The City of Music’s Forgotten 20th Century

Thoughts on scholarship and intellectual fashion at the Jewish Museum in Vienna

When Dr Karl Albrecht-Weinberger invited me to come to the Jewish Museum Vienna (JMW) in 2002 to curate a series of biographical exhibitions on the Jewish provenance of the city’s musical heritage, the institution was riding a wave of international praise.

That exhibition, “Quasi una fantasia”, went on to New York, to great acclaim, and a New York Times review comparing the Jewish Museums in Vienna and Berlin observed that while Berlin could brag an iconic building, it was Vienna that offered the historical content and contextualization. In fact, the range of expertise at the museum was astonishing.

But equally remarkable was how little music featured as an ingredient in the cultural mix. Even amongst the best informed, music was viewed as something not quite ‘grown-up’ as a cultural discipline. Colleagues with their doctorates in literature, history, Jewish Studies, etc. saw music as, at best, a necessary stage of passage before advancing into the more evolved disciplines of visual arts, science, philosophy and literature.

My challenges at the museum were therefore twofold: to convince the local public of the range, significance and depth of musical creativity that emanated out of Vienna pre-1938; and second to convince colleagues that music deserved an equal place within the exposition of the city’s cultural environment.

Of course, there was far more at stake than simply mounting an exhibition on forgotten Jewish composers, and as a recording producer, I was not really prepared for the enormous effort required. The team of in-house curators was excellent, and I remain deeply indebted to each of them. They brought their own enthusiasms and points of view and each had enormous contributions to make.

Another unanticipated obstacle however concerned the actual philosophy of mounting exhibitions. New ideas were emerging and there was considerable antagonism towards purely biographical exhibitions. In the view of some of the most thoughtful of the curators, biographical exhibitions did not cover broad topics of wider interest.

Thus, we reached for the broader context: An exhibition on the composers Egon Wellesz and Hans Gál became an exhibition on Austrian musical exile; an exhibition on the composer Erich Zeisl became an exhibition on secular Jews concocting a workable Jewish identity on demand; the exhibition on Franz Schreker covered much of fin de siècle Vienna, including Schoenberg and his circle.

The exhibition on Erich Korngold continued with this era, but also brought in the American film studios and the origins of film music. Hanns Eisler dealt with politics and Ernst Toch dealt with music as part of the “New Objectivity” movement. Nor did the philosophical debates end there: The JMW is not a Holocaust Museum and went to great lengths to avoid presenting the Holocaust in any way other than peripheral. Given Vienna’s unique Jewish history, and its place in the history of the 20th century, any and every exhibition already dealt with the Holocaust, if only peripherally.

However, many American visitors were incensed that the Holocaust was not a central feature of the museum. To those of us who worked there, a balanced presentation of Jewish Vienna was far more than what a Holocaust exhibition could cover. To many however, this looks like a continued act of Austrian denial.

In any case, visitor numbers confirm that the music exhibitions were successful and the Korngold exhibition was one of the most popular in the museum’s history. It certainly fulfilled its purpose of proving that pre-Hitler Vienna was not just the arena of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School, but also a platform for diverse musical developments across all conceivable genres.

If the exhibitions succeeded in heightening interest in music as a discipline, they did not succeed in convincing administrators and colleagues that music was a suitable topic for exploration. Which is strange, as Jewish Vienna pre-1938 produced more internationally renowned musicians than it did writers, scientists or philosophers, however important in these other fields.

But what is a source of greater concern to me is that the unique Jewish cultural heritage of Vienna is potentially devalued in the museum’s pursuit of contemporary cultural relevance. No doubt, should music ever feature again, more people will flock to an exhibition on Amy Winehouse than to one on any of the composers we presented. This is fine and even potentially interesting – but it’s actually an exhibition that any Jewish museum in the world could mount.

Vienna’s beyond-the-Holocaust approach along with its uniquely rich Jewish heritage, in my view, gives this museum a unique cultural vein to mine. Contemporary Austrians often seem trapped by a fear of living in the past and thus being bypassed by the present. Popular exhibitions are certainly necessary, but in Vienna, they shouldn’t come at the expense of the city’s unique history, which played such a profound role in shaping the modern world. To do so really does suggest a form of unwitting Austrian denial.


Michael Haas, executive producer of Decca/London’s recording series ‘Entartete Musik’; Director of the Jewish Music Institute’s Committee of Suppressed Music, London University and co-chair of at the Music University of Vienna.

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