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Feb 2003 Journal

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Lost in transit

At a recent ‘43 Club evening a member criticised the choice of Continental Britons as the title of last year’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum. His point was that we should define ourselves by the language and culture in which we had our roots, rather than by that into which we got pitch-forked. Warming to his theme, the speaker even found fault with his contemporaries for having omitted to pass on the German linguistic and cultural heritage to their children. Refugees who had totally anglicised themselves, he concluded, provided a vindication of the Nazi canard that Jews were not part of Germany.

I felt sufficiently provoked by this bizarre take on the process of adaptation to a new environment which we all underwent willy-nilly on arrival, that I drew up a mental profit-and-loss account of my own transformation from Jewish Austrian into Continental Briton. The account had gone into the red, I recalled, almost from the start. It took next to no time to establish that continentals knew more about Britain than Brits did about the continent. For instance, while Shakespeare, Wilde and Shaw had been names to conjure with on the other side of the Channel, Goethe, Schiller and Hauptmann were virtually unknown in Dover and points north.

Over time I realised that England was not the Land ohne Musik of German myth, but I could still not comprehend why choral works such as The Messiah drew larger audiences than operas over here. Opera seemed to be a real touchstone. How often, while recounting the well-worn anecdote about Slezak-Lohengrin asking ‘When is the next swan due?’ did I discover that my listeners didn’t know the plot of the opera. More fundamentally, while in the old country the text of operatic arias had entered public consciousness and spawned parodies, over here the lyrics hadn’t even been translated into English. Viennese sang Auf in den Kampf die Schwiegermutter naht and Berliners crooned Reich’ mir die Hand mein Leben Komm’ auf mein Schloss mit mich/Ich will dir Kuchen geben Denn Semmeln frisst de nich. The UK called one the Toreador’s Song, and the other Là ci darem la mano – and how many Brits were Italian speakers?

As against this, I concluded, Germany had produced nothing to equal Elizabethan poetry, Jacobean drama or Restoration comedy. Likewise, the architecture of (and art displayed within) Blenheim, Burleigh House and Castle Howard could more than hold their own against Hohenzollern, Wittelsbach and Habsburg palaces. And who among nineteenth-century German novelists could enter the lists against Jane Austen, the Brontës, Mrs Gaskell, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and Dickens? Certainly not Gustav Freytag – though Theodor Storm and Fontane might be lone contenders.

Conclusive proof of the appallingly low level of contemporary German literary taste was proved by Richard Wagner’s prose-poem Das Rheingold, which he published before setting it to music. It was riddled with alliterations – e.g. the Firegod Loge’s zur lockenden Lohe mich wieder zu wandeln spür ich lockende Lust – interspersed with mock-poetic effusions à la Des Gatten Treu’ ertrotzte die Frau/trüge sie hold den hellen Schmuck/den schimmernd Zwerge schmieden/rührig im Zwange des Reifs. In the same year, 1852, as this stilted high-faluting mock-medieval confection rolled off the printing presses – and was snapped up by the German Bildungsbürgertum (bourgeoisie of education) – Charles Dickens published Bleak House! I rest my case.
(None of the above should, however, be construed as suggesting that we ought to be grateful to those who forced us to flee for our lives to a country where, happily, Wagner was better known for composing Here comes the bride/ All dressed in white than for writing Das Judentum in der Musik.)
Richard Grunberger

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