Beyond the Caricature: Cultural Jewishness in the Third Movement of Mahler's First Symphony

Benjamin Adler


Over the past century, Mahler’s music has been received as “Jewish” in fulfilment of so great a range of hermeneutic biases that he has attained the status of “Jewish paragon” in the western canon. As a corollary of this reception history, the literature has simplified the tasks of recognising and analysing the Jewishness in the music itself. This is evident in three of four avenues of inquiry – dubbed “biographical,” “musical,” and “paratextual” – which dominate the discourse, and which have led to the construction of reductionist caricatures. A fourth avenue reads interdisciplinary cultural tropes in Mahler’s music, and in doing so is the only lens that demonstrates an appreciation of the rich and complex Jewish civilisation. Yet scholars have been hesitant to train this lens on Mahler’s most emblematically “Jewish” work – the third movement (Trauermarsch) of the First Symphony. This article aims to fill this gap by identifying and extending three elements of Jewish culture – self-commentary, homelessness and irony – and applying them to a close analysis of the Trauermarsch. (I note that while these tropes are not exclusively Jewish, they are celebrated as such within Jewish communities.) Consequently, I hope to complexify our reception of Jewishness in the Traueramarsch, and throughout Mahler’s oeuvre and western art music, by ascribing the discussion a more pluralistic, dialectical character.

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