The nineteenth-century German writer Heinrich Heine once famously said: “Jews are like the people among whom they live, only more so.”
It’s a clever witticism. But does the maxim contain any truth? Are the qualities of the people among whom Jews live accentuated in the Jewish people?
I recently thought of something from the realm of classical music that seems on point. Throughout the nineteenth century, composers increased the size of the orchestra. The orchestra Mozart wrote for in the late eighteenth century was relatively small compared with the orchestral forces later employed by romantic composers such as Wagner and Brahms in the nineteenth century. By the late nineteeth-century Richard Strauss used an orchestra in his tone poems, such as Ein Heldenleben, that was gargantuan compared with that used by the classical composers of one hundred years earlier.
What I find interesting is that perhaps the two most gigantic orchestral pieces in the repertoire, both from the first decade of the twentieth century, were written by Jews: Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg.
The Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major by Gustav Mahler is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical concert repertoire. Because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces it is frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand”, although the work is often performed with fewer than a thousand, and Mahler himself did not sanction the name.
Gurre-Lieder is a massive cantata for five vocal soloists, narrator, chorus and large orchestra, composed by Arnold Schoenberg, on poems by the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen (translated from Danish to German by Robert Franz Arnold). Gurre-Lieder is scored for an unusually large ensemble consisting of approximately 400 musicians.
So, was Heine right? Are Jews like the people among whom they live, only more so? We can certainly say that the Jewish composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg were like the non-Jewish orchestral composers among whom they lived, only far more so.