SYMPHONIC MUSIC OF JEWISH EXPERIENCE

Part 1: Concertos

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko

"How strange that my Jewish students occupy themselves so little with their own native music."

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 1902

For centuries, Jewish life in Europe was primarily lived separately from the majority population. As emancipation and the Haskala led Jews toward increased participation in general society, the need to demonstrate that Jewish culture was—or could be—on par with European culture became more pronounced.

The turn of the twentieth century, with the Zionist movement in full swing and nationalistic fervor all over Europe, was a particularly influential time for this. Composers, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists were trekking into remote regions to document folk music traditions thought to be on the verge of extinction. And a group of accomplished Jewish musicians at the St. Petersburg Conservatory were encouraged by their teacher, the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, to utilze Jewish folk music in their compositions. “How strange that my Jewish students occupy themselves so little with their own native music,” the composer remarked upon hearing one of his students’ arrangements of a Jewish folk tune. “Jewish music exists; it is wonderful music, and it awaits its Glinka” (see Loeffler 2010:106).

All of which compelled many (non-Jews as well as Jews) to wonder: could Jews, like Germans, Russians, or Italians, have an identifiable “national” music based on Jewish folk music traditions? One answer to that question came in the form of the Society For Jewish Folk Music, an organization formed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s students that dedicated itself both to preserving Europe’s Jewish folk culture, and to making it the basis of a common, national Jewish culture. Much of the music composed by Jews during this period—and since—can be viewed as a kind of response this question.

This multipart exhibit explores how composers have addressed this question within the realm of symphonic music: symphonies, concertos, tone poems, and other primarily instrumental works for orchestra. Though the repertoire appears in the Milken Archive in multiple thematic volumes, it is considered here in the context of form to provide a more general look at how composers have dealt with specific forms vis-à-vis Jewish music. The exhibit begins with a look at ten concertos by nine different composers. Each offers a unique listening experience, as well as a range of views on the composition of Jewish related music.


*Where available, details concerning a work’s composition and premiere have been provided.

 

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Te'amim

Violin Concerto No. 1


Joseph Achron
Composed: 1925
Premiere: Boston, 1927; Joseph Achron, violin; Sergei Kousevitsky, conductor.

Composed in 1925, Achron’s Violin Concerto No. 1 combines two rather disparate sources. The first movement is based on te’amim, musical motifs drawn from the Ashkenazi tradition of chanting the Torah. The second movement incorporates two Yemenite Jewish folk songs. Achron subjects the themes to extensive development, which he explained in the program notes to the 1927 premiere:

The themes [in the first movement] are fifteen in number, some being many measures in length; others, only a few. Certain themes, appearing at first in the full embodiment, are later reduced to skeleton form. Others, on the contrary, are presented in the beginning briefly and are afterwards carried to florid completion.

He described the second movement more succinctly, referring to his treatment of the Yemenite folk tunes as “jugglery.” It is the first known concerto to be based on te’amim. For that matter, it also likely the first to utilize Yemenite Jewish folk music.

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Joseph Achron

Violin Fantasy: Nusḥaoth
“Concerto of the Cantillations”


Sholom Secunda
Composed: Date Unknown
Premiere (recording): Berlin, 2000; Elmar Oliveira, violin; Gerard Schwarz, conductor.

Precisely when Sholom Secunda composed his Fantasy in C Minor for Violin and Orchestra: “Nusḥa’ot” is uncertain. The piece was never published and no references to it are contained in any available documentation. What is known is that it contains many similarities to his String Quartet in C Minor from 1948—much of the melodic material and the which it is manipulated is taken directly from the quartet’s final movement. The piece reminds that, although Secunda will always be associated primarily with the Yiddish theater, the Juilliard-trained composer who once snubbed George Gershwin, also aspired to break into the classical world. 

Secunda Sholom
Sholom Secunda

Romancing the Folk

K’li Zemer


Robert Starer
Composed: 1988
Premiere: Hudson Valley, New York, 1988; Leon Botstein, conductor; Peter Alexander, clarinet.

Robert Starer’s K’li zemer is a vehicle for virtuoso clarinet performance in four movements that draws on some of the scales and motifs of Eastern European Jewish folk music. Its title references the Hebrew term for musical instruments (lit. vessels of song) from which the Yiddish term for musician and, since the 1970s, the musical genre klezmer, are derived. The work was commissioned by Giora Feidman, an early pioneer in the revitalization of Eastern European Jewish folk music.

Concerto for Viola and Orchestra


Paul Schoenfield
Composed: 1988
Premiere: Cleveland, 1988; Robert Vernon, viola.

The lyrical and dancelike quality of Concerto for Viola and Orchestra reflects some of the music to which Schoenfield was exposed in Israel, where he completed a portion of the work. Frequent comparisons to Gershwin and Bartok highlight the way in which Paul Schoenfield has crafted a unique musical language from American and Jewish sources, yet fail to describe just how singular and instantly identifiable that voice is. Writing for the New York Philharmonic in 1995, Bernhard Jacobson described Schoenfield as “. . . a composer unlikely, for more than a measure or two, to be confused with any other.” The concerto was commissioned by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra for its violist, Robert Vernon, a childhood friend of the composer’s.

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Paul Schoenfield

Joseph Achron


"The manner in which the themes are handled may be described as jugglery."

Joseph Achron

Dialogues

Klezmer Rondos


Paul Schoenfield
Composed: 1995
Premiere: New York, 1995; Zdenek Macal, conductor; Jeanne Baxtresser, flute; Alberto Mizrahi, tenor.

Klezmer Rondos began its life as a chamber work for flutist Carol Wincenc in 1989 and was later arranged for orchestra for a New York Philharmonic concert featuring its flutist, Jeanne Baxtresser. That concert marked the Lincoln Center debut of Alberto Mizrahi, who is featured on this recording and has recorded extensively for the Milken Archive. The composer made his own Lincoln Center debut more than three decades prior as a pianist at one of the famous Young People’s Concerts, performing excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The pairing of the instrument soloist and the singer is drawn from the Eastern European Jewish tradition of the badkhn, or wedding jester.

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Paul Schoenfield. Milken Archive recording session.

Celestial Dialogues


Ofer Ben-Amots
Composed: 1994
Premiere: Hamburg, 1994; Giora Feidman, clarinet; Misha Alexandrovitch, tenor.

With Celestial Dialogues, Ofer Ben-Amots places the sacred/secular dichotomy into brief repose, juxtaposing a klezmer clarinet with cantorial vocal passages from Ashkenazi liturgical ritual. Over six movements, the piece builds a tension between song and dance—both important aspects of Jewish religious experience—that resolves in a final prayer. Commenting on the work nearly twenty-five years after its creation, the composer remarked:

“Usually, in real life, they never meet. The one is in the synagogue, the other one is in the wedding hall. But on stage, you can make them meet.”

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Ofer Ben-Amots


“. . . a composer unlikely, for more than a measure or two, to be confused with any other.”

—Bernhard Jacobson (on Paul Schoenfield), 1995

Biblical Inspiration

Piano Concerto in C Major


Jacob Weinberg
Composed: 1947
Premiere: New York, 1947; Lotte Landau, piano; Siegfried Landau, conductor

If religious and folk traditions are, in theory, diametrically opposed, in practice composers have generally not minded putting them together. In this concerto, Jacob Weinberg has drawn on two liturgical melodies associated with Yom Kippur, and the Zionist folk song Artze Aleinu. It is also possible to read this combination symbolically, as Neil W. Levin has done, as a “reforged tether between ancient and modern Israel,” and as a bridge between religious and secular notions of Jewish identity.

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Jacob Weinberg

Concerto for Cello


Frederick Jacobi
Composed: 1932
Premiere: Paris, 1933; Diran Alexanian, cello; Alfred Cortot, conductor

Frederick Jacobi began working on Concerto for Cello (On the Psalms) shortly after completing his Sabbath Evening Service for New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Its solemn, meditative quality is underscored by its grounding in the Book of Psalms. Jacobi prefaced each movement with a quotation from Psalms 90, 91, and 92. Though he is virtually unknown today, Jacobi was among the top American composers of his time.

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Frederick Jacobi was a Saxophonist in the U.S. Army Band.

Violin Concerto No. 2: I profeti


Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Composed: 1933
Premiere: New York, 1933; Jascha Heifetz, violin; Auturo Toscanini, conductor.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Violin Concerto No. 2 “The Prophets” is among his earliest compositions dealing with Jewish subject matter, drawing inspiration from both the Bible and traditional Italian Jewish melodies published by Federico Consolo in the 1892 book Sefer Shirei Yisrael—Libro Dei Canti D’Israele. Jascha Heifetz commissioned the work after performing the Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s first violin concerto.

Jascha Heifetz
Jascha Heifetz

Kaddish for Cello and Orchestra


David Diamond
Composed: 1989
Premiere: Unknown

David Diamond’s Kaddish for Cello and Orchestra, represents the fulfillment of the composer's long-time wish to write a piece inspired by the kaddish text. It mirrors a synagogue context by placing the cello in the role of the cantor and the orchestra in the role of the (responsorial) congregation. This recording features the great Janos Starker and the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Gerard Schwarz.

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Janos Starker (Photo: Sam Falk, New York Times)

 

Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

Violin Concerto No. 1
Violin Fantasy: Nuskaoth
K'li zemer
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Klezmer Rondos
Celestial Dialogues
Piano Concerto in C Major
Concerto for Cello
Violin Concerto No. 2: I Profetti
Kaddish for Cello and Orchestra

Featured Composers:

Joseph Achron
Sholom Secunda
Robert Starer
Paul Schoenfield
Ofer Ben-Amots
Jacob Weinberg
Frederick Jacobi
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
David Diamond

Credits

Liner notes by Neil W. Levin 
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko

Images:
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Achron - Wikimedia Commons
Jascha Heifetz - Wikimedia Commons
Janos Starker - New York Times

References

 Loeffler, James. 2010. The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut.


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The playlist below includes selected tracks from the works featured in this exhibit. Much more is available on our Spotify Channel.