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

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

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.

Read about James on the ProsenPeople

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.
Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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