“The entire Jewish heritage overwhelmed me, and from it was born the music...”
Part 3: Suites
This is part three of a multi-part exhibit on the Symphonic Music of Jewish Experience.
For centuries, Jewish life in Europe was primarily lived separately from the majority population. As emancipation and the Haskala (enlightenment) 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 to this question.
This multi-part 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. Part three concerns instrumental suites.
*Where available, details concerning a work’s composition and premiere have been provided.
Ernest Bloch is undoubtedly one of the most famous composers to use Jewish themes in his work. And while scholars refer to a “Jewish Cycle,” (1912–16) during which Bloch produced almost exclusively Jewish-themed works, several of his most significant Jewish-related works were produced later. Musicologist Alexander Knapp has argued that of the more than six dozen works Bloch published, more than one quarter have a Jewish connection.
Bloch has also become known for a biting statement he made concerning his approach to Jewish music. Defending his desire to musically express the “Jewish soul,” Bloch claimed:
It is not my purpose, not my desire, to attempt a ‘reconstitution’ of Jewish music or to base my works on melodies more or less authentic. I am not an archaeologist. . . . It is the Jewish soul that interests me.
Yet, as Knapp has shown, Bloch’s conception of Jewish music was far from cut-and-dried. At the very same time he was eschewing a “reconstitution of Jewish music,” Bloch was intensely studying various Jewish musical traditions and copying melodies into his personal journal to use in musical compositions. He planned to use several of them in an opera based on the biblical character, Jezabel, that never came to fruition.
Though Bloch’s interest in Jewish music came early in his career, one experience had a particularly profound effect on the composer. In April 1918, he was invited to attend a Sabbath morning service at a Hasidic community in New York. The music he heard there proved a revelation. He later wrote of the experience: “I assure you that my music seems to me a very poor little thing beside that which I heard.” Knapp assesses the event’s personal impact as cataclysmic.
The Hasidic encounter of 1918 precipitated a traumatic collision between the Bloch who yearned for the intensely observant Jewish life that he had never truly experienced, and the Bloch who lived and participated in the secular world – perhaps with some sense of guilt. (Knapp 2017a:19)
Some five years after Bloch attended the Hasidic Sabbath morning service in New York, he composed Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life. Originally a suite for violin and piano, Bloch orchestrated the work in 1939. Baal Shem is named after the founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700–60), better known by the moniker, the Baal Shem Tov (master or holder of a good name) and commonly referred to acronymically as the BESHT. Knapp’s analysis concludes that each movement of the Baal Shem suite contains “quotations from pre-existing Yiddish songs, [and]...numerous motifs and modal structures derived from Ashkenazi sacred music” (Knapp 2017b: 195).
Though Bloch had no significant connection to the city of Chicago, a festival in celebration of his 70th birthday was held there in 1950. Spanning the course of six days and involving multiple concerts and events at venues throughout the city, Bloch returned home to Agate Beach, Oregon deeply touched by the tribute and moved by the many high quality performances of his music.
The origins of Suite Hébraïque lie in a composition simply titled Five Jewish Pieces, which he wrote in tribute to the people who had organized the festival in Chicago. To compose it, he returned to the Jewish melodies and motifs he had researched while working on the Jezabel opera. And while he documented which melodies he used, he also claimed to “have absorbed them to such a point that it may be difficult for future musicologists to determine what is traditional and what is Bloch.”
“I assure you that my music seems to me a very poor little thing beside that which I heard.”
Between 1933 and 1940, the composer Herman Berlinski lived in Paris as a refugee. While there, he studied at the École Normal de Musique with Nadia Boulanger, fraternized with Le Jeune France, and wrote music for PIAT, an avant-garde Yiddish theatrical troupe comprised of fellow émigrés, mostly from Eastern Europe. When his father passed away in 1938, Berlinski was compelled to write a musical tribute for him—one that would recall his father and the family’s Polish-Russian origins. Thus was born From the World of My Father, a suite of Hasidic-inspired settings composed for chamber ensemble and featuring a new electronic instrument called the ondes martenot.
When France fell under German control, Berlinski left Paris for the United States in haste, leaving most of his musical compositions behind. Once firmly established in the U.S., Berlinski recomposed the piece in several arrangements, though none featuring the ondes martenot. The orchestral version is presented here.
Like many composers, Leon Stein was fascinated by the central role music plays in Hasidic life, as well as the exuberant and fervent energy found in much of the music that is meant to induce states of ecstasy and bring participants closer to the divine. Though Hasidim have long been a kind of “other” within Jewish culture, the notes to this work’s first recording (1954) are curious—not only for the fact that they refer to the movement in the past tense—even by the standards of the time:
Hassidism (rhapsodic pietism) was a Judaic movement particularly active in Europe during the past century. Its adherents believed in the power of music and the dance to evoke that inspired ecstasy on whose wings the spirit might soar to join its Creator.
Three Hassidic Dances uses actual Hasidic melodies, as well as original melodies that mimic Hasidic style. Stein began composing it for a conducting class in 1940 and completed it the following year. Its first recording featured the Cincinnati Symphony, conducted by Thor Johnson, and was issued on Remington Records in 1954.
Vinyl cover, 1954 (Source)
That there are several pieces bearing identical or near identical titles gives one measure of how widespread the fascination has been, even if it has generally been from a distance and characterized by a kind of selective attention. Neil W. Levin has cited such works as indicative of "American Jewry’s general attraction to the cultural and aesthetic parameters of Hassidism and Hassidic folklore, not necessarily related to theological considerations" and as "evidence of the cultural and aesthetic impact of Hassidism upon the American Jewish imagination, even among circles otherwise bordering on hostility to Hassidic orthodoxy." The example below is by the composer Abraham Ellstein, known primarily for his work in the American Yiddish theater.
Because creativity is not an infinite resource, composers often borrow from themselves. As such, music composed for dramatic or other secondary purposes often finds a second life in subsequent compositions. The three works featured here share the fact that they began their lives as a kind of background music. And though they are vastly different pieces, they share more in common than similar roots.
Their composers—Joseph Achron, Darius Milhaud, and Stephan Wolpe—hailed from vastly different origins, yet their lives followed similar trajectories and overlapped in many ways. All were born in Europe in the late nineteenth century. All were Jews. And all used their musical abilities to escape war and antisemitism.
Achron and Wolpe both spent time in Palestine before settling permanently in the U.S., wrote music for the famous Habima theatre company, and encountered a variety of world Jewish musical traditions that expanded their horizons. Achron and Milhaud were both in New York in the 1920s. Though they were probably there at different times, New York was where Milhaud first heard the jazz music that so inspired him and Achron helped establish the Jewish Music Forum and the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Musical Culture, an outgrowth of his work with the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Jewish Music Forum twice invited Stefan Wolpe to deliver lectures. On February 23, 1940, Wolpe walked into 23 West 73rd Street and prodded the audience with a challenge: “The question of Jewish music conceals the questioner. . . . the answer is needed by the unclear conscience of those who would have the clear conscience that they are Jewish composers” (Wolpe 2008: 183-4) His point was to argue against approaches to Jewish music that involved reproduction and imitation, a proposition that most certainly resonated with many in the audience.
Achron, Milhaud, and Wolpe all contributed to the field of Jewish music, and all had somewhat different ideas about how to do so. Achron and Milhaud drew on the motifs of different Jewish liturgical musics, while Wolpe extracted “intervallic constellations” and variants from folk music traditions and deployed them in a highly personal and abstracted style.
From top to bottom: Joseph Achron, Darius Milhaud, and Stefan Wolpe
While Joseph Achron was living in New York, he wrote incidental music for H. Leivick’s The Golem for a production by the Yiddish Art Theater. On the whole, the music proved too sophisticated even for the audiences at the Yiddish Art Theater, who, despite their interest in serious theater (as opposed to the lighter Second Avenue variety), preferred more inconspicuous incidental music.
For The Golem suite, Achron selected five fragments of the original incidental music and rewrote them for an atypical chamber orchestra. The movements he extracted depict the creation of the golem, its rampage, the fatigued wanderer, the dance of the phantom spirits, and the petrifying of the golem. The “golem theme” in the first movement is repeated in the last, but in exact retrograde—musically describing the creature’s disintegration into the clay from which it had come.
During Darius Milhaud’s early years in America, he collaborated on four ballet projects with important choreographers and companies. In August 1940, the fledgling Ballet Theatre (known after 1957 as American Ballet Theatre) commissioned him to compose a score for to a choreographic scenario based liberally on the life of Moses, particularly on the narrative account in Exodus in which Moses takes refuge in Midian following his flight from Egypt. Milhaud completed the score, but as the ballet company endured a series of setbacks and personnel changes the production never occurred. So, rather than let the music go unused, he reworked it as an orchestral suite titled Opus Americanum, no 2: Suite from the Ballet Moïse.
Eugene Loring's Dance Players in the 1942 production of The Man from Midian. Janet Reed as Miriam, Bobbie Howell as the mother of Moses, and Michael Kidd as Aaron.
“The question of Jewish music conceals the questioner. . . . the answer is needed by the unclear conscience of those who would have the clear conscience that they are Jewish composers.”
Julius Chajes was born in Poland and lived most of his life in Detroit. But a two-year stay in Palestine (1934–36) had a significant impact on his work, leading him to conduct extensive research and transform his style of composition. Such was the extent of this influence that one musician who frequently performed his works claimed, “His music is to Israel what Chopin’s was to Poland, de Falla’s to Spain, and Bartok’s to Hungary.”
Chajes was a great admirer of Ernest Bloch, and dabbled in several approaches to composing Jewish music. Liturgical settings and Eastern European influences figure occasionally in his work, but he most favored the Mediterranean sound he developed while in Palestine. In its depiction of Near Eastern landscapes and cultural sensibilities, Chajes’s Hebrew Suite has an almost soundtrack-like quality. Originally composed in 1939 as a chamber work for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, it was revised for orchestra in 1965.
With ten Oscar nominations over the course of his career, Walter Scharf was known primarily for his work in film. But he was a versatile composer whose output ranged from popular songs to the orchestral world. Composed in 1941 in tribute to his grandmother, the majestic The Palestine Suite was among his first concert works. It was premiered on CBS Radio in 1941 and later performed by Leopold Stokowski for a Symphony Under the Stars concert at the Hollywood Bowl. It appeared in that concert alongside works by George Antheil and Alexander Steinart.
A 2003 Obituary in the Los Angeles Times framed Scharf's composition of classical works as “his antidote to the frustrations of the movie and television industry.”
Recording liner notes by Neil W. Levin
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko
Photo Credits: Hasidic Woodcut: 'From Land to Land—Korohod (a Hasidic dance), Todros Geller / The L. M. Shteyn Farlag / National Yiddish Book Center; Ernest Bloch: photos by Ernest Bloch, courtesy of Eric B. Johnson; Joseph Achron: Department of Music, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection; Darius Milhaud: photo by Imogen Cunningham/Imogen Cunningham Trust, courtesy of Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College; Stefan Wolpe: Paul Sacher Foundation; Dance Players: photo by Fritz Henle, courtesy of the Henle Archive Trust and the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, Eugene Loring Collection.
Knapp, Alexander. 2017a. "From Geneva to New York: Radical Changes in Ernest Bloch's View of Himself as a 'Jewish Composer' during his Twenties and Thirties." In Ernest Bloch Studies, edited by A. Knapp and N. Solomon, 12-19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knapp, Alexander. 2017b. "King Solomon and the Baal Shem Tov: Traditional Elements in Bloch's Musical Representation of Two Iconic Personalities from Jewish History." In Ernest Bloch Studies, edited by A. Knapp and N. Solomon, 171-205. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Loeffler, James. 2010. The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut.
Wolpe, Stefan. 2008."What is Jewish Music?" Preface by Austin Clarkson. Contemporary Music Review, 27:2-3, 179-192.
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