Among the many commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the death of composer Joseph Haydn is a compelling new study from Cambridge University Press, “Haydn’s Jews: Representation and Reception on the Operatic Stage” by Caryl Clark, a University of Toronto musicologist. Ms. Clark points out that in Eisenstadt, Austria, the palace of the Eszterházy family, Haydn’s longtime employers, is located “immediately adjacent” to the Jewish ghetto: “Haydn would have seen Jews living behind the chained gates of their crowded ghettos and conducting business on the nearby streets.”
Ms. Clark further postulates that his 1768 comic opera “Lo speziale” (The Apothecary ) features Sempronio, the apothecary of the title, who has many elements of contemporary stage caricatures of Jews. The opera’s libretto, by playwright Carlo Goldoni, has “many coded depictions of the apothecary as a Jewish caricature…to which Haydn responded in his musical setting.”
Intriguingly, in the late 19th century Gustav Mahler born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Bohemia, played a key role in reviving “Lo speziale” in a German-language staging as “Der Apotheker,” and Clark posits that Mahler’s intense attraction to this work may be due in part to the work’s subliminal Jewish resonances. Stressing that unlike Wagner’s antisemitic musical portraits of Jews as villains like Beckmesser in his opera “Die Meistersinger,” Haydn was “never known to have uttered hateful remarks about Jews, and certainly never penned an antisemitic screed, as Wagner did.” This relative tolerance, unusual for his day, provides another reason for treasuring Haydn, whose nickname “Papa” might be Yiddished to “Tateh” as acknowledgment of his endearing Mentshlekhkeyt.
Watch Haydn’s “Lo speziale” featuring the crypto-Jewish apothecary Sempronio, below.