Fanny and Hilde
by Hilde Spiel, translated by Christine Shuttleworth
New Vessel Press, 369 pp., $18.99
In April of 1784, Fanny and Nathan von Arnstein of Vienna hosted a concert that attracted an impressive number of “princes, counts and barons of ancient title,” including some “brand-new barons,” as well as people of lesser stature, such as “agents, doctors, bankers and merchants.” The conductor was none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was then 28, trying to support his growing family in style by performing his own work in private concerts, rather than suffering the indignities that went along with the patronage of emperors and princes. If any truly grand personages wanted to listen to Mozart’s music that afternoon, they would have to do so in the home of a couple who themselves were still Jewish and perhaps take their seats next to some former Jews who had only recently become Catholics.
Mozart had enjoyed the hospitality of the Arnsteins on previous occasions and even lived for eight months in one of the apartments in their vast home back in 1781. Receiving their support did not, alas, restrain him from uttering nasty comments about other Jews, even Fanny’s closest friend. Two years before, when Eleonore Fliess was caught up in a public scandal, the composer felt free to denounce her as a haupt-Sau, “a hog of the first order,” in a letter he wrote to his father. His choice of this epithet surely reflected the fact that many towns across the German states and the Habsburg Empire had for centuries featured large, grotesque public sculptures of female pigs suckling Jewish children.
In the grand concert that April afternoon, and in the shadow hostility of Mozart’s letter, we see some of the key features of turn-of-the-19th-century Jewish salons. Like their famous models in Paris and other capitals, they were informal intellectual gatherings in the homes of educated women that provided alternative intellectual and social spaces for a mixed society. While offering such women a rare opportunity to play a public role, they also facilitated contacts among writers, journalists, publishers, composers, musicians, and dilettantes from various social classes and religions. But it was only in Berlin and Vienna that such gatherings were presided over by Jewish women.