Mendelssohn, Mahler and Me — a Christmas Story

[Launch the video below for your musical accompaniment to this post]

Joseph Turner, Westminster Abbey interior

What? You wanted Christmas without a little agita? You must have mistaken me for somebody else.

Three little Jewish choir boys. A Lutheran from Berlin named Mendelssohn; a Catholic from Vienna named Mahler; an Episcopalian from New York named Fleisig. Mendelssohn, who among other perhaps more important gifts of timeless sacred Christian music, is responsible for the seasonal earworm known as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Mahler, whose “Resurrection” and Eighth Symphonies manifest musically the tensions in his own life between the sacred and profane, the earthly and the ethereal, the flesh and the spirit; between mud and sky; who for all the world seemed to have renounced his disengaged Jewish identity in favor of Catholicism out of  purely career motives, but who nevertheless discovered in this very act of renunciation a creative dialectic that drove his greatest works.

And me who, rescued, so to speak, at the age of nine, from the banalities of a lower-middle class upbringing in New York City’s most perpetually striving borough of Queens, to sing with what The New Yorker calls “the best Anglican choir in the country,” a commitment that involved leaving home and living instead at the church’s choir school, a world enwombed by a church in the first throes of the identity crisis that today threatens to tear it asunder. St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in 1968 was in many ways the same place it is today: a cathedral in all but name, the crowning accomplishment of the neo-gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram, the wealthiest Episcopal parish in the United States. It is a place, as the New York Times describes it, of:

elaborate liturgy, rich music, sumptuous visuals…. The architecture, by Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, is flamboyantly Gothic; the stained glass, now under conservation, superb. The church’s great altar screen, 80 feet tall and filigreed with figures, is Zeffirellian in size and impact, complementing the forceful singing of the St. Thomas Choir.

But in other ways, the church in 1968 was in the midst of profound institutional crisis and change. The studied liberalism that has become synonymous with mainstream Protestant churches — including, now, St. Thomas itself — was little in evidence then, especially in contrast to the parish’s own diocesan cathedral, its notoriously liberal and social activist uptown brother, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. At St. Thomas in 1968, despite a constantly declining congregration, Jeans, facial hair and the poor, generally, were greatly discouraged. Negroes were tolerated up to the point that they manifested a more or less de rigeur middle class church-lady affect (or were the mothers or aunts of fellow choristers). St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue was such a well-known symbol of what remained of America’s East Coast WASP establishment, that as the late 60s progressed, evacuating under bomb threat during a service or concert became almost routine. (Today, ironically, African-American and gay congregants, warmly received now, are the new backbone and lifeblood of the parish.)

Choristers of Westminster Abbey

And in this milieu, in this place, a child, a curious little Jewish New Yorker from the wrong side of the Queensborough Bridge who, for four performances and  six rehearsals a week, literally sang for his supper: I, made my spiritual and physical home. And no time of the year was more uplifting, yet fraught with hard work and spiritual and intellectual misgivings, than Christmas. The most daunting service and concert schedule, several performances a day sometimes, with little time for presents or even sleep. Shot through with my own religious conflicts, and a burgeoning awareness — and a longing to join in, of course — of the social disruptions racing around the nearby streets; Moondog and Janish Joplin talking on the corner of 6th Avenue; Sly Stone staying at the Warwick hotel, limousine liberalism ascendant, a mad dash to man some invisible barricade. Still, joyous too, with the hope of family and a week’s vacation to come at the end.

Quite divorced from any contemplation of the Christ child as either sacred object or historical artifact, to me the meaning not just of Christmas, but of spirit, faith, mystery — of very life itself — was then and still is today most magnificently expressed in the sacred choral music in the German and English traditions. The voices of boy choristers are, then, to me, like the voice of g*d herself. And that can come anytime, if I put myself in the place to receive it — a recent winter’s evensong at Westminster Abbey, notably, where a weak white winter sun shone on the famous chiaruscuro floor, and two boy sopranos sang a Mendelssohn duet, the spirit of that most-Jewish-and-yet-not composer once again giving voice to … what, exactly? And without being able to frame it intellectually there wells up in me what I can only describe as a living spirit — what for me stands for the true meaning of Christmas; neither sacred nor profane, but a nativity of both spirit and body without conflict or contour. And it has a purity — in the liturgical analogy, while the Christmas story carries a hint of tragedy, the coming passion of the Christ as the controlling metaphor for the human condition never completely out of sight — it brings, like every birth and rebirth, a hope that is the hope of Christians at Christmas, as it is the hope of the Jews on the New Year, as it is the hope of the world. That off chance that, just this one time, we won’t screw it all up.

And there it is — my wish for all this Christmas season — let’s try together, one more time, to not screw it up. To sing just the right notes. To get through the score. To hit all the high notes. To cheat tragedy and death together, or at least, if we cannot defeat them, to face them (as I said to a dear friend recently) with dignity and integrity. 

One last note: this was going to be a post about the question of whether Mendelssohn’s, Mahler’s and my experiences of being, in effect, Jewish musicians in these dominantly Christian cultures was ultimately examples of an invidious and centuries-old processs of conversion and assimilation, opportunities for social mobility, or merely selfishness on the part of a couple of perfidious and ambitious “bad” Jews. I leave that for your contemplation — and perhaps a future post.

Meanwhile, Christmas breakfast is waiting on this tardy blogger, so off we must go.

One response to “Mendelssohn, Mahler and Me — a Christmas Story

  1. Aunt of my best friend got lost in Midtown, looking for St. Pats with some friends from Ireland. Walking past the side door for St. Thomas, they asked if mass was going on, they went in and saw a lovely mass with Choir. When they stepped out the Front Door, the spied the Cathedral of St. Patrick in NY.

    Aunt said something was funny, when she noticed the communion wafers were thinner! I told her she is now an Episcopalian and must get re-baptized! She laughed at that one.

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