Jacob Weinberg belongs to that pioneering school of composers who, together with Jewish performers, folklorists, and other intellectuals in Russia, attempted during the first two decades of the 20th century to found a new Jewish national art music based on authentic Jewish musical heritage. It was his membership in the Moscow section of that organization, known as the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg, that first defined for him the nature of his own Jewish identity and ignited the interest in Judaically based art that informed most of his work from then on.
Weinberg was born in Odessa (The Ukraine) to an intellectually sympathetic and cultured but thoroughly assimilated and Russified affluent family, with little if any Judaic observance. His family traveled in the sophisticated musical and literary circles of the intelligentsia. His uncle, Peter Weinberg, a respected poet and professor, was known for his translations of Shakespeare and Heine into Russian; and another uncle was a brother-in-law of the world-famous pianist, composer, and head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein—who converted from Judaism to the Russian Church. Weinberg’s pianistic gifts were evident at an early age, but his middle-class family insisted that he prepare for business or the professions, and he was sent to the local government-sponsored commercial school. Upon his graduation at the age of seventeen, he assumed a position as a bank clerk in Rostov-on-Don, but he resigned shortly thereafter and went to Moscow. He enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory for piano studies and later studied counterpoint—as had Rachmaninoff and Scriabin—with Sergey Taneyev, a disciple of Tchaikovsky’s. Typical of the practical middle-class path followed by a number of Russian as well as Jewish composers in Russia then (including Tchaikovsky in the 1850s), and still under pressure from his family, he also studied law at Moscow University, and he qualified in 1908.
During that same time frame Weinberg also began to compose, and his early works include his Elegy for Violoncello (his first piece, dedicated to Tchaikovsky), his Sonata in F-Sharp Minor for violin and piano, and his first piano concerto, in E-flat minor, which he played in concerts in St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa. In 1905 he went to Paris to compete in the Anton Rubinstein Competition, the most prestigious competition of the time for pianists and composers. Although he was unsuccessful in that competition (as was Bela Bartók), losing to the German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, the event helped to bring his gifts to public attention and to launch a career as a virtuoso pianist.
In 1910 Weinberg studied for a year in Vienna with the legendary piano pedagogue and author of piano methodology Theodor Leschetizky, after which he returned to Moscow, where he taught various musical subjects as well as piano, and where he wrote two scientific works on music. During that period he became active in the relatively new Moscow branch of the Gesellschaft, and he was profoundly influenced in particular by critic and composer Joel Engel, head of its music committee. A few of Weinberg’s early works were published by the Moscow branch, independent of the better-known publication series of its parent organization in St. Petersburg. “There began my interest in things Jewish,” he later remarked. “I became very much absorbed in Jewish music, and I began to collect and study Jewish folksongs. A new, great, and practically unexplored vista was opening before me.”
In 1916 Weinberg returned to Odessa to teach at the Imperial Conservatory there. He remained until 1921, when, out of step personally and spiritually with the new Bolshevik order and the fallout of the civil war, and still imbued with the Zionist cultural incentives he acquired from the Gesellschaft affiliation, he left to resettle in Palestine. During the five years he lived there, he resumed his influential association with Joel Engel, who was one of the founders of a Jewish National Conservatory in Jerusalem. Weinberg absorbed much of the Near Eastern melos—Arabic as well as oriental Jewish modes, melodies, and flavors that had been largely unknown in Europe—and soon added these to his pool of musical resources for compositions. Among his works from that sojourn are a twelve-movement piano album, From Jewish Life; Jacob’s Dream, a setting of Richard Beer-Hofmann’s play, which later became one of his most frequently performed pieces; and Heḥalutz (known in English as The Pioneers), one of the earliest operas in Hebrew, set to his own libretto about European settlers in Palestine. Heḥalutz won first prize in a competition of the Sesqui-Centennial Association in America, where it also received several performances. But its most poignant performance occurred in the 1930s in Berlin, during the Nazi era, where, forbidden from non-Jewish public venues as the work of a Jew, a concert version was presented at the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagoge under the auspices of the Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland, with soprano Mascha Benya in one of the lead roles.
Weinberg came to the United States in 1926, and he was soon actively involved in New York’s intellectual Jewish music circles, delivering scholarly papers and lectures at various learned societies, directing concert programs, performing, teaching, and composing. He became a prominent member of a coterie of established Jewish composers and other leading Jewish music exponents on the New York scene, including some of his former colleagues from the Gesellschaft in Russia, such as Lazare Saminsky and Joseph Achron (and later, Solomon Rosowsky), as well as Abraham Wolf Binder, Gershon Ephros, Moshe Rudinow, and Frederick Jacobi.
In 1929 Weinberg joined the piano and theory faculty of the New York College of Music, where he taught for many years, and later he taught at Hunter College’s extension division. In the early 1940s he organized a series of annual Jewish arts festivals (music and dance) in New York, which occurred at major concert venues and proved extremely successful; and he spearheaded Jewish music festivals in other cities, sometimes involving major orchestras. Those events are credited with being the impetus behind the formation of the National Jewish Music Council of the Jewish Welfare Board, which until recently initiated and coordinated annual Jewish Music Month celebrations throughout the United States, for a long time an acknowledged and important part of America’s Jewish cultural landscape.
In addition to individual liturgical settings and two biblical cantatas, Isaiah and The Life of Moses, Weinberg wrote three complete Sabbath services (excerpts from one of the services are included in Volume 7.) Yet for a long while he was best known in the United States for his patriotic American works, such as a setting of part of one of President Roosevelt’s addresses; The Gettysburg Address; and I See a New America, on words from a presidential campaign address by Governor Adlai Stevenson.
Among Weinberg’s other Judaically related secular works, apart from those presented in the Milken Archive, are a piano trio on Hebrew themes; Sabbath Suite; Carnival in Israel; and Yemenite Rhapsody—all for chamber orchestra; Berceuse Palestinenne for cello or violin; incidental concert encore pieces for virtuoso klezmer clarinet and orchestra (included in Volume 5, played by David Krakauer); various piano pieces on Judaic as well as secular Hebraic themes; numerous Hebrew art songs; and other chamber music.