The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire

Yale University Press  2010


Remarkably, in the decade before the First World War, fully one-third of Russian Jewish university students were studying in the imperial conservatories of music. James Loeffler tells the story of the rise of Russian Jewish musicians and composers during the final generations of Tsarist Russia. The sheer talent of young Jewish musicians came to be recognized as a feature of modern culture in the Late Russian Empire. The St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, founded by the baptized Anton Rubinstein, attracted a stream of Jewish students who were trained and encouraged in the face of rising anti-Jewish attitudes in general Russian society. Jewish and non-Jewish scholars argued over the nature and value of Jewish music. The final decades of Tsarist Russia saw increasing interest in Jewish folk music and the creation of new Jewish music inspired both by Jewish tradition and the serious standards of modern artistic music. For many acculturated Russian Jews, Jewish folk music came to be part of a new Jewish identity forged amid the dynamic turbulence of Russia’s political culture. This generally well written book would have benefitted from inclusion of a CD sampler of the many musical pieces described. While the text suffers from a few errors in Yiddish transcription, for example, the well-known lullaby by Shalom Aleichem is “Shlof mayn kind” not “Shloyf mayn kind”, overall, this is an excellent work. Bibliography, illustrations, index, maps, music settings, note.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...James Loeffler

Old Voices, New Questions: Reflections on Music in Jewish Life, Past and Present

by James Loeffler

One September morning in 2003 I opened a folder in a deserted library room in Kiev and found something that wasn’t supposed to be there: a manuscript of a Jewish symphony, composed a century earlier. I’d gone to the library expecting to find missing pages from the East European Jewish musical past. To me, that meant the vanished traces of musical folklore— klezmer tunes, Hasidic chants, Yiddish ballads. What I found instead was an unknown chapter in European classical music. That Russian Jews were composing Jewish art music in 1900 came as a surprise even to me; still more surprising was that this wasn’t a rare exception. Folder after folder revealed the works of hundreds of Russian Jewish composers, forming a chain that stretched from the late nineteenth century all the way into the black years of the 1940s and early 1950s.

Reading through these musical manuscripts, I realized that the lost world of Jewish music had to be told as a story not only about the music itself, but the musicians behind it. The time had come, I concluded, to leave behind Fiddler on the Roof and find the composers who actually joined Chagall, Peretz, and others in their modernist reimaginings of the culture of the shtetl. Rather than an act of cultural salvage, I decided to write a book that would bring to life the first two generations of Russian Jewish musicians who sought to forge a modern Jewish music. This was a story of Jews who believed art could bridge the growing gaps between secular and religious, national and cosmopolitan, Russian and Jew. Their musical renaissance was premised on locating an elusive equilibrium between the aesthetic ideals of modern European art and the passionate expressiveness of the Ashkenazi folk tradition. At their best, they produced chamber works, symphonies, and the odd opera that blurred the sonic borderlines between shtetl klezmer and European modernism, refusing the demand that they choose one culture over the other.

The musical story of Jewish Russia did not end cleanly with triumph or tragedy. The post-1917 destinies of these Jewish composers diverged markedly across the Soviet Union, Israel, and the United States. For many, fame yielded to obscurity; others found themselves caught up in the maelstrom of war and Holocaust. Most poignant was the fate of those musicians who believed in the promise of a Soviet Jewish cultural mecca, where Jewish music would form part of the grand experiment of revolutionary art. These composers ended up in a state of tortured silence, composing “for the desk drawer,” mute survivors in a Soviet musical world that passed them by. At the same time, in a strange twist of fate, the Jewish voice continued on in the music of the most Russian of all Soviet composers, Dmitrii Shostakovich.

I began writing The Most Musical Nation to recover a side of Russian Jewish life we rarely hear about, but which shaped the character of Jewish cultural identity in Russia down the twentieth century to the present. By the time I had finished the book, I had come to realize that this lost musical chapter actually spoke to a dilemma in today’s Jewish cultural world. Like the Russian Jewish composers of a century ago, we too live in an age of Jewish cultural renaissance. Every year brings a slew of new recordings that offer up the sounds of Ashkenaz and Sepharad, often adorned with the latest musical fashions of our day. Music has become an emblem of identity—and an avenue of artistic achievement—for American and Israeli Jews. Yet the explosion of contemporary creativity has not prevented a stock set of aural images—the schlocky, saccharine bounce of Hava Nagila, the quiet pious moan of Kol Nidre, the indistinct murmur of Ladino song – from dominating our notion of Jewish musical art. While we revel in the complexity and sophistication of contemporary Jewish literature, Jewish music remains trapped in the realm of parochial nostalgia. Somehow our fealty to Fiddler on the Roof (and its non-Ashkenazic counterparts) absolves us of any responsibility to dig further into the rich heritage of Jewish sonic expression. It is my hope that my book will spark a larger conversation about these issues of art and identity. In the meantime, the full spectrum of sounds from the Jewish musical past remains waiting to be discovered.

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