This is part four 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 four concerns symphonic songs.
While the majority of works for symphony orchestra are instrumental, there is a tradition of setting poetry (and other texts) to music utilizing the resources of a full orchestra dating to the middle of the nineteenth century. And though there are a number of symphonies that include voice (e.g., Bernstein's Jeremiah), the texts and vocal parts are generally not the primary focus or unifying element. Symphonic (or orchestral) songs are driven by the texts that inspired them, and the vocal parts are central to their overall structure.
*Where available, details concerning a work’s composition and premiere have been provided.
Milken Archive recording session of Robert Beaser's A Heavenly Feast