Reflections on a Joke

In today’s Impromptus — the second part of a “Salzburg journal” — I relate a joke, told by a German acquaintance. The target of the joke is the American, and his alleged cultural boobishness. Many Americans I know lap this joke up. It conforms to their image of what the American is. They don’t include themselves, mind you. No, they’re talking about other people — you, maybe.

As I say in my column, the truth is this: America became pretty much the musical leader of the world in the 1930s or so. Why this happened is not hard to figure out: Germans and other Europeans pushed many of the best around them out — across the sea, into our arms. These musicians were lucky, of course, to be refugees instead of corpses. And they built or strengthened our musical institutions (and other cultural institutions).

Why am I regurgitating all this here in the Corner? Because I forgot to include something in my journal — specifically, this: I did a public interview of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor, and we were talking about Mahler. Mahler, he said, was always an outsider. (He was Jewish-born, and worked in Vienna, capital of the empire.) He never felt at home, never felt included — until he went to America. That happened quite late, unfortunately: in 1908, when Mahler had only a few more years to live. But, in Salonen’s telling, he was at last welcome, at last made to feel at home. At last, he had found an open society.

That’s something Americans should take satisfaction in. Our welcoming of others has benefited us, at least as much as those welcomed. I don’t know if my German acquaintance, the joke-teller, ever reflects on such things. Let him tell his jokes, and let misguided Americans laugh at them. The cream of his civilization became American. Or some of it did: Others were burned in the ovens.