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Wandering Through the German Jewish Family

History and continuity through music

Irin Carmon
December 11, 2012
Andreas Scholl(Twitter)
Andreas Scholl(Twitter)

When Joseph Haydn told his friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart he would travel to London, late in the eighteenth century, Mozart is said to have asked, “What will you do in England? You don’t speak English.” Haydn replied, “The language I speak is understood by the whole world.”

That story was told by the German countertenor Andreas Scholl, near the halfway point of his Great Performers concert at Alice Tully Hall Saturday night. It hit home for me, so to speak, because I was there, with my mother, in a kind of repeat tribute to my grandmother, whose parents happily abandoned German for Hebrew but held onto the music and passed it down. I have no German language — and these days, no German passport, as it’s still in limbo — but that language Haydn was referring to is something I can understand, at least a little. And that was before I knew the full course of the Jewish and Israeli connection threaded through that night.

For reasons I can no longer ask about, my grandmother loved countertenors, these men of disconcertingly high pitch, applied to mostly-Baroque and early pieces once sung by castrati. To my ear, even the nimblest songs sung by a countertenor carry a note of melancholy. (Only if you closed your eyes; Scholl delivered the bawdier songs with a twinkle in his eye.) Scholl was accompanied, as he often is, by the Israeli pianist Tamar Halperin, whom I belatedly realized is his wife. This German-Israeli coupling means a lot less than it used to.

Haydn went to London at the invitation of violinist and impresario Johann Salomon. Google confirms my hunch that Salomon was a baptized German Jew, a couple of generations before music’s most famous exemplar of that German-Jewish trend, Felix Mendelsohn. As Amos Elon chronicled, most famously in The Pity of It All, music was one of the many grounds upon whichGermans and Jews commingled, or where the distinctions blurred entirely. “Before Hitler rose to power, other Europeans often admired, envied, or ridiculed Germans; only the Jews seemed to have actually loved them,” Elon wrote in 2001. Before Hitler, it was sometimes called a family resemblance.

Haydn did end up composing for English poetry during his sojourns in London, written by one Anne Hunter, and one of the songs, “The Wanderer,” lends its name to Scholl’s new album with his wife, Halperin. In the song, which Scholl performed that night, wandering is both physical and temporal: “Tis not for the happy,” he sang, referring to an in-between state “where, lost in the past, disregarding tomorrow, there’s nothing for hopes and nothing for fears.”

And yet the evening ended on a light and inventive note. Scholl, in the encore, said his wife had introduced him to the music of Idan Raichel, the dreadlocked Israeli collector of diasporic sounds, Jewish and non-Jewish. He eventually met and performed with Raichel, and in June, Scholl will join the Idan Raichel Project at the foot of Masada for the Opera Festival.

Scholl said Raichel had sent him a composition and said, “Find a beautiful old German poem” to pair it with. Scholl had an inspiration: “In Stiller Nacht,” a Frederich Spee von Langenfeld poem made famous by a Brahms setting, with which Scholl had already ended the formal part of the recital. It includes these lines: “A voice began to lament / sweetly and gently, the night wind carried to me its sound / And from such bitter sorrow and grief / my heart has melted.” That’s the English translation.

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.