Jewish Difference and the Arts in Vienna

Composing Compassion in Music and Biblical Theater

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Caroline A. Kita
German Jewish Cultures
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recent scholarship has viewed the culture of turn-of-the-century and interwar Vienna< Austria, through many lenses. By focusing on the prevailing exclusionary notion of compassion in German culture and Jewish composers’ and writers’ attempts to reenvision it as inclusive, Caroline Kita’s monograph, Jewish Difference and the Arts, adds yet another dimension to the understanding of Viennese culture. Looking at the biblically themed musical and dramatic works of five Jewish artists, Siegfried Lipiner, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Beer-Hofmann, and Stefan Zweig, Kita highlights their interrelationships and mutual influences and shows how the concept of inclusive compassion evolved through the pieces over time. Rather than examining these works in the context of each individual artist’s biography and oeuvre, Kita situates them in relation to one another and as responses to the antisemitic writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, which deemed Jews incapable of feeling compassion or creating compassionate art.

Each of the five Austrian Jewish artists, whom Kita refers to as cultural mediators, dealt with themes of compassion (Mitleid) and the Law by drawing upon Hebrew and Christian biblical legends. Using these texts as starting points, they often deviated from them to create new narratives that spoke to their troubled times and personal identity struggles. Most of these works remained unfinished, and many were too complex to be fully realized on the stage. As a result, they have been overlooked and understudied. With her focus on relatively unknown pieces such as Lipiner’s Adam, Schoenberg’s Totentanz der Principien and Die Jakobslieter, and Zweig’s Jeremias, Kita draws attention to these significant, yet lesser-known musical and dramatic works by Viennese Jewish artists.

Another important contribution made by Kita is recognizing the unacknowledged role of the writer Siegfried Lipiner. The author argues that Lipiner played an important role as interpreter of Schoepenhauer and Wagner’s idea of compassion, which Mahler and others drew upon in their works. Contrary to Wagner, Lipiner presented Jews as worthy of sympathy through his portrayal of Cain in his biblical drama Adam, the first play in his planned Christus trilogy (17). By restoring Lipiner to his rightful place as originating the call for inclusion of the Jewish subject in the compassionate community, Kita draws attention to his influence on his own and later generations.

Kita shows how Lipiner’s ideas found expression in the biblical works of Mahler, Schoenberg, Beer-Hoffman, and Zweig. Like Lipiner, Mahler called for the inclusion of the figure of the suffering Jew in the compassionate community in his Second and Third symphonies, which “form the musical corollary of Lipiner’s biblical dramatic works and relay, through musical idiom, the struggle for faith and understanding at the core of compassionate art” (63). Schoenberg, Beer-Hofmann, and Zweig went further by presenting the Jewish subject as the creator of sympathy for the world and the maker of compassionate art.

Schoenberg, who played a transitional role between the two earlier and two later artists, proposed prayer expressed with a plurality of voices as a way for Jews to embody compassion, transcend difference, and achieve eternal unity. Beer-Hofmann sought to engage and transform his audience through the creation of a new form of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (total theater) that put the German-Jewish subject at the center in his biblical drama Jaakobs Traum. Using the stone and the wellspring as symbols for Jewish suffering and Jewish blessing, Beer-Hoffman recast the relationship between God and the Jewish people as one of mutual understanding and responsibility (119). Zweig’s biblical drama Jeremias used musical forms and language to explore the relationship between the individual Jew and the collective, Judaism and Christianity, suffering and compassion, and German and Jewish culture.

In her epilogue, Kita acknowledges the shifting historical and political landscape that confronted Austrian Jews before, during, and after the First World War. More attention to the historical context throughout the book, or perhaps an introductory chapter on the antisemitic climate in Austria, the impact of the First World War, and the Viennese Jewish community would provide readers with greater insight into why these artists felt conflicted about their personal identities as culturally German Jews in the first place. Also welcome would be the inclusion of women artists and more development of gender themes, especially in the sections pertaining to Eve (21) and the celebration of eternal unity (95).

Stylistically, this book seems aimed at specialists in the field rather than the general reader. To be more accessible, the book would need to provide clear explanations of the historical context, terminology, individuals, and institutions at their first mention. (For example, the Young Jewish Movement, first mentioned on page 105, is not explained until page 135.) Minor problems and omissions include missing dates of birth and death for individuals when they are introduced, unexplained comments such as the mention of Lipiner’s “dramatic fall from grace” (6), and some questionable assertions such as that Edom is the Hebrew name for Esau (111).

While Kita sheds light on many aspects of Austrian Jewish culture and identity, the reader is left with some questions to ponder. For example, what accounts for the lingering ambivalence towards Judaism and the law and the adoption of antisemitic stereotypes in some of these Jewish artists’ writings even as they tried to work towards a more inclusive version of compassion? How successful were they in getting their audiences to be more sympathetic with Jews? Hopefully, this book will inspire further studies on these important topics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Rose is an Instructor at the University of Rhode Island and Ohio Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Caroline A. Kita is Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis.


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