finale, to rewrite the piece I am so tired of. That is why I will not be going to Garand’s rehearsal, so I can do my own things. I will be writing all of it today. As you know, dear Sir, I did not have these new words until two nights ago and, as a matter of fact, I did not have them completely arranged until yesterday, Sunday morning. I played a role in this work of yesterday to have it rehearsed. I think in one day I lost time by putting everything off until today. Poor servile composer who has a hell of a lot of work and who always gets accused; it’s infinitely better to be the locomotive.

In this unusual and very rare association piece, Halevy writes to Polish Romantic composer and pianist Frederic Chopin:

Halevy’s correspondence to Chopin.

My dear Chopin, I would like to talk to you for just a moment. If you are at home, I will come to meet you before six o’clock. Otherwise let me know if you will be home tomorrow towards ten o’clock . . .

Already a renowned composer and pianist, Chopin settled in Paris in October 1831 after political unrest in Warsaw made life in his native Poland too dangerous. Although his intention was not to remain in France permanently, he was granted French citizenship and became a part of the Parisian musical establishment. Widely recognized in his day as a musical genius, he is also remembered for his tumultuous love affair with novelist George Sand and his tragic early death from tuberculosis.

Chopin portrait by Eugene Delacroix (at the Louvre).

Many musicologists and historians have written about Chopin’s antisemitism, which ran deep. His favorite pejorative term was “Jew,” which often descended into bitter invective and abuse. Even as a boy, he nearly caused the flogging of a Jew when he forged a letter to a Polish baron, and his disdain for Jews is evident in even his earliest correspondence. Because his identity was so rooted in his self-image as a member of the aristocracy, he bore particular animosity and contempt for assimilated Jews who were trying to pass themselves off as equals in “polite society.” Nonetheless, his antisemitism did not get in the way of his friendships with certain Jews including Mendelssohn and, as we have seen, Halevy.

In the early 1820s, during a series of summer sojourns in the Polish countryside, Chopin imagined himself as a Jewish klezmer musician. In particular, in the summer of 1824, he was very excited about spending several weeks at the estate and manor of his nobleman friend in the Polish village of Szafarnia. He chronicled his visit in a series of humorous letters to his family in which he adopted the fictional alter ego Monsieur Pichon (a play on his family name, roughly translated as “puny French fish”). In one such letter, he described a peculiar musical encounter:

The first of the month, Mr. Pichon was actually playing the zydek, when Mr. Dziewanowski, calling over a Jewish packman, asked him his opinion of the Jewish virtuoso [i.e., Chopin himself, in his alter ego klezmer musician form]. Moshe got closer to the window, poked his nobly crooked nose into the room, and listened, saying that if Mr. Pichon would like to play at a Jewish wedding, he could make for himself at least 10 talers. This declaration encouraged Mr. Pichon to study as much of this music as possible, and who knows whether with time he won’t devote himself entirely to such profitable harmony.

The commentators differ with respect to the meaning of the term “zydek,” with some arguing that it is a Jewish dance theme and others maintaining that it is more specifically a kind of Jewish wedding march, but the most broadly accepted definition is “little Jew.”

The Little Jew also happens to be the name of Chopin’s Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4, which is an example of his knowledge of authentic Jewish folk music. In an article published in Echo Muzyczne, Poland’s leading music journal, Frederick Szulc, one of Chopin’s earliest biographers, writes:

[The mazurka] was already known in our country by the title “The Little Jew” before the artist went abroad. This is one of Chopin’s works that has the clearest stamp of humor, undoubtedly a recollection of his stay in the countryside. A Jew in slippers and a long robe comes out of his tavern. Seeing a shabby peasant – who had just earlier left the tavern – rather tipsy, stumbling, complaining, and falling all over the road, he calls from his doorstep: “What is this?” Then, by way of contrast to this scene, the wedding party of a well-to-do serf at that moment briskly draws near the tavern, returning home from church amid spirited shouts from the wedding attendants who are zestfully accompanied by violins and bagpipes. The party passes and the drunk peasant begins anew his complaints of hardship – sorrows he had tried to drown in drink. And the Jew, turning towards the door and shaking his head, glumly remarks, “What was that?”

Some commentators cite the mazurka as proof that Chopin was in the class of non-Jewish composers who employed the Jewish style because he was charmed by the exoticism of Jewish melodies. However, they miss the point that the very term “the little Jew” was at the time a derogatory expletive that Chopin could not have meant to use to laud the attractiveness of Jewish music; in fact, the very idea of Polish music employing the motifs of Jewish music angered him. Thus, for example, in an 1831 correspondence to his teacher, Jozef Elsner, Chopin attacks Leon Herz, a Jewish violinist then performing in Vienna, and denounces the “Jewish corruption” of Polish music:

I wish to get to the theatre, where there is to be a concert at which it is possible to hear Herz, the little Jew violinist who nearly got hissed off the stage . . . at the end of the concert, Herz is to play his variations on Polish motifs. Oh, the poor Polish motifs! You cannot imagine the sort of majufesy [discussion about this term below] with which you will be injected, calling them “Polish music” in order to seduce the public. If one is so outspoken to discuss the respective merits of authentic Polish music and this imitation of it, and to elevate the former over the latter, they’ll take you for a madman . . .

The term majufesy, which originates with the traditional Shabbat zemirah, Ma Yafit (“Oh, how beautiful”), came to represent the stereotype of Jewish music as the subject of ridicule, Jewish humiliation, and embarrassment. Throughout history, Polish landowners would force their Jewish workers to sing and dance to this song, and the term also became a standard term for silly Jewish folk dances. Moreover, according to Jewish musicologists, including notably Cantor Macy Nulman, the “Little Jew” mazurka is entirely devoid of any Jewish melody and nothing within it reflects the Jewish musical idiom.

In his many letters, Chopin lists all the faults of Polish Jews, including their poor command of the Polish language, unintelligible Yiddish, neurotic physical tics and, in particular, their shady business dealings. According to one respected authority, one of Chopin’s frequent themes was the “protection” of “poor Polish tunes” from “the predatory machinations of Polish Jewish composers.” In an 1838 correspondence, he complained about dealings with his Jewish bankers and publishers:

. . . as for what people are saying about me, it doesn’t matter. [Auguste] Leo is a Jew! . . . [Adolf] Schlesinger is still more of a cur, to put my waltzes into an album, but all these lice don’t bite me so much now . . .

A few months later, he wrote:

I did not expect such Jewish behavior from [Camille] Pleyel or that he would Jew me, but if so, please give him this letter . . . if I have to deal with Jews, let it at least be Orthodox ones . . . Schlesinger has always cheated me, but he has made a lot on me and he won’t want to forfeit another profit; only be polite to him, because the Jew likes to pass for something . . . Jews will be Jews and Huns will be Huns, but what can I do? I am forced to deal with them . . .

By “Orthodox Jews,” Chopin meant the Polish Jews he had seen in the shtetl growing up, as opposed to the Westernized Jews of France, whom he loathed. A noted Chopin biographer, Jeremy Siepmann, described Chopin’s two-faced character, particularly with respect to his relationship with Jews, noting specifically that in a letter to Pleyel that he wrote at about the same time as the one cited above, the composer refers to him as “my dearest friend” and pledges his devotion to him.

In yet another letter, Chopin refers to “hycel Jews.” “Hycel” was the term used to describe the very poor ghetto Jew whose job was to destroy all the stray cats and dogs of a town. The label came to be used as a slur and a general term of abuse.

Chopin apologists echo the common refrain of defenders of the indefensible: they claim that Chopin’s antisemitism was merely the prevailing ethos of his time. As Jeremy Siepmann, a Chopin biographer, writes: “To put such deeply unattractive behavior in context, it must be said that, however repellent, the thoughtless, casual anti-Semitism evidenced in his correspondence was in no way peculiar to Chopin. It was common change among Poles of almost every class and political stripe.” But the most disingenuous comment regarding his antisemitism may be the critic who wrote: “Though backed by epistolary evidence, Chopin’s racial prejudice should be seen in its historical context: it followed the convention among smart Parisians of the 1830s; his attitude to Jews was casually dismissive, and not to be confused with the ideological antisemitism of Wagner, let alone the 20th century’s psychopathic manifestations.”

Some things never change.


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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 [email protected].