Featured Articles

Introducing the Milken Archive of Jewish Music: the American Experience

By Neil W. Levin

THE MILKEN ARCHIVE OF JEWISH MUSIC: THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, is an exploration of the rich variety of musical expression born of, inspired by, associated with, or reflecting the full spectrum of Jewish life in the United States—the collective American Jewish experience. For all the inherent challenges posed to Jewish continuity and identity by a free and open society, this three-and-a-half-century experience has ultimately been a flourishing, mutually beneficial, and synergetic chapter in world Jewish as well as American history—vital, multilayered, and diverse, encompassing numerous shades and forms of Judaic religious observance and participation along with secular Jewish literary, social, intellectual, political, ethnic-national, and artistic spheres of involvement and activity. At various times and among various circles, some of these planes have intersected freely; in other instances they have remained intentionally distinct or exclusive.

The musical offerings in these twenty volumes relate in the aggregate therefore to American manifestations and refractions of the history and substance of both Judaism and the composite culture of the Jewish people. They mirror the multiformity and variegation of American Jewry itself, from both aesthetic and functional perspectives.

The Milken Archive may certainly be viewed on one level as an artistic endeavor in its own right. Indeed, much of its music has the power to speak for itself and to edify by virtue of its aesthetic merit alone. Other components may provide sheer enjoyment and entertainment. On a deeper level, however—especially when considered in its entirety—this is also an educatory vehicle whose value lies largely in its acknowledgment of “Jewish music” as an organic, inseparable part of the fields of Jewish studies per se, of the Western art tradition, of American music, and of world music.


At the initial meeting of our Milken Archive Editorial Board, in 1993, one of the first things about which we deliberated—once the categories of music we sought to address had been established—was how to organize the music in its ultimate presentation. Some approaches were rejected a priori, such as organization by composer. That was deemed perfectly appropriate for some of the fifty introductory releases on the NAXOS label, as those were envisioned as individual, self-contained CDs, not necessarily telling a story. But along with other theoretically possible procedures of organization (according to performers, for example, or texts, or geographic locale), division by composer was properly seen as artificial and misleading for the eventual musical narrative that is the Milken Archive.

On the table were still several alternative and, in principle, equally legitimate ways in which the organization could have been pursued: chronologically; by musical genre; by typology; or simply according simply to general categories: sacred, secular folk, “classical,” popular, etc.

For a project of this magnitude and extra musical educational purpose, however, none of those satisfied us completely. Then, our discussions with several sociologists and historians, apart from those among our own official ranks—chief among them my always helpful colleague, Professor Jonathan Sarna, acknowledged as the leading contemporary historian of American Jewry—led us to think about an organizational structure according to themes in American Jewish history. Lowell Milken, too, who himself has an abiding interest in history and is an avid reader on the subject, liked the idea and encouraged us in this direction. We proceeded to identify some of the social, political, spiritual, religious, emotional, and literary themes and currents in American Jewish history on which specific parts of our repertoire could be brought to bear and for which there would be sufficient music to illustrate, exemplify, and elucidate their course. Not all the music, however, lends itself to such assignment, even though nearly all of it represents in principle some imprint of American experience. Some consideration had thus to be given to purely artistic or musical themes. In the end we devised a twenty-volume structure that combines generic and historical-thematic approaches, giving precedence wherever possible to the latter. But the music within each of these generically informed volumes (chamber music, for example, secular choral art, or symphonic music) can still represent particular historical themes in substantive if less direct ways than pieces in the actual thematically labeled volumes, as is suggested and explained in the accompanying program annotations. Each volume is, in theory, open-ended, in the sense that it is not limited to a particular number of inclusions. Any additional music recorded or otherwise acquired could therefore fit into one of the volumes.

The order of selections within each volume has been carefully designed with a view not only to artistic balance, but also to historical sweep and the richness and diversity of the applicable repertoire. Rather than subdivide individual volumes into homogeneous sections according to stylistic, chronological, generic, or categorical criteria, we have often deliberately juxtaposed pieces of radically dissimilar or seemingly incompatible styles, eras, genres, or purposes. The resultant exercise in eclecticism can better demonstrate the fullness of the musical and of the historical narrative. It might be said that we took a figurative cue from Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who pioneered the organization of exhibitions according to themes addressed in multiple styles and by multiple painters, diverging from more conventional practices. To appreciate the full value of each volume, it is therefore important ideally to consider it in its entirety. Just as one could revisit a physical museum subsequently to single out, further study, and enjoy those constituent paintings that best spoke personally to the viewer during the initial tour of an exhibition, visitors to the Milken Archive’s virtual museum are encouraged both to treat themselves to exposure to the full range of that world in each volume, and thus acquire a sense of its message and overall repertoire, and to return to favorite—or newly discovered and perhaps newly favorite—selections.

Who is an “American Composer”?

To the question “Who is an American composer?” one might take the classic bait from comedians who assign to Jews the stereotypical habit (partly derived from the cadences of the Yiddish language) of answering a question with a question. In that case, our reply might be simply, “Who is an American?” For the purposes of the Milken Archive, an American composer is simply:

  • one who is a citizen by virtue of American birth (assuming at least some significant period of whose musically formative or creative years have been spent in America);
  • a naturalized, foreign-born, resettled composer (émigré);
  • one who sojourned and worked in America (with or without formal naturalization status) for some meaningful time, so that one may speak of that composer’s “American period” in terms of presumed American cultural impact, environmental influence, and interactions with aspects of American experience.

Thus, although Ernest Bloch was born in Switzerland, produced important works while still in Europe, and came to America only in 1916 at the age of thirty-six (attaining citizenship in 1924)—after which he continued to compose prolifically in the new environment, and in later life returned to Europe but came back periodically to America, not least to ensure his citizenship—he is defined in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians as an American composer of Swiss origin. In his case, as with all émigré composers, we have selected only the Jewish-related works written during his American years.

Who is a Jewish Composer?

More difficult would be the question “Who is a Jewish composer?”—to which we might apply the same comedic one-liner in reply and thereby fall squarely into the trap of one of the major, highly sensitive, and politically as well as halakhically (related to Jewish law) charged Jewish issues of the day—except for the fact that the issue, the question, and any attempted answers are completely irrelevant to the Milken Archive’s purposes, procedures, and policies. Our concern is with the music—its Jewish connection, subject, or foundation, and its cultural content. The personal identification or affiliation of its composer does not matter, except as biographical information and to the extent that this information sheds light on our understanding of a particular piece.

Were a composer to be both a Jew, by the most firmly established traditional Judaic legal standards applicable in orthodoxy as well as according to the law committee of the Conservative movement (born of a Jewish mother, who was born of a Jewish mother, who was born of a Jewish mother… or a bona fide convert according to accepted procedures of Jewish law) and a committed observer of religious orthodoxy in personal life, but to have written no music in any way related to Jewish themes—or even intended as “Jewish”—none of that composer’s music would appear in the Milken Archive. Thus, one will look in vain for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—a work with no claimed Jewish connection and no derivations in perceived Jewish musical materials. (A project devoted to studying the influences on American concert music of jazz, blues, or other indigenous elements, would, on the other hand, be remiss in its omission.) We cannot attempt to analyze or study the possibility of unintended subliminal social affects of Jewish birth, environment, or affiliation on a composer’s music that is unrelated Jewishly, with a view toward inclusion. Were we to do so, someone, somewhere might try to make a case for White Christmas by European-born Irving Berlin (né Israel [Isadore] Baline), perhaps—assuming knowledge of Berlin’s Jewish birth and his circle of fellow Jews in the theatrical and popular music industries—even imagining some supposedly “Jewish melos” among its phrases. Berlin, after all, wrote some little-known, obscure songs with Yiddish words earlier in his career, as well as some popular songs in English that clearly and intentionally expressed Jewish-related sensibilities. These, in fact, are included in the Milken Archive; so is his once-ubiquitous setting of Emma Lazarus’s words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, which—although historically misleading and meant in any case to apply to other immigrants as well as to Jews—was an intentional expression of Jewish sensibilities.

Approached objectively, a serious sociological, psychological, or ethnomusicological study of these issues—including the ramifications for music, if any, of Jewish background and social circles alone—can be worthy and entirely legitimate from academic perspectives. That type of inquiry, however, simply does not fit into the Milken Archive’s objectives, nor does it lie within its present boundaries.

From the outset of this project, the Editorial Board made clear its unanimous impatience with the artificial brand of Jewish chauvinism inherent in themed concerts under such titles as “Music by Jewish Composers,” when the programmed pieces are not even claimed by their composers to have any Jewish sources or intended Jewish features, purposes, or other connections. Several board members, including myself, have even had occasion to resign from governing boards or planning committees of organizations that promote such programs. How, we asked, shall we assess the Jewish status of the included composers? Shall that board be the arbiter of an issue that, in effect, is none of its business? Why is a good piano sonata, for example, freely composed, a candidate for the program merely because its composer either is or is considered to be a Jew? And what possible end can such a concert serve? It would make sense if, and only if, one could demonstrate an operative prejudice against Jews that specifically prevented their works from being programmed in the general arena.

That was true in Germany under the National Socialist regime in the 1930s, when music not only by Jews but by those non-Jews (including baptized Christians) designated as Jews by the Nazi party was banned from public performance. In response to that exclusion (as well as to the expulsion of Jews from German orchestras, opera companies, and all other arts organizations), German Jews banded together to form Der Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland (the Jewish Culture League in Germany), at whose exclusively Jewish communal venues, and under whose auspices, Jews could perform and music by Jews could be heard—though not without certain restrictions: Jews were not permitted, for example, to perform anything, even for their own audiences, by so-called Aryan composers. Wagner was thus forbidden to Jews in that context, not the reverse.

America, however, has been free throughout its history not only from political or government interference in concert programming with respect to the Jewish origin or status of composers, but also from socially based restrictions or exclusions. Even in New York, antisemitic members of symphony boards, for example—and there were many not so long ago, accounting for the exclusion of Jewish members, except for a few of “the right kind”—did not try to prevent their conductors from programming Bloch or Copland or Milhaud or Wieniawski. Even at the height of anti-Jewish sentiment in America, antisemites enjoyed Broadway and popular music by a host of songwriters and lyricists whose Jewish backgrounds were no secret. (That Berlin’s “God Bless America” did not preempt “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a candidate for the national anthem has been ascribed to the perception or assumption that the American heartland would have been reluctant to accept a song written by a foreign-born Jew. Of course, it never came to any vote; and in any case that situation is a far cry from concert or radio programming, theatre attendance, or record sales. Nobody boycotted Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.)

But even if it were true at an earlier time in America that prejudice directly restricted or diminished performances of music by composers who happened to be Jews (as opposed to “Jewish music”)—which, apart from personal feuds or animosities, cannot be shown ever to have been the case—certainly no such circumstances exist now.

At heart, here, is the issue of tangible Jewish connection of specific music—which indeed constitutes a perfectly legitimate concert program theme. Such programs also serve to bring unknown works to public attention. They therefore have educational as well as artistic merit. Obviously, the Milken Archive hopes that its efforts will encourage such programming. At the same time, we also look forward to the time when many meritorious works of Jewish connection, having been brought to light and to the attention of music lovers through our annotated recordings, will no longer require special programming. Rather, they may become part of American concert repertoire on the basis of their artistic quality and interest, with the lines between “Jewish” and “music” eventually evaporating. That, too, is part of our mission.

The question “Who is a Jewish composer?” is irrelevant on another plane. Since it is the music and its Jewish relevance with which we are exclusively concerned, a work of Jewish connection need not necessarily be composed by a Jew. Were this project to embrace world Jewish classical music rather than be limited to the American chapter, for example, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, a work for cello and, originally, orchestra—based on that well-known Ashkenazi melody from the Yom Kippur eve service—would be among the first pieces to be included, even though Bruch was not a Jew. (So might the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn, a non-Jew and, from the age of seven, a Christian who was born to Christian parents; although, according to recent research, some uncertainty surrounds the motivation behind his work.) Although it is to be expected that the majority of Jewish-related works have been composed by Jews, some important pieces have in fact been written by non-Jewish composers out of their own personal interest in Jewish subjects and themes. We have made every effort to identify and address such music. Indeed, several of the most interesting works in the Archive are the products of non-Jewish American composers: The Gates of Justice by Dave Brubeck, Yizkor Requiem by Thomas Beveridge, and some interesting liturgical settings by Roy Harris, William Grant Still, and others.

As of the mid-1960s, Leonard Bernstein’s transparent exposition of Jewish elements and sensibilities represented an exception in terms of mainstream recognition. Yet even if we assign him a trailblazing—even a “prime mover” maverick role—the course of developments to follow reflects the impact of other, sociological forces, some of them related to the directions of sociopolitical and socioeconomic winds.

The road toward a more lasting enfranchisement of Jewish music as an acknowledged part of American high art as well as folk and popular (and to some extent religious) cultures began at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s. It has enjoyed a steady maturation and upward incline. Thus, the bulk of the Milken Archive’s classically oriented repertoire—some of which reflects earlier folk and liturgical material refracted and revitalized through artistic lenses—emanates from this period.

That this phenomenon, despite some corresponding Jewish musical productivity on a much narrower scale in England, has no real parallel companion in the Diaspora, is no chance occurrence. It is a by-product in part of some of the significant transformations in both American and American Jewish sensibilities, worldviews, and mind-sets that in many ways define the period. In environmental terms, influential interrelated currents emblematic of these three and a half decades, ebb and flow aside, have involved individual as well as collective searches for personal, spiritual, and ethnic identity, along with impulses for self-discovery (terminology not so frequently heard on the pre-1960s cultural street). Benefits have included pride in ethnic heritage and intensified curiosity, trumping earlier tendencies to downplay such differences in the name of “Americanization”; heightened awareness of public receptivity to multiple ethnic-cultural traditions; and liberalized perceptions of the nature and varietal potential of serious, cultivated concert music.

A whole array of once-insular ethnic music traditions, some by then native to America and others world-based, have become not only respectable and shared, but even fashionable. We cannot imagine the undiminished, if misnamed, “klezmer revival movement” that began in the 1970s, for example (more accurately a rejuvenation, not a revival, as that implied type of celebration band music never actually expired within firmly traditional Jewish circles)—whose exhilarating tentacles have enwrapped the non-Jewish public—as having been conceived or taking root in the 1950s. Nor could the sudden attraction to Yiddish folk and immigrant-era stage songs (nor, for that matter, anything Yiddish) on the part of post–Second World War American-born generations—and its spread beyond Jewish audiences—have been foreseen before the late 20th century. Apart from specifically Jewish traditions or aesthetics, this era also hosted the introduction to a wide American public of entirely new sounds, modes, aesthetic inclinations, and repertoires, once viewed only as exotic, from such regions and traditions as the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. (Serious American composers have been influenced by those elements, too, and have seized upon them for certain works. And Yo-Yo Ma’s highly acclaimed and widely celebrated Silk Road Journeys project could not likely have “played” Carnegie Hall at mid-century, nor would it have interested a major recording label.) Not confined to music, this post-1960s level of inclusiveness and inquisitiveness has affected serious literature as well as the popular media (film, television, etc.).

Taken together, these modulations suggest a kind of extended, richly contrapuntal American “theme and variations,” in which the counterpoint can include any number of intricately interposed voices. These voices both disclose and exemplify a voyage of progress toward a greatly increased openness of American society—a widening of its cultural doorways, an enrichment of its totality, and an erosion of segmentation that may, in the end, have strengthened rather than diluted the maintenance of individual traditions. It seems likely that this expansion of societal openness has itself been instrumental in spawning the creation of so many Jewish-related concert works in so relatively short a span of time; certainly it has provided increased opportunities for their performance—a situation not always unrelated to the impulse behind their composition.

But there are also significant, communally internal drifts to be considered. This era has witnessed a new level of interest from diverse Jewish quarters in exploring and experiencing varied elements of Jewish traditions, orientations, and practices that are often otherwise foreign to one’s family heritage: fascination with Hassidic rituals, customs, and songs, for example, even if limited to the veneer of Hassidism; the focus on Jewish life and folkways in 19th-cenutry eastern Europe (sometimes bordering on obsession and frequently historically distorted in its romanticization of the so-called shtetl, while bypassing even the existence of middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish life in that world)—something earlier American born-generations were not so eager to visit or recount; or contributions of Sephardi, Near Eastern, and other non-Ashkenazi cultures not previously on the radar screens of most American Jews.

Equally revealing about this period are developments within academia, such as the proportional and qualitative rise in Jewish-studies departments; the variety of Jewish course offerings outside such departments; and, unimaginable until recently, the spread of Yiddish-language programs. All these indicate (among other things not necessarily germane to this consideration) a sense of security and comfort with Jewish matters, endeavors, and issues played out in a public arena. Burgeoning serious Jewish musical inspiration in the same era should be understood in this context.

Finally, one must consider the post-1960s impact of modern Israel. As an inspiration for a number of American composers and as an influence on Jewish musical life in America, we cannot discount its astonishing victory in the 1967 Six-Day War—apart from any individual political commitment, attitudes, or views held then or adopted since. Reborn pride and discovery of Jewish identity in the psyches of many American Jews who might previously have been concerned neither with their Jewishness nor with Israel; newfound solidarity; and a turn to Israeli history, geography, and modern Hebrew literature for sources by a number of American composers have flowed, directly or indirectly, from that single event and the euphoria and curiosity it induced. Numerous works in the Milken Archive, as well as many more not yet recorded or included, owe their geneses to that conclusion of the war and its aftermath.

Also, the Six-Day War and its outcome was a catalyst for many of the American Jewish cultural directions to which we have already alluded. Many an initial exposure to diverse world Jewish cultures and their music occurred on visits to Israel in the years immediately following the war, even though some of those traditions could have been observed—had one been so inclined—all along in America (especially within various enclaves in New York). And it was, in turn, the postwar excitement itself that ignited a new wave of tourism that included many American Jews—composers and future composers among them—who had had no previous urge to travel to Israel. These cultural and musical discoveries eventually found their way into original works by some of America’s most gifted composers.

In its totality—whether inspired by modern or ancient Israel, whether energized by two millennia of life and lore in the Diaspora, or whether born more directly of the nurturing American experience—the proliferation of Jewish musical creativity in the United States has been stimulated by all those post-1960s phenomena.


One important part of the Archive’s educational goal is simply to expand awareness of the various constituent musical genres and repertoires. In many cases, their very existence, as well as their magnitude, will come as revelations to aficionados, professional musicians, and the general public alike. Another educational dimension concerns extramusical issues, both spawned by and underlying the music. In this we are reminded of the dictum of the celebrated folksong collector and folklorist Charles Seeger (father of folksinger and political-social activist Pete Seeger): “Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends.” While for Seeger the “larger ends” undoubtedly involved objectives along lines of populist solidarity and broadening of democratic bases, the same principle of artistic function might apply to cultural education and spiritual elevation. One might wish to adjust Seeger’s statement to read “Music is not necessarily an end in itself...”, for, of course, that which qualifies as great art need not have an identifiable, definable function or “end” in order to communicate or to commune. Yet such communication and communion might be viewed as lofty functions and purposes, in which case the argument can become largely semantic. Still, the place of virtually all music within the embrace of wide cultural and historical contexts—whether abstract high art, Gebrauchsmusik (functional music), or popular genres, or whether bespeaking high-, middle- or lowbrow aesthetics—cannot be denied; nor can the value of its study within those contexts.

Entire categories and individual pieces in this presentation—ranging from miniature gems of liturgical settings to theatrical and popular songs, and even vintage radio commercials; and from sacred and secular folk music to serious concert works and operas—can be of substantial significance for what they tell us about an array of historical, cultural, theological, and other issues within the wider contexts in which that music arose and in which its composers worked. At the same time, a particular piece can, as we search for its meaning and for other keys to its appreciation, invite our examination of its literary, religious, historical, or other extramusical foundations. And it can spark our interest in the composer’s motivations and inspirations.

To this end, our recordings are accompanied by a comprehensive written analytical and explanatory apparatus. This comprises explanatory notes; cross-cultural and interdisciplinary investigations embracing the relevant related fields of enquiry; biographical essays; ethnological, historical, and musicological interpretations; and freshly considered, newly minted translations. These have been conceived as transcending the perfunctory adjuncts often attached to commercial CD releases. As integral components of the Milken Archive, their purpose is to enable us more fully to understand the music and the composers—and their place within Jewish as well as American experience.


The music of the Milken Archive may be divided among the following broad categories:

Liturgical or sacred music: Music of prayer, worship, and religious ceremonies. This category encompasses traditional eastern European hazzanut in its American phases and guises; Western and Eastern Sephardi and other non-Ashkenazi Mediterranean and Near Eastern traditions as transplanted and reimagined in America; music of 19th- and early-20th-century American Reform worship, which relied heavily on Western European operatic, oratorio, and other classical repertoires as well as on Western hymn styles; and modern liturgical settings (some cantorially tinged to varying degrees, others freely composed without traditional cantorial stylistic reference) in a host of mid- to late-20th-century styles and harmonic languages—ranging from sophisticated artistic conceptions to miniature functional pieces with foundations in the Western classical tradition, and from prayer settings informed by indigenous American influences such as jazz, blues, and folk rock to those employing contemporary popular idioms. The bulk of this repertoire is, of course, music of the synagogue. But this liturgical category also includes music for religious home celebrations and rituals as well as public ceremonies outside the synagogue per se.

Theatrical music: This includes songs of the popular American Yiddish theatre (“Second Avenue”), Yiddish vaudeville and musical revues; Yiddish film; incidental music of the more sophisticated Yiddish art theatre as well as Hebrew- and English-language Jewish theatre; operas; oratorios, cantatas, and other unstaged musical-dramatic works; music of the dance; pageants; and music of Broadway shows based overtly on Jewish subjects or themes.

Folk music—vocal and instrumental: The vocal realm includes secular Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino folksong originating, developed, transformed, or adapted in America as part of the American experience; songs related to social and political movements; and folk-type songs created for recordings or live entertainment. The instrumental repertoire includes music of traditional eastern European wedding bands known as klezmorim (plural of klezmer, or an instrumental band musician) in their American phase, and the American continuation and development of that tradition.

Popular and commercial music: Songs written for Yiddish radio broadcasts or specifically for entertainment-oriented recordings; American popular songs on Jewish themes; nontheatrical music of popular entertainment; and musical Yiddish radio advertisements and jingles.

Classical, or so-called serious, cultivated concert music: This category comprises nearly the full gamut of forms and genres of what we call, for want of a better label, the Western classical or Kunstmusik (art music) tradition—as it has been developed in America by native-born American or émigré composers and extended into the 21st century. Included are symphonies, tone poems, instrumental suites, concertos, sonatas, various other solo pieces, chamber works (string quartets, piano trios and quintets, duos for various combinations, sextets, and works for other instrumental combinations and chamber orchestras), lieder (art songs drawing on serious poetic literature), secular choral works (i.e., intended for concert performance, whether based on religiously related or modern secular literary texts), and original, freely invented forms conceived by individual composers. (Many musical-dramatic works such as operas and oratorios would obviously fall into this category were we not to view them alternatively as part of a separate theatrical category.)

The Jewish or Judaic identity of such classically informed or oriented works can result from one or more of several preconceived properties, intentions, or other factors. A given piece may thus:

  • be based purposefully and consciously on musical materials traditionally perceived as belonging to a specifically “Jewish melos”—sacred or secular;
  • incorporate actual liturgical melodies or secular folk tunes from any one of numerous distinct geographic or cultural Jewish traditions;
  • be based on Jewish historical or biblical subjects, events, or characters, or Jewish legends or literary themes;
  • include or be founded upon Jewish texts or Jewish literature (prose, poetry, or drama);
  • incorporate specifically Jewish languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino;
  • depict in musical terms, with or without sung or spoken text, visual images of Jewish connection (landscapes in the land of Israel, for example) or scenes of Jewish religious or folk life (a Hassidic gathering, a Yemenite Jewish wedding, or daily life of Jews in an eastern European market town, or shtetl, to cite three examples);
  • express moods of Jewish life-cycle events or holy days;
  • give voice to Judaic ideas or concepts;
  • have been composed expressly for a Jewish commemoration, celebration, ceremony, or other occasion—conceived in some way to represent the nature of that occasion.


The successive time periods or eras of American Jewish musical creativity and the timelines that chart the accrual of its repertoires all trace a welcome path of political and civil noninterference—not merely with religious observance, as is so frequently boasted, but with virtually all internal cultural aspects of American Jewish life.

We may discern the roots of this positive disinterest, however, in specifically religious contexts dating to the early Colonial period. It was then that—for a while before it was advisable for Jews to worship publicly in New Amsterdam—the authorities “looked the other way” in silently permitting synagogue worship in an unmarked building whose supposedly masked function and hosted activity were nonetheless common knowledge. Not only were the rituals practiced and the liturgies pronounced, but the melodies sung and the cantillations intoned therein (as reconstructed and recorded by the Milken Archive in Volume 1 of the present series) remained the exclusive domain of that congregation. That has been the situation in all subsequent American synagogues—a policy not necessarily followed throughout Jewish history when, in certain instances, civil authorities did indeed concern themselves not only with what was said in synagogues, but with what was sung.

By the last decades of the 19th century, to branch out and encompass a plethora of orientations, that same absence of outside political pressures and restraints continued to appertain in realms of secular music and theater.

Not that the arts and entertainment in the United States have always been free of politically based intrusion (issues of morally driven social regulation aside, including those connected to personal-political advantage). During the First World War, to cite some of the most egregious (by today’s standards) instances, even in wartime, a dated sedition law was invoked—and violators actually sentenced to prison—to prevent the showing of commercial films portraying the American Revolutionary War. Depictions of British soldiers shooting at American patriots 140 years earlier, it was feared, might compromise the war effort by diminishing popular support for America’s British ally and dampening enthusiasm for military enlistment. And, of course, neither Hollywood nor Broadway has escaped politically motivated arm-twisting, although often from within managerial echelons of the industries as much as from outside. But political meddling with Jewish cultural—and specifically musical—activity has been largely unknown, except with respect to some surveillance of Communist-affiliated (perceived or real) Yiddish choruses and related musical organizations (the Jewish Workers Musical Alliance, for example). Even in those cases, neither artistic nor ethnic substance was at issue.

By contrast, we might recall the infamous government ban on Yiddish theater in the Czarist Empire in 1883 (in America, not so long afterward, Yiddish theater became an accepted part of the general theater season, announced and reviewed in the English-language press); or the politically motivated but relatively benign role of a French government department in attempting, in the mid-19th century, to establish musical order and uniformity in the French Synagogue service by instigating the sponsorship of a compilation that it hoped would become official. The American experience contains no parallel incidents. 

Apart from any such political or politically considered ramifications, the timelines and nature of the Milken Archive’s composite repertoire also tell us something about the presence or absence—at various times and among various Jewish circles—of distinctly social pressures or incentives to acculturate or “Americanize” musically, by adopting or assimilating Western features and visages. Also reflected in the Archive are stages and patterns of tensions between readiness, and even desire, to conform and the tenacity to resist. To the extent that social pressures can be cited with respect to music intended originally and primarily for Jewish audiences and mostly for Jewish performers—viz., synagogue, Yiddish theatrical and other popular folk entertainment, and secular Hebrew and Yiddish folk chorus repertoires—they would appear on balance to have been driven by conscious or subliminal internal inclinations rather than actual outside coercive social forces. The latter could sometimes be invoked as a pretense or excuse to pursue the attainment of perceived respectability by forgoing outward symbols and accoutrements of the “Old World.” But those sentiments reflected Jewish attitudes not necessarily founded in reactions from external sources.

In reality, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and much of the 20th, American society at large did not trouble itself with, nor did it much care about, what Jews sang or heard in their synagogues, ethnic theaters and concert venues, or private celebrations. Not until late in the 20th century (after the 1960s), when ethnic Jewish music traditions were discovered by non-Jewish audiences who often found them attractive and even spiritually, if not exotically, intriguing. Indeed, the Jewish music scene of the postwar era and beyond suggests a gradual and then an accelerating diminution of internally perceived or imagined outside social pressures and of self-imposed restraints. The net result has been a nearly uninterrupted incline in open espousal and sharing of Jewish musical identities.

It is in the history of American Jewish classically oriented concert works, however, that inner conflicts harbored by composers and audiences between Jewish inhibitions and feelings of sociocultural security have wrestled toward resolution in the arena of the 20th century. And it is over its broad expanse that an originally uneasy alliance between openly expressed Jewish musical identity and the more conventional aesthetic expectations of American society has relaxed—confirming that alliance on more solid footing and leading on some levels to its replacement altogether by a barrier-free artistic symbiosis.

Chronological examination of this repertoire offers valuable insights into this singularly American evolutionary phenomenon in the context of the general American cultural environment. From the period prior to the mid-1930s, probably only some of Ernest Bloch’s so-called Jewish works, along with Copland’s Vitebsk and Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, can be said to have become accepted as part of the 20th-century classical music mainstream. Other works from that period have been found and rescued from oblivion by the Milken Archive recordings and annotations. The 1930s and 1940s saw the creation of a substantial amount of Jewish-related music. Many of the chief works from those years were composed by refugees from the Third Reich and other émigrés. For the most part, they were relative rarities within the overall musical output of that period. A few achieved wider awareness on their own, especially those by composers with established or emerging international reputations. But even then, some of the Jewish works by well-known composers remained obscure; others by composers of lesser profile were quickly forgotten or ignored altogether, despite their solid quality.

During the years following the Second World War and roughly through the mid-1960s, Jewish subjects, themes, and sensibilities began to invite the increased attention of émigré as well as native-born American composers. But the enterprise, which was yet to mature, remained largely the domain of two socio-geographic groups of composers: the virtual colony of émigrés on the West Coast (for the most part in the Los Angeles area); and a perceived “Eastern Seaboard clique”—centered around the New York area and, to some extent, in New England. The latter group, which dated to the 1920s and 1930s but did not constitute an actual, cohesive school from artistic standpoints—and certainly not a socially, politically, or culturally unified fraternity or an otherwise homogeneous assemblage—continued to attract younger “members” during that period. With its noticeable if sometimes exaggerated Jewish component, coupled with its branding of “New York exclusivity”—not to mention the various degrees of leftist leanings of some (but by no means all) of its figures—it had already incurred the resentment of other composers who, as part of a supposed American music establishment, considered themselves more truly representative of American culture and art than ethnic minorities with a presence out of proportion to their place in the general population. And the most prominent Jews among the eastern-based composers, individually as well as collectively, were not immune to accusations of “control” over an “eastern establishment”—or worse: “a New York Jewish establishment.”

American Jewish classical repertoire enjoyed continued expansions and enrichment during that period, as reflected by a number of works spread throughout the volumes of the Milken Archive series. But the best of these remained exceptions in the overall scheme of contemporary American music. Quantitatively, the period still pales when considered against the numerical content of Jewish classical creativity in ensuing decades, which came nearly to approach the level of an unabated flood. This may suggest that throughout the 1950s and beyond, there still persisted an older, immigrant era–inflected inclination—or, perhaps more influentially, an astutely grasped necessity—to gain acceptance by blending into the fabric of both American music and 20th-century music in general, rather than emphasizing Jewish musical or cultural particularity.

To the extent that any such assessments have merit (and reasonable analysts may differ), reticence to broadcast Jewish identity in serious composition, and in the classical music world generally, should be understood against the relevant sociological backdrop of that time frame—specifically with respect to the arts. By contrast, numerous studies have already addressed popular entertainment in terms of 1950s Hollywood, television, Broadway, and popular song portrayals of Jews and Jewish situations, as well as the professional presence or involvement of Jews in those industries.

First, we may recall (in the absence of any scientific statistical study) that until the late 1960s at the earliest, self-affirming, avowed, or committed Jews simply did not figure in the American composers world with anywhere near the same degree of visibility or numerical prominence that they would come to do later—within or outside the academy. Moreover, at least some of the resentment born and harbored earlier still lingered from the figurative (or actual) heartlands. The well-known, almost feud-like hostility dating to the 1920s, for example, toward Copland by Howard Hansen—the politically powerful and influential Nebraskan composer, chairman of the composition department of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, a leading figure in the contemporary American music establishment, and an avid promoter of new music—was still in full force during the 1950s and 1960s. That enmity was, by most reliable accounts, not unrelated to Copland’s Jewish birth, although in all likelihood it could have been further fueled by the antagonistic combination of Copland’s association with the “New York circle” (perceived by some as under eastern Jewish control or influence), his Communist affiliations and sympathies, his unmasked homosexuality, and, not least, envy at the young New York Jew’s astounding public success. Copland, however, had probably instigated the schism long before with the youthful indiscretion of a factually unfair criticism in the press. (The hatchet was finally buried in the 1970s at a moving ceremony, organized through the intermediary efforts of composer Samuel Adler—an enthusiastically Jewish junior colleague of Hansen’s, for whom, it must be acknowledged, Hansen had great respect and admiration. Virtually unique as a composer with no enemies in any camp, Adler, on the other hand, had never been directly part of that so-called New York circle.)

The episode could easily have been indicative of parallel attitudes still lurking between and beneath the two coasts, so to speak, especially among an older generation within the American composers and conservatory worlds, which, prior to the First World War, had known virtually no Jewish presence; and which, as of the 1950s, might still have had to become used to the new degree of Jewish participation within its ranks. And the emerging pool of Jewish candidates for nonperformance-related conservatory positions across the country could still be feared as potential usurpers not only of employment and of future roles of influence, but of “American music.” It should be understandable that many younger, American-born Jewish composers would continue in that environment to maintain a low profile with regard to overt Jewish expression in their music. At the least, there was little encouragement to do otherwise, apart from occasional commissions. We cannot know, of course, whether any of those who happened not to create Jewish-related works would have wished to do so, or if their inner inclinations might have been in that direction. But if a new generation of Jewish composers was concerned at that time with achieving recognition in the general music world—and in the eyes of the concertgoing public—it was not Jewish themes or “Jewish music” for which they would have wanted to become initially known. For non-Jewish composers of the time, apart from a few rare synagogue commissions, the time had not yet arrived when some of them would be attracted on their own to the exploration of Jewish elements.

We must also take into account the overall conservative nature and high cultural aspirations of American concert audiences across the country then, including those that might have been politely accepting of occasional contemporary works outside the expected standard repertoire or mainstream programming. And we should so gauge their potential levels of receptivity to ethnic or religious Jewish emphases. All indications are that—considered both in the aggregate and with regard to those audiences with significant Jewish memberships—they would not have been quite ready for too much overt Jewish exposure in the contexts, especially, of their symphony concerts and subscription series, but also in their chamber music concerts, solo recitals, and opera fare. Even the Jewish constituencies of New York Philharmonic audiences—despite the so-called Jewish imprint on the city (though often in the most superficial ways) and the sheer size and diversity of its Jewish population—might well have considered naked Jewish references in concert works and in the concert hall better left to Jewish communal venues and auspices. About the smaller, more focused, and more adventurous audiences for new music festivals, contemporary and experimental music programs, and the like, we may be less certain.

It may be useful to recall that even as recently as the mid-1950s, for example, Meyer Levin’s play based on Anne Frank’s diary was rejected by Broadway producers because they considered it “too Jewish,” too direct, and too Judaically infused even for Broadway audiences—the New Yorkers among them as well as the flow of tourists, both of whom are necessary for commercial viability. The play that was accepted and staged in its stead (The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) was deliberately shorn of explicit Jewish particularity in favor of sanitized situations and Americanized characters (including Anne and her family), and even American brands of humor—all in order to appeal to American audiences.

It is highly doubtful that so ethnically infused a show as Fiddler on the Roof could have (or would have) been produced on Broadway in the mid-1950s, even though, for the sake of commercial appeal, it too is filled with specifically American immigrant-era humor and falsely romanticized as well as skewed, one-sided portrayals of Jewish life in the Czarist Empire. It probably would not have resonated with typical patrons of Broadway musicals, much less the wider American public, as it did only a decade later when it met with instantaneous wild enthusiasm that cut across ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Some Jewish-related or Judaically based concert works—especially those by established émigré composers or a few rising stars—did enjoy a measure of hospitality in performances geared to mainstream audiences during this pre-1970s period; but more often than not these were unsucceeded premieres. With notable exceptions in the New York opera world—Abraham Ellstein’s The Golem, for example (in Volume 16)—the themes addressed were often biblical (albeit from Judaic perspectives) rather than ethnic, folkloric, exclusively Judaic, historical, or literary. This lent an automatic air of legitimacy, a kind of cultural neutrality. In those days it could still be assumed that the Bible was familiar to any educated person. Lukas Foss’s 1953 Song of Anguish (Volume 11), drawn from Isaiah and conceived and intended by its composer as a “Jewish work,” even used the King James Bible, or the Authorized Version, rather than a Jewish translation. Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony (Symphony No.1), which dates to 1942, could easily resonate a bit later, throughout the 1950s, with those audiences that were at least open to a “new” or contemporary work by so charismatic an American composer and conductor—and one with major Broadway shows and film scores to his credit to boot. And the Bible, after all, was—is—the Bible. Christians as well as Jews were no strangers to Jeremiah and his prophecies, even if their interpretations diverged.

Bernstein’s shrewd, at the time still unusual, and, for those who could recognize it, transparent quotation and incorporation of the authentic Ashkenazi cantillation for the Book of Lamentations (which Joseph Achron had done in his 1927 violin concerto with less, if any, acknowledgment) gave the Jeremiah Symphony further attraction for those Jews conversant in traditional synagogue ritual. But even for those (Jews and non-Jews alike) without that religious experience or association, the symphony could stand on its own artistic and auditory merits. Then, too, Bernstein was a major exception in many ways to our assessments of the period—sui generis both as an American and as an American Jewish phenomenon, not only ahead of his time in several respects, but permitted and encouraged to be so. His positive but controlled flamboyance, his merited self-assuredness, and, not least, his disregard for artificial boundaries between Broadway and the classical concert hall—and the synergy he facilitated between sophisticated intellectual discourse (the Norton Lectures at Harvard, for example) and popular public presentation (the famous Young People’s Concerts)—enabled him to sustain the excitement of both worlds.

A piece such as Paul Schoenfield’s Klezmer Rondos, however—an orchestral work with a virtuoso flute solo, a tenor who sings in Yiddish, and an overall ethos drawn from idioms, melodic fragments, and inflections of the eastern European Jewish wedding band musicians known as klezmorim—probably could not and would not have been programmed for any classical music audience in the 1950s or even early 1960s. Its peculiarly eastern European melos and musical folk references, engaging and entrancing as they are and would later come to be perceived, would have been utterly foreign to the non-Jews among those audiences, at a time when “foreign” was not necessarily an inviting attribute—to say nothing of a language that many otherwise highly educated listeners might not even have realized is indeed a fully matured language with cultures and literatures of its own. Moreover, many a typical Jewish patron of symphony concerts at that time might have been embarrassed by the work’s naked evocation of unmodernized Old World folkways and sensibilities that they preferred not to perpetuate, much less to advertise.

These were not necessarily the same Jews as those whose wedding celebrations, in their own milieus, featured American versions of the klezmorim instead of the uptown American dance bands and fashionable party music of the day. Two or three decades later it would not be difficult to find committed adherents of Western high culture, avid classical music followers, and professional classical performers who could nonetheless savor the exotic, emotional, and, if sometimes manufactured, nostalgic aspects of that one part of European Jewish heritage—a part that even their ancestors might not have experienced. Entire new audiences for Schoenfield and many others who have written works drawing on musical traditions of the klezmorim (Osvaldo Golijov and Robert Starer, to name a few) would emerge.

Another example of the relevant tenor of the times may be found in the nature of syndicated Jewish broadcasts such as The Eternal Light (NBC) and Lamp Unto My Feet (CBS) as they continued to be aired throughout this period. Cosponsored and commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary and—completely unlike Yiddish radio programming for immigrant and immigrant-era audiences—targeted at non-Jewish as well as Jewish audiences in the so-called “hinterlands” beyond New York, those programs indicate something of the degree to which Jewish content was thought digestible by the general public—including those with little if any direct knowledge of Jews or Judaism. Their preoccupation with Jewish respectability might have its parallels in the way in which contemporaneous composers chose—or chose not—to address Jewish themes in concert music.

Those broadcasts included discussions with such highly recognizable music personalities as Metropolitan Opera stars Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker—the latter also a serious hazzan and both known in the Jewish world as much for their Jewish folk, cantorial, and theatrical repertoire as for their sensational international operatic careers. But virtuoso eastern European hazzanut in all its Old World glory was played down, muted, or avoided—as was Yiddish culture. Synagogue music could be featured, but only in dignified presentation to which outlying audiences could, so it was assumed, relate. There was little reflection of the aesthetics or atmosphere in typical orthodox synagogues, which might have come across as lacking in decorum, disorganized, unreserved, overly ebullient, or entertaining, and thus inconsistent with perceptions of American religious worship.

There were even specially commissioned short operas on Jewish legends or stories within those broadcasts (Abraham Ellstein’s The Thief and the Hangman, for example, or Ezra Laderman’s And David Wept). But writers and producers were careful to portray Jewish characters and situations in a favorable light. In David Amram’s The Final Ingredient, when a concentration camp inmate is murdered by German guards, his body and blood become the centerpiece for a Passover seder—co-opting, of course, Christian perspectives and referring in the libretto (without explicit identification) to the taking of Holy Communion. No one among Jewish circles, not even from Jewish Theological Seminary quarters, seemed to notice or object. One wonders whether the symbolism was even grasped.

Every effort was made in those programs to depict contemporary Jews as well as American Judaism as fully American. Immigrant and immigrant-era humor was avoided or sanitized. Universal values were emphasized. The music would not have included authentic so-called “klezmer bands” (though that phrase did not exist then, nor was the noun klezmer—a band musician—used as an adjective). The boisterous exuberance of these bands might have come across as common. Announcers with traces of Yiddish accents or inflections were rejected in favor of “dignified,” deep baritone voices thought to be more quintessentially American. And the unspoken rule was the exclusion of anything that might inadvertently risk “reflecting badly on Jews or Judaism”—an echoed admonition left over from earlier decades. No opprobrium should be attached to any of these policies or restrictions. The goals were worthy, the programs enlightening, and the sentiments lofty. They were, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews” (gut far yidn) as well as good for ecumenical relations. Only now, in retrospect, do they appear dated, some of their style even eerily antiquated. But they, like much Jewish concert music of those days, were products of their time.

What about Hebrew language, liturgy, and Judaic theological explorations for the classical music world of the 1950s? Did even a Bernstein have to wait until the following decade to expose general audiences to those manifestly and intensely Jewish concerns? Had he composed his 1963 Kaddish, Symphony No. 3—arguably his best-known symphonic work—a decade earlier, would it have had the same reception? With its basis in the Judaic doxology known as kaddish, performed in its original Aramaic and Hebrew, and its Hassidic source, could so revolutionary an endeavor have captured and maintained the attention of the broad classical music world, as it did only a bit later in an already different cultural climate? Would it even have been considered by symphony orchestras, conductors, and other arts planners across the country? Perhaps not, even given Bernstein’s uninterrupted rise to superstardom. On the other hand, would it have accelerated the path to general reception of, and enthusiasm for, such works of Judaic relevance? Was it his daring even in the early 1960s that was instrumental in paving the way for that reception, thus encouraging many other composers? These questions cannot be answered definitively, any more than the recurring question that once plagued (or intrigued?) graduate history students on Ph.D. examinations: Did the times make the man, or did the man and his vision make the times [Napoleon, Freud, Marx, Lenin, Herzl, or Jefferson]?

The entire curve of American Jewish music culture and its interactions with its environment is itself a lesson in Jewish history, for it mirrors the not always untroubled path of American Jewry from its modest beginnings to its present place in American society: from tolerance to refuge, from hospitality to accommodation, from self-sufficient outsider to participating insider, from alliance to partnership, and, ultimately, to a Diaspora home.



Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.

{{msToTime(currentPosition)}} / {{msToTime(duration)}}