Musical notes on 2 Jewish composers

Every once in a while, a bit of bright sunlight filters through the pandemic gloom that all of us are experiencing in one way or another. Mine came by sound. I got to hear the Dallas Symphony in person one evening last weekend.
Oh, it certainly wasn’t the Symphony that so many of us have loved for so many years. This was a mini-orchestra — just 22 musicians, compared to the more usual 80 or even more, depending on what the pieces to be played demand. This was a scored-down chamber version of Gustav Mahler’s huge standard “Das Lied von der Erde,” which translates to “The Song of the Earth.” I found this a particularly good time to at least think of the earth singing, even though so much of today’s actual “song” — such as it is — sounds to me terribly out of tune.
The first joy was just the opportunity. It came to a very few upper-level Symphony supporters, and I’m incredibly lucky to count one of them as one of my best friends. We’ve gone to concerts together before, but none quite like this one: Silence surrounded us from the time we parked the car, took an elevator with no other passengers, and walked alone to our assigned seating. “Social distancing” here far exceeded the required minimum of what’s necessary according to current rules and practices; few seats on any level were filled. Where we sat, in one of those huge curving rows of the first upper tier, there were only two other patrons.
But there was joy, because the DSO’s new music director, Fabio Luisi, was the conductor. I never had the opportunity to watch him before; I don’t know if he usually uses a baton. But this evening, he used only his hands, and they were a graceful — also forceful — joy to be seen in action.
Of course, this reawakened my interest in the origins of the composer. Mahler was born Jewish, but was never much of a practicing Jew. And from his biography, he later converted to Catholicism, but was never known to be much of a practicing Catholic, either. His music — and I’d heard much of it before, including this long four-part piece (the last segment alone is a full half-hour) — does not have the easily identified Jewishness that I hear within Smetana’s tribute to the Moldau River in its strains echoing today’s “Hatikvah.”
The lives of these two overlapped for a mere 24 years, with Mahler living almost until the start of World War I, and Smetana having passed away more than 25 years earlier. But both were born in Czechia, today’s official name for the Czech Republic. I guess I just can’t help comparing these two, searching futilely for a glimpse of Judaism in Mahler such as I find in Smetana, considering the origins of both in times and places that were even then not particularly comfortable for our people.
I’m no musicologist, but I can still wonder freely about some of these things: Why did Mahler convert? Did he think it would help promote his music? And — did it? Why did Smetana, from the same region, choose to freely use strains from his heritage in his not-just-for-Jews-by-any-means music? But with all my questions yet to be answered, I was still thrilled to my soul by the first’s four-part “take” on how the earth sings its songs, while hearing in my head the second’s soft lapping of a river — no less thrilling, but so very different.
For any music lover, for me as a non-musicologist, this was an outstanding evening, given all that changed our symphony for one weekend into a small ensemble playing something enhanced by two required vocalists, one male, one female, each a joy to hear. And the scattered applause following the final notes of “The Song of the Earth” seemed to fill the entire symphony hall, as if invisible music-lovers actually occupied every one of those empty seats…
Harriet Gross can be reached at

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