Composer, choral director, and Jewish music critic Samuel Bugatch was born in Rogachev, Belarus, where he began his musical life singing in synagogue choirs as a boy chorister and soloist. His natural abilities to sight-read and to learn music quickly earned him the sobriquet notn freser (music devourer), and he is said to have begun composing by the age of eleven with little if any formal training. His parents brought him to America in 1911, and they settled in Baltimore, where the young Bugatch was soon conducting choirs. He graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music (now part of Johns Hopkins University) with a teacher’s certificate in music theory.
As a young man, Bugatch became involved with the Yiddish cultural and educational activities associated with the Labor Zionists. Social Zionists had already had a visible presence in America as early as 1903. But it was at a convention in Baltimore in 1905 that the United States branch of the Socialist Zionist party, Poalei Zion, was founded as the Labor Zionist Organization of America—Poalei Zion (LZO; also known among Yiddish-speaking circles as the Poaley Tsiyon Farayn). Among its initial principal political objectives was its own recognition both as an integral part of the Zionist movement and as a legitimate tributary within—and an acknowledged contribution to—the American labor movement and American socialism, still within the context of its Zionist sensibilities. It also wanted to achieve recognition of Palestine as the exclusive home of an eventual Jewish state, in opposition to those (the socialist-territorialists) who advocated the possibility of a Jewish state elsewhere. Five years later, LZO added an important parameter to Jewish education in the United States by establishing what became a network of secular Jewish and Yiddish language- and culture-oriented afternoon (and in some cases weekend) schools, the Yiddish Folks Shulen—Jewish Folk Schools. These became the model for subsequently established Jewish secular schools and summer camps sponsored by other labor and Yiddish culturally grounded organizations such as the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle). And, in 1912, Poalei Zion had created the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, later known as the Farband Labor Zionist Order.
When, shortly after the beginning of the First World War in Europe, LZO established a Baltimore branch, its initial political-social objectives in terms of recognition had essentially been met. Bugatch was immediately attracted to its growing cultural, social, educational, and liberal national missions, around which its folk choruses and music programs came to revolve. He embarked on a lifetime association with LZO, which later extended to similar organizations with related musical vehicles. Thus, many of his compositions from then on reflect social as well as Zionist- and Israel-related themes, together with his devotion to Yiddish literature and culture. In the 1930s he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where their home became a local center for Poalei Zion.
Bugatch was the choral director at a Baltimore synagogue, Beth Tfiloh, for about fifteen years. In 1954 he was engaged as the choral director at Temple Adath Israel in New York (in the Bronx), where he served for more than two decades. He also directed Yiddish choruses of the Farband as well as of the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) in Philadelphia and New York and in Newark, Trenton, and Lakewood, New Jersey, over a period of many years. He wrote a number of cantatas for those choruses, several of which were published during his lifetime and enjoyed frequent performances. These include Judea (1943), to Moshe Freylikohov’s Yiddish translation of a text by Lord Byron; The Jewish Legend (1950), based on a text by Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik; and Israel (1950), written to celebrate the founding of the Jewish state and incorporating a series of familiar Israeli songs interspersed with narrative and musical interludes. His choral works include many folksong arrangements as well as original Yiddish choral settings and songs for solo voice and piano.
Bugatch’s corpus of Yiddish lieder includes simple art songs to serious Yiddish poetry as well as children’s songs for Yiddish schools, summer camps, and youth movements. Among his best-known art songs, which have been programmed and recorded by major exponents of the genre, are Zog maran (Tell Me, Marrano); A zemer (A Song); Bay di beymer (By the Trees); Der sokher fun perl (The Pearl Merchant); Di ovnt (The Evening); Ovnt Klangen (Evening Bells); A gute vokh (May You Have a Good Week); Di vant (The Wall); Shtiler (Quiet); and Ani ma’amin (I Believe). His style throughout his songs and choral settings is marked by harmonic conservatism, transparent simplicity, and cultured taste. There is no pretension of more sophisticated harmonic or contrapuntal treatment, and the humility and fundamental good nature of his personality underlies all of his work.
Some of his songs have a folklike character that may belie their originality. His song Zemerl (Little Tune), for example, became so popular through its recording by the renowned Yiddish lieder recitalist Sidor Belarsky that it was erroneously perceived as a folksong. When asked during the 1970s why he thought so many of the younger generation of composers seemed to feel compelled to shun tonality in their songs, and why it appeared that no one was writing worthy or interesting songs in simple major or minor, he replied spontaneously, “I’m convinced that they wouldn’t know how.”
In his secondary capacity as a synagogue choral director, Bugatch also composed several liturgical settings. These include the High Holy Day piyyut Un’tane tokef; a setting of the k’dusha for the mussaf service of Sabbaths or Festivals; Vay’khulu, for the Sabbath eve; Ma tovu; and Ein Kamokha and Vay’hi binso’a ha’aron, from the Torah service. Bugatch was also a music critic for Der Forverts and other Yiddish newspapers.
In 1974 he was commissioned by the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale in Dayton, Ohio, to compose a suite of Yiddish songs for its treble voice (SSA) format and chamber orchestra. The result was his Montage of Yiddish Songs, comprising settings of four poems by Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz: Oyfn grinem bergele (On the Small Green Mountain), Di bin (The Bee), Der yeger (The Hunter),and Treyst mayn folk (Console My People); Y’did nefesh, to a Yiddish version of this prayer text by Zalman Shazar, president of Israel, 1963—73; Viglid, to a poem by Abraham Cahan; Taybelekh (Little Doves), to a poem by Moshe Broderson; and M’dinas Yisroel (State of Israel), to a poem by Aaron Glants-Leyeles. Montage was premiered in 1975 by the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale at its annual spring concert under the baton of its director, Cantor Jerome Kopmar, and was issued on the live recording Three Eras in Jewish Music.
In 1978 Bugatch was one of three composers—along with Reuven Kosakoff and Arcadie Kouguell—to be honored on the occasion of their eightieth birthdays at a special concert of the recently founded American Society for Jewish Music at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (92nd Street YMHA) in New York. Cantor Zvee Aroni sang four of his compositions on that program: two excerpts from his Montage, which Bugatch reworked for solo voice and piano (Y’did nefesh and M’dinas Yisroel); “On the Day of Destruction,” from his cantata Judea; and Ovnt klangen, to a poem by Yehoash.