Through his work with Yiddish folk choruses and synagogue choirs; as an accompanist and arranger for many singers of Yiddish and Hebrew concert, recording, and broadcast repertoire; and as a composer of miniature Jewish art and folklike songs, Nicholas L. Saslavsky was an active personality in New York’s Jewish musical life.
Born into a musical family in Poltava, Ukraine, Saslavsky was a boy chorister in the choir of Cantor Ben Zion Feibush. He accompanied the cantor to Kiev in 1897 and then sang in the progressive Brodsky Synagogue in the choir directed by Alexander Dzimitrovsky. After piano studies in Kiev, Saslavsky went to Berlin to pursue conducting, and while there, he sang in one of Berlin’s most prominent synagogues.
After touring throughout Scandinavia and Belgium as an accompanist, Saslavsky immigrated to America in 1907, and in 1908 he organized a Zionist choral group. It also appears—from the scant available documentation—that he was involved with the socialist-oriented Arbeter Ring Khor (Workmen’s Circle Choir) in its formative years. He pursued further advanced musical studies at Yale University and then held positions as organist and choirmaster at several New York area synagogues, also serving as cantor at two of them.
In 1933 Saslavsky became the musical director of radio station WEVD in New York (known as “the station that speaks your language” for its programming geared to immigrant audiences, whose call letters, EVD, were chosen in honor of the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs). WEVD had the largest Yiddish-speaking listenership of all the radio stations in the New York area that programmed Jewish music. It presented Yiddish and Hebrew music and other programs—including news broadcasts and commercials in Yiddish—on a daily basis, often with its own live orchestra. During his years at WEVD, Saslavsky conducted that orchestra. His arrangements and orchestrations, as well of most of his songs, remain in manuscript.
By: Neil W. Levin