Jewish Music in the Age of Revival
PHILIP V. BOHLMAN
For many years I have refused to admit to myself, much less acknowledge publicly in print or performance, that I am, in fact, a revivalist. My research on Jewish music has long made revival possible, as have my activities as a performer for over a decade, not only as the artistic director of a Jewish cabaret ensemble, the New Budapest Orpheum Society, but also in my attempts to bring musical works from the Holocaust to performance. These activities make it impossible to rebuff those who claim that I, too, am a revivalist.1 It is not that I did not want to revive Jewish music, or that I felt revivalists were bad company. Quite the contrary, I have taught students in the klezmer revival (e.g., Deborah Strauss, who plays with a number of fine klezmer groups, as well as frequently with her husband, Jeff Warschauer) and supplied repertory to European musicians in search of Jewish music (e.g., Béla Kiss and Kati Szvorak).2 The truth is, however, that many of my collaborators also did not want to be considered revivalists. I remember well the autumn day in 2001 in Berne, Switzerland, when a young klezmer player passionately responded to a talk I gave on the klezmer revival by imploring, “How can I be a klezmer revivalist, when I haven’t even died yet?”3 Perhaps I can be forgiven if I’ve only just confessed to being a revivalist myself.
The picture that appears in figure 1 on the accompanying CD ultimately led to the self-confession upon which I expand in this essay. Usually labeled something like “klezmer musicians in Austria” in photos sprinkled through books on klezmer or in CD liner notes,4 this picture had become the icon of the klezmer revival by the mid-1990s. As documentation of the klezmer past, the photo seemed to be unassailably authentic. There they were, a four-member string band, with the correct Eastern European instrumentation: two violins, a viola, and a bass violin.5 They stood before what appears to be the entrance to a synagogue in the Judengasse of Eisenstadt, Austria; that is, in Asch, the Jewish quarter of the multiethnic Hungarian provincial city, across the street from the Esterházy palace in which Franz Joseph Haydn was employed during the second half of the eighteenth century. In accompanying photos in the provincial archives of the Burgenländisches Landesmuseum in Eisenstadt are a bride and groom accompanied by this string ensemble; this allows us to add one more layer of authenticity, in other words, of klezmer as “Jewish wedding music.” A snapshot of klezmer music and klezmorim as they really were! What more could the klezmer revival want? And here it was, emblazoned on the cover of one of my own books, chosen by the publisher and book designer as if it perfectly represented the contents of a book that, in fact, is not about klezmer music.
By 2005, when this image and imagination of authenticity appeared on the cover of my Jüdische Volksmusik,6 these Austrian klezmer musicians had become free-floating signifiers, moving from one site of revival to the next, giving their blessing to what one was about to read or hear. My own book would now also bear witness to the act of authentication through revival, its diverse subject matter notwithstanding. I can admit that I did not actually object to the design, even though the book was not about klezmer, because I was one of the few people in the world who knew that these were, in fact, not klezmer musicians, but rather a band that plied eastern Austria, playing urban light-classical music, mixtures of Strauss waltzes and vernacular popular dance styles called “Weana Tanz.” I knew this because I’d researched the life and music of the second violinist, Maurus Knapp. He had indeed grown up in the “Shevah kehillot,” the “Seven Holy Cities” of Burgenland (he was born in the same house as Joseph Joachim in Kittsee), made a career in Austria, mainly in the outskirts of Vienna as a dance musician, and then immigrated in the 1930s to Chicago, where he continued to perform in the large central European community.7 I also have worked my way through many of the thousands of compositions he wrote in Chicago, now held by his nephew, Alexander Knapp, emeritus professor of Jewish Music at the School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London.8 I know from this mass of material that Maurus Knapp almost never played or created anything “Jewish,” authentic or inauthentic (see fig. 2, the manuscript copy of three of Maurus Knapp’s compositions). His role in the history of the Jewish experience in the twentieth century is simply that of a symbol of revival.
The iconography of the Austrian klezmer musicians who were not klezmer musicians participates in processes of retrieving the past and reviving it as the present that Ruth Ellen Gruber has called “virtually Jewish.”9 In her book of the same title, Gruber in fact devotes the chapters of the second half to klezmer music in Europe, specifically to its revival in places in which it had little or no presence prior to the Holocaust, for example, Germany.10 With Gruber’s provocative portrayal of klezmer revival as a context from the history of the present, I should like to propose that two notions of revival dominate the historiography of Jewish music. First, for the critics of everything from Reform Judaism to the adaptation of musical instruments for the synagogue, the present always has the capacity of becoming virtually Jewish. In contrast, forming what Jewish historians call “counterhistory,” the discourse history of Jewish music unfolds as the search for authenticity, the belief that the past can be reinstated in the present. Neither concept of revival is for me fully satisfying, and in this essay, by seeking a possible middle ground, I ask why. I attempt to rethink revival itself from the perspectives of sacred music, moving away from a simple dichotomy of life and death, and then return to life. I hope to create a framework for thinking about Jewish music today, not as something wrenched from the past, but rather living and changing in the present.
Survival, Revival, and the Telos of Jewish Music History
Be-reshit, “in the beginning,” the ontology of Jewish music is about sacrifice and revival. The nature of Jewish sacrifice itself is contested throughout the Torah, and music retains its associations with sacrifice. Ontological questions about music and sacrifice arise in one of the crucial origin myths of Judaism, the “Akedah,” or the “Binding of Isaac,” told in the First Book of Moses (Genesis 22). Several fundamental issues about music, and all three aesthetic conditions of revival, arise already in this origin text of Genesis, in which Abraham substituted a ram for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, after demonstrating his unflagging willingness to follow God’s command. First of all, the human sacrifice did not happen because animal sacrifice (the ram) had sufficed in the eyes of God. Second, the symbol of sacrifice became what was left after the ram’s sacrifice, its horn, the physical vessel of the shofar, the only instrument allowed in the synagogue. Third, the “musicality”—the signified meaning—of the shofar is one of marking endings and beginnings (e.g., of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the “New Year,” and, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). Fourth, the broader signification of the Akedah has been one of marking the transition from myth to history, and the borders between the two continue to represent the borders between what is and is not music.11
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