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Jewish Musical Modernism, Old and New

Jewish Musical Modernism, Old and New

by Philip V. Bohlman

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Tackling the myriad issues raised by Sander Gilman’s provocative opening salvo—”Are Jews Musical?”—this volume’s distinguished contributors present a series of essays that trace the intersections of Jewish history and music from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Covering the sacred and the secular, the European


Tackling the myriad issues raised by Sander Gilman’s provocative opening salvo—”Are Jews Musical?”—this volume’s distinguished contributors present a series of essays that trace the intersections of Jewish history and music from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Covering the sacred and the secular, the European and the non-European, and all the arenas where these realms converge, these essays recast the established history of Jewish culture and its influences on modernity. Mitchell Ash explores the relationship of Jewish scientists to modernist artists and musicians, while Edwin Seroussi looks at the creation of Jewish sacred music in nineteenth-century Vienna. Discussing Jewish musicologists in Austria and Germany, Pamela Potter details their contributions to the “science of music” as a modern phenomenon. Kay Kaufman Shelemay investigates European influence in the music of an Ethiopian Jewish community, and Michael P. Steinberg traces the life and works of Charlotte Salomon, whose paintings staged the destruction of the Holocaust. Bolstered by Philip V. Bohlman’s wide-ranging introduction and epilogue, and featuring lush color illustrations and a complementary CD of the period’s music, this volume is a lavish tribute to Jewish contributions to modernity.

Editorial Reviews


"This smart volume raises a number of issues. . . . [Bohlman] frames the five essays with an introduction and epilogue that lay out these questions and point to answers in the complex intersection of Jewish identity with the rise of modernity in Europe."

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Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-06326-3

Chapter One

Multiple Modernisms? Episodes from the Sciences as Cultures, 1900-1945


Introduction: The Plurality of Modernity and Modernism

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, after the storm of controversy over the question of "postmodernity" appears to have calmed somewhat, it seems appropriate to reconsider both the concepts of modernity and its alleged crisis, as well as the historical realities to which these concepts supposedly refer. Any effort to approach this task seriously, however, raises the question of whether the collective singular is actually the appropriate form of address, in view of the variety of political, economic, societal, and cultural developments that have been called "modern." Perhaps it would be better to speak instead of modernities and modernisms in the plural. The notion of multiple modernities has recently been advanced in the context of postcolonial theory, for example in discussions of so-called Islamic, East Asian, and Indian modernities (see, e.g., Multiple Modernities 2000). Such claims often appear to accept postmodernism's assertion of Western modernity as a totalizing project, in order to claim that postcolonial cultures have created entirely new modernities, or hybrids of Western andnon-Western cultural constructs, forms of life, and so on. In this chapter I question a central position of postmodernism and advance instead the thesis that so-called Western modernity itself-or, more precisely, cultural modernism in the West-has always been plural.

The collective singular noun "modernism" (die Moderne in German) is the established property of the humanities and refers to developments in literature, music, the visual arts, and architecture. Without wishing to question this use, I nonetheless believe it appropriate to point out that it is equally established usage to speak also of modern physics, mathematics, chemistry, or biology. The term "modern" can hardly mean the same thing in all of these contexts. Indeed, as I will show, the term "modern" had multiple meanings even within the sciences. It therefore seems prudent to employ a descriptive rather than a normative approach to the concept of modernity, specifying what was considered modern, or modernistic, in particular contexts and then searching for common ground, rather than presenting one particular definition of modernism as such (for further discussion see Ash 1999; for a more unitary view of science and modernity, see Forman 2007).

My intention here is twofold. I wish to argue, first, that there are certain affinities between the breakthrough to modern ways of thinking in the natural sciences and mathematics and the radical changes in the arts that occurred at the same time. I should also like to argue, second, that modernism, and hence cultural modernity, in all these fields was nonetheless fundamentally plural. The larger agenda that I want to advance is to continue work begun by many others on the establishment of a historically grounded and therefore pluralistic concept of modernity as the most effective antidote to the rhetorical excesses of postmodernism, but one that is neither limited in advance to particular social systems, political regimes, or canonical cultural forms, nor prejudiced in advance by ideals of what we wish modernity could or should be (see, e.g., Giddens 1990; Münch 1993).

In order to provide a rudimentary conceptual basis for this discussion, I introduce here without extensive elaboration a threefold distinction originally made by the historian of science Herbert Mehrtens between modernity, countermodernity, and technocratic modernity (Mehrtens 1990a; Mehrtens 1990b). Modernity as an intellectual style in science, as in many of the arts, involves a break with direct, supposedly pictorial representation of nature and a turn toward giving free play to abstraction and theoretical imagination. In order to characterize the affinities involved in at least a preliminary way, I propose to speak here of the breakthrough to "modern" thinking as the emancipation of self-referential symbol systems from the tyranny of supposedly realistic representationalism. In opposition to such emancipatory moves, advocates of countermodernity insisted on what they called Anschaulichkeit, by which they meant ways of thinking that preserved what they took to be the holistic connectedness of mind, or rather Seele, with nature. In contrast to both these styles of thinking, technocratic modernity presupposes a concept of knowledge based less on self-referential abstraction than on what can be done with, or to, nature as well as other human beings. It should be evident that I am speaking here of ideal types.

In the following remarks I hope to present examples to make these broad-brush characterizations more specific. In the first part of the chapter, I bring out affinities between modernity in the sciences and modernism in the arts at the turn of the century. In the second part, I briefly discuss controversies between modern and countermodern movements in the 1920s and the widespread talk of "crisis" of which these controversies were supposed to be symptoms. In the third and final part, I discuss very briefly the attacks on modernism in the sciences, the triumphs of technocratic modernity under Nazism, and the scientific transformations created by expelled Jewish scientists and scholars who reflected actively on the consequences of their persecution. This narrative structure corresponds in many respects to the three-act drama proposed in the introduction to this volume: act 1, discovery and invention of modernism; act 2, the age of cultural experimentation and open controversy; act 3, denouement, expulsion, and transformation.

Modernism in the Sciences and the Arts around 1900

The common context for the breakthroughs to modern styles of thought in both the sciences and the arts at the turn of the century are the technological transformations of the lived world resulting from the second industrial revolution. I name only two of these transformations here to set the scene for what follows: the abolition of the distinction between day and night by gas and then electric lighting; and the opening of the cities to the countryside and suburbs by means of horsedrawn, then electric street cars and later the automobile (see, e.g., Schivelbusch 1995; Rabinbach 1992). Both developments mark the emergence of the city as an artificial universe of sound and light, seemingly emancipated from any direct dependence on nature and its rhythms-a nature that was itself being transformed by the encroachment of the city. Already here, in these transformations of the lived world, we see how difficult it is to separate the emancipation of self-referential symbol systems from technocratic modernity.

A third transformation that is particularly relevant here is the one wrought by the entry of mechanized recording devices and communication systems into both the sciences and economic life. This development manifested itself in a wide range of objects, from the microscope and photography as instruments for expanding the range of the observable to data recording and processing apparatus, mechanical calculators, and the like (Kittler 1995). These machines transformed both the representation and the perception of nature while simultaneously revolutionizing the banking and insurance industries. The social counterpart to these changes was the emergence of new groupings, called the neuer Mittelstand in German and white-collar workers in English, the primary function of which was to manipulate such technologies.

A fourth development that reflected the others was the extraordinary acceleration in the speed of knowledge acquisition and concomitant specialization in the sciences and technology, a development noted with some anxiety by contemporaries and often directly linked with the social, technical, and cultural transformations just named. For example, in a lecture entitled "On the Development of Theoretical Physics in Our Times," given in Munich at the close of the old century, Ludwig Boltzmann contrasted the situation with that of an earlier era:

In earlier centuries science progressed steadily, if slowly, due to the work of the finest minds, in the way that an old city constantly grows due to new construction by busy and enterprising citizens. By contrast, the current century of steam and the telegraph with its nervous, overly hasty activity has made its mark on the progress of science as well. Especially the development of the natural sciences in our time appears more and more similar to the most modern American city, growing in a few decades from a village to a metropolis with a population of millions. (Boltzmann 1905: 198)

The trope of "nervousness" and the comparison of Europe's old cities and their supposedly steady, organic growth with America's rapidly burgeoning communities were both common devices of the time (Radkau 1998). The fear of fragmentation, paired with fantasies of progress including dreams of air travel and space flight, were characteristic of the ambivalence of modern consciousness.

How did all this affect the intellectual content of the sciences? Let me provide a few specific examples. In each case, I try to bring out basic features that link the cases in question to one or another of the definitions of modernity as a style of thought sketched at the beginning of these remarks.

In the so-called foundational crisis (Grundlagenkrise) in geometry, the aspect that links modern mathematics and modern art is the emancipation of symbol systems from any directly representational function. In mathematics the dispute began with the debate over the mathematical and philosophical implications of non-Euclidean geometry. From this emerged a battle between the supporters of symbolic and "intuitionistic" conceptions of number at the turn of the century. The controversy concerned the relation between mathematical symbol systems and the experience of counting. Around 1900 the Göttingen mathematician David Hilbert proposed what he called "axiomatics," which treated both mathematics and logic as complex symbol systems, neither of which need have any pictorial relation to the outside world. Like the physicist Max Planck, Hilbert believed that only such symbol systems could liberate science from any traces of what Planck called "anthropomorphism" and reveal the invariant laws of nature; accordingly, the unity, objectivity, and general validity of these sciences would be firmly grounded. Both the metaphor of liberation and the claim that symbol systems had their own integrity independent of any link with empirical facts were the bases of the claim to modernity in this instance (Mehrtens 1990a: passim, but esp. 117 ff.). There is a certain irony here, for the turn of the century saw a revival of idealism in philosophy, which is usually portrayed as a countermodernist position. However, the advocates of the "new" geometry emphasized the significance of abstract intellectual constructs for their logical consistency and coherence, which gave them in their view an admirable sublimity and superiority over all merely empirical descriptions of nature. In these senses they understood themselves not as cultural conservatives, but rather as productively renewing the German idealist tradition (Sigurdsson 1991).

The leading proponent of the intuitionistic answer to Hilbert's program, the Dutch mathematician L. E. J. Brouwer, based his work on an analysis of mathematical continua. For Brouwer, series like that of so-called natural numbers are not discrete groupings, as they are in set theory, but rather undivided wholes. Because such continua cannot be regarded as composita of parts, according to Brouwer, no judgment can be made about the existence or nonexistence of a number with a particular characteristic (e.g., an even number) without counting through the entire series; this is, however, impossible by definition, because such series are infinite. Thus, in this analysis, mathematics, if it is to retain any connection in principle with the experience of counting, must reject the traditional rules of logic, in this case the law of the excluded middle term.

Briefly summarized, for modernist mathematicians such as Hilbert the general validity of mathematical propositions lay in their abstraction from the merely empirical, in their logical consistence as symbol systems and not in their exact depiction of the intuitively lived world. Not for nothing did they often use the term "transcendence," as did many advocates of modernism in the arts, such as Wassily Kandinsky. The relation of this controversy to modern physics, in particular to relativity theory and later to quantum mechanics, which also emphasized the consistency of mathematical symbol systems often going beyond experimental data, is obvious in retrospect. For intuitionists such as Brouwer, on the other hand, the intuitive experience of counting was the source of the validity of all mathematical propositions. The relation of such claims to contemporaneous pessimistic views of culture, whose advocates often complained about what they called the "distance from life" (Lebensferne) of modern mathematics and natural science, seems equally obvious. However, though the emancipation of self-referential symbol systems appeared to mark the "modern" position, the situation was in fact not quite so simple. The philosopher Gottlob Frege, for example, complained in his reply to Hilbert's program that he no longer knew whether or not his pocket watch-or even the earth-could be regarded as a point for mathematical purposes, as had been the case in the physics of Newton and Galileo (Mehrtens 1990a: 121). This would seem to make Frege, one of the founders of modern logic, an "antimodernist."

The complications become still greater when we examine turn-of-the-century controversies in physics. I focus here not on relativity (see Galison 2003), but rather on the debate between Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann on the status of mathematical and particularly statistical models in physics, which constituted an important part of the background to the reception of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. In a major historical work on the foundations of mechanics, Mach-a physiologist, psychophysicist, and experimental physicist, who was professor of "Philosophy, with emphasis on the history and theory of the inductive sciences" in Vienna from 1895 to 1901-presented the development of mechanics as a story of evolutionary progress from the "practical mechanics" of the great pyramids in Egypt to Newton, Leibniz, and beyond, in which the history of physics and that of human technology intertwined. Specifically, he argued that mechanics developed into a science only when repeated use of handcrafted tools extended the capacity of the senses and eventually drove the intellect to a higher level:

The doctrines of mechanics have developed out of the collected experiences of handcraft by an intellectual process of refinement.... The simple machines-the five mechanical powers-are without question a product of handcraft.... The making of rollers (for example) must have gained a great technical importance and have led to the discovery of the lathe. In possession of this, mankind easily discovered the wheel, the wheel and axle, and the pulley. (Mach 1960: 612-13)

In an essay entitled "The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry," Mach argued further that mathematical formulations, too, are no more than convenient tools to summarize sense impressions or laboratory observations (Mach 1943: 186-213). He did not deny the importance of hypotheses or thought-experiments like those of Galileo and Newton as aids to discovery, but he opposed going any further beyond direct observation and measurement than necessary, a standpoint characterized at the time as "phenomenological." Thus, he argued, for example, that because we experience the external world as a continuum, we should imagine underlying physical reality as consisting of continuities, not particles. Mach opposed physical atomism in part because there was as yet no direct observational evidence of the existence of any such hard, massy, bounded bodies as ultimate components of matter. Finally, Mach argued, using Darwinist imagery, that following simple rules of theoretical self-restraint yields advantages in the struggle for existence, by which he meant competition in science itself.


Excerpted from JEWISH MUSICAL MODERNISM, old and new Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Philip V. Bohlman is the Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities and of Music at the University of Chicago and coeditor of the Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology series published by the University of Chicago Press.

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