In 1918, Edgar Zilsel—a Marxist-Jewish philosopher who was soon to be exiled from Vienna—published a sociological study that later readers have found prescient of fascism. In Die Geniereligion (“The Religion of Genius”), Zilsel cautioned against the hidden dangers of elevating secular figures to the status of deities. As early as 1912, Zilsel was disturbed by how art-religion shaped music culture: his earliest published essay ruminated on timelessness and canonicity, on striving for heavenly tones while cast down to the earthly squalor of the concert hall. Indeed, in Zilsel’s Vienna, art-religion had come to dominate the music world—biographers made Beethoven a surrogate Christ, composers’ mementos circulated as relics, and historic houses became sites of pilgrimage. This article argues that Zilsel’s Geniereligion was not only an extension of his disdain for timelessness, but also bears subtle traces of Jewish disillusionment at the impossibility of assimilation to a secular arts culture. To enact their “civic self-improvement” (bürgerliche Verbesserung), Jews pursued educational self-cultivation (Bildung) that immersed them in the German national canon; and while this canon purported to be a secular neutral space, its Catholic practices of artist-veneration forced Jews to assimilate to a distinctly Christian brand of art-religion. When read against this cultural backdrop, Zilsel’s Geniereligion emerges as a subtle Jewish response to the promises and failures of secularity.

Author Biography

Abigail Fine is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Oregon. Her work focuses on reception and materiality in German and Austrian music culture, and has been published in the journal 19th-Century Music. Her current monograph project examines art-religion in practice, as late nineteenth-century devotees coveted the earthly traces of composers (relics, shrines, pilgrimage sites) to cultivate new forms of intimacy with the absent celebrity body.

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