I Ask Myself, Beethoven and Jews? Originally Published December 20-21, 2019.

While celebrating the birthday of Ludwig Van Beethoven, born December 16, 1770, I came across a delightful article for The Forward by Seth Rogovoy, who has written on Jewish influence on popular music, and has worked as author, writer, editor, critic, radio commentator, and in other fields, and not only that he substitute-taught Rabbi Seth Adelson back in the 1980s.  Beginning the 250-year celebration of Beethoven’s life (his 250th is next year), Mr. Rogovoy wrote on “The Secret Jewish History Of Ludwig Van Beethoven.”  (Beethoven was born in Bonn, and died in Vienna in 1827.)

Mr. Rogovoy notes how much like a klezmer Beethoven was, in that he was born into a musical family, in which his grandfather sang bass and also conducted, and his father sang tenor and taught keyboard and violin.  Beethoven started on the piano, and moved to viola, violin, and composition.  Fame would find him early and continuing:  he would become one of those known-by-one-name musicians!

Mr. Rogovoy points out that among Beethoven’s numerous compositions was one based on a Jewish melody and another including the work of a Jewish poet.  Additionally, Beethoven’s work “led to the creation of one of the most universal Yiddish poems of all time,” he asserts.  Let’s look into this.  In 1816, Beethoven composed a song cycle (Liederkreis in German), sort of an ordered album before there was recording ability.  (Yes, children, to hear them again one used to have to walk around singing the songs without earbuds playing them, or else hire the orchestra back.)   The lyrics were written by Alois Isidor Jeitteles, a Jewish physician (like his predecessors) and also poet, playwright, and translator.

Mr. Rogovoy informs us that the song cycle, “An die ferne Geliebte” (1816), will be performed on April 20, 2020, at YIVO in New York City, alongside his C-Sharp Minor Quartet, opus 131 (1826) (listen for Beethovenized “Kol Nidre” in the sixth movement).  The composer had been asked in 1824 to write a cantata celebrating the opening of the Viennese Jewish community’s new synagogue.  As Händel had had a hit with his “Saul” oratorio (1738), Beethoven studied up on ancient Hebrew music.  (He declined the commission, though, and Franz Schubert set Tov Lehodot for the occasion.)

Beethoven was not immune to the anti-Semitic attitudes of the day, as evidenced in his letters.  And when Y.L. Peretz “translated” “Ode to Joy” into Yiddish, he rather turned it into an inclusive regrouping, “All People are Brothers,” riffing on the notion that folks in a hateful Europe were singing “Ode to Joy” not really aspiring to much higher glory. 

Beethoven, though, did work with and do business with Jews; indeed his later publishers were Jewish.  And they say he was dating a Jewish woman when asked to compose for the shul dedication; her parents intervened in the relationship.