Special Features

Fathers and Sons, Part 1: Lazar Weiner

By Jeff Janeczko, Curator

THOUGH THE ADAGE, "LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON" remains a salient expression, the world of music has not produced a wealth famous father-son pairs. Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart and Johann and Richard Strauss come to mind. J. S. Bach produced several composing sons, but being that he was Bach and had 20 children the odds were favorable.

Lazar Weiner and Yehudi Wyner

Lazar Weiner and Yehudi Wyner.

Yet in the world of Jewish culture it would seem that music is among the more dominant genes running through the family DNA. The four Kusevitsky brothers, sons of an amateur violinist, were among the most famous cantorial voices of the 20th century. Kurt Weill, one of the most accomplished of modern composers, was the son of a cantor. Hugo Chaim Adler was a prominent cantor and composer in Mannheim, Germany prior to the Second World War. His son, Samuel, is one of the strongest voices in contemporary American (and Jewish) music today and teaches at Juilliard.

In the coming weeks we'll be looking at two very different father-son pairs who have made—and continue to make—significant contributions to music both Jewish and otherwise: Lazar Weiner, the sine qua non of Yiddish art song, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning son, Yehudi Wyner;1 and Gerard Schwarz, conductor and founder of the All-Star Orchestra, and his son, cellist Julian Schwarz.

Lazar Weiner: Deeply Secular, Profoundly Religious

Though he is remembered today primarily for his significant body of compositions, Lazar Weiner was a true working musician, probably one of the busiest of his day. He led multiple choruses, ran music programs for summer camps, served as a synagogue musical director, and worked as an accompanist and vocal coach.

Born in Cherkassy, Ukraine, Weiner's musical training began at the local synagogue where he sang in the choir. When the family later relocated to Kiev, he joined the choir of that city's Brodsky Synagogue and attended its school. Weiner also sang in the Kiev Opera chorus and enrolled at the state conservatory to study piano. But with anti-Semitism on the rise, the family emigrated to the U.S. in 1914 when Weiner was seventeen years old. As a musician, almost all of Weiner's activities were Jewish related, despite the fact that when he left the Ukraine he had virtually no interest in Jewish music or religious practice.

Lazar Weiner as a young chorister

Lazar Weiner as a young chorister.

In 1998, the Milken Archive conducted an oral history interview with Weiner's son Yehudi. Through his recollections, we begin to perceive the rough outlines of Weiner's inner world, and the path that led to him becoming a towering figure of Jewish music.

"He was quite a taciturn person," Wyner stated when asked what it was like to grow up with Lazar. "A stern presence." Wyner remembers his father being away much of the time, constantly busy with musical activities. When he was home, he often stowed away in his studio to work.

Social situations were another matter. Since Lazar worked in so many different facets of New York's Jewish music world, he was a very well known and highly respected figure, and the Weiner home was a veritable pop-up salon of Yiddish culture. Musicians, poets, and artists of various stripes were in frequent attendance; philosophical conversations about the nature of Jewish music were the rule rather than the exception.

"At such gatherings, my father would really be the life of the party. He was full of fun, full of jokes, full of very vital interchange with his guests, with his friends," Wyner recalled. But outside of those situations he was a serious man: busy, focused on his work, concerned about instilling the virtues of hard work and tenacity in his young sons.

He was also, in the unminced words of his son, "an aristocrat, a musical snob." Weiner felt that much of what passed for Jewish culture at the time reflected too strong a ghetto mentality. His chief mission in life was to show the level of sophistication that could—and did—exist. As music director of New York's Central Synagogue, Weiner staged the city's first performances of sacred services by Darius Milhaud (Service Sacré) and Ernest Bloch (Avodat Hakodesh), as well as services and settings of his own. But doing so was an uphill battle, and Weiner was not particularly enamored of the synagogue's leadership.

"He stayed in that situation not for religious reasons," Wyner stated of his father's long tenure at the Central Synagogue. "He stayed in it for musical reasons. And because he thought he could do some reform. That's what he really devoted himself to."

The following Mi khamokha setting from Weiner's Shir l'shabbat, a sacred service commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Synagogue, displays Weiner's skill at choral settings, and the subtlety with which he treated traditional Jewish musical material.

Young Lazar Weiner

And so it was also with the various choral groups Weiner worked with throughout his life. Among those he directed were the chorus of the Yidishe Kultur Gezelshaft (Jewish Culture Society), the chorus of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the Central Synagogue choir, and the Arbeter Ring Khor (Workmen's Circle Chorus)—his most important and longest running choral position. His work with such choruses provided an ideal outlet for his creative impulses, allowing him to hear his own work and cultivate the performance level according to his own standards.

For a time, Weiner also directed the Freiheits Gezang Verein (later known also as the Jewish People's Philharmonic Chorus), a left-wing workers' chorus that often identified with communist ideas. But a 1927 trip to the Soviet Union afforded Weiner the opportunity to see the reality of the situation as opposed to the propaganda that circulated in some leftist Jewish circles. He resigned his position shortly after he returned to New York. (In part two of this series, hear Yehudi Wyner discuss this episode in his father's life.)

Like his other cantatas, Lazar Weiner composed The Last Judgment in part to increase the repertoire of the New York Arbeter Ring Khor. The libretto is a creative English adaptation of Isaac Leyb Peretz's story Bontshe Shvayg by Samuel Rosenbaum.

If today the Yiddish art song is virtually synonymous with Weiner's name, it is interesting to note that he came to the genre somewhat unintentionally. As Neil Levin observes about the young pianist at the time of his immigration to America: "The future avid Yiddishist was, during this impressionable period in his life, still oblivious to high Yiddish culture, even its secular content."

But in his new life in New York, Weiner came to associate a group of young poets and writers who wrote in Yiddish and held salons at which they read and discussed their work. Weiner soon began composing songs to some of their poetry.

A foter tzu zayn zun (A Father to his Son) is a setting of a poem by Jacob Glatstein, one of the first Yiddish poets Weiner met in New York.

Weiner's immersion in this milieu fueled both his secular Jewish identity and what his son describes as a very personal approach to religion.

"You have to realize that my father was very much . . . a deeply secular Jew . . . who had very strong anti-clerical feelings. At the same time, he was a profoundly religious man. His basic tenet was to concern himself with the relation of man and God." Wyner expounded upon this in relation to Weiner's music in the liner notes of the Milken Archive's CD of Weiner's art songs:

Although nearly none of the songs is explicitly religious in any conventional sense, one finds a constantly recurring related theme: the connection between the secular and the sacred realms, and the inescapable interpenetration of the two worlds. Although Weiner was to all intents and purposes concerned personally with secular Jewish culture rather than with religious observance, his obsessive aspiration leaned toward the spiritual and the sacred.

In 1973, the year following the death of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Lazar Weiner composed a set of songs to three Heschel poems. While they stand among the most profound achievements of Weiner's creative life, this one in particular reflects his abiding interest in the relationship between man and God.

Around 1920, Weiner attended a concert of the Zimro Ensemble in New York and learned of the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusic (Society of Jewish Folk Music) and their desire to form a national Jewish art music based on Jewish folk traditions. It was a goal that resonated with Weiner and he sent some of his recently completed songs to one of the Society's members, composer Joel Engel. Engel responded favorably to Weiner's music, but found it lacking in substance and foundation. He encouraged him to draw more heavily on Jewish folk traditions.

Lazar Weiner Conducts

In an interview near the end of his life, Weiner recalled that crucial moment: "That letter marked the beginning of my Jewishness. All my life it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert…Here in America I discovered the Yiddish song!"

So despite the fact that he began his musical life singing in a Ukranian synagogue, it was only through a series of chance encounters and fortuitous events in America that Weiner was led to the music for which he will forever be known. Weiner would leave far less to chance with his sons, as we'll explore in part two of this series.

Catch up on Fathers and Sons

About the series: Though the adage "like father, like son" remains a salient expression, the world of music has not produced a wealth famous father-son pairs. This four-part series looks at two very different fathers and sons who have made—and continue to make—significant contributions to music both Jewish and otherwise: Lazar Weiner, the sine qua non of Yiddish art song, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning son, Yehudi Wyner; and Gerard Schwarz, conductor and founder of the All-Star Orchestra, and his son, cellist Julian Schwarz.


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