Solo and Ensemble Music of Jewish Spirit

History of Jewish Chamber Music in America

Part 1

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko

These musicians really played as a group in a way I’d never experienced before. There was a different sense of time. Everyone was tuned in to each other; there was a give and take.

—Billy Childs

This is part one of a multi-part exhibit on the history of Jewish Chamber music in America.

Part 2: From Jerusalem to Odessa 

Over the course of history humans have created a staggering diversity of musical practices. We’ve created music to accompany major events in the cycle of life, to set the tone for religious services, to enlighten and entertain people in concert halls and coffee houses, and to mobilize people in service of a cause. 

Musical changes within a given culture or society often occur in concert with changes in the surrounding environment. Chamber music—the theme of the Milken Archive’s Volume 10—arose in Central and Western Europe along with the rise of the bourgeois class and technological advances that facilitated the printing and dissemination of sheet music. Specifically “Jewish” chamber music emerged in conjunction with the Zionist movement at the turn of the 20th century and has kept pace with the artistic movements and developments that have occurred in the time since.

Chamber music is broadly defined as music for small ensembles performed in private or public for relatively small audiences. And though there are precedents that fit this description dating back several centuries (not to mention myriad other traditions that certainly fit this description), our current Western understanding of the genre became solidified in the 19th century.

In previous eras chamber music, like most formally composed music, owed its existence to the court patronage system. As the court composer for the Esterházy family, Franz Joseph Haydn composed prolifically according to his employer’s demands. Indeed, one clause in his contract states, “Whenever His Princely Highness commands, the vice-Kapellmeister is obligated to compose such works of music as His Highness may demand.” Haydn is known for composing more than 100 symphonies, most of them for the Esterházy court. But Esterházy was also a musician and demanded a great deal of chamber music he could play himself. Haydn delivered, and in the process helped develop this important musical medium.

As composers’ ties to aristocratic courts loosened, educated and socially conscious members of the middle classes began playing music and hosting small concerts in their homes, creating a demand for music suitable to that more intimate context. As commercial concerts became more commonplace, listening to professionally performed chamber music became an equally important social activity.

The demand for such music prompted composers to create more of it. But the smaller size of the ensemble also unlocked new creative possibilities. Composers could write more complex music, could exploit the unique properties of each instrument, and could play with the way the different instrument parts interacted with each other. Chamber music thus came to be considered one of the highest forms of musical expression and the medium through which many composers created their most advanced work.

It’s a medium that continues to inspire. Upon his first experience working with a chamber ensemble, the contemporary jazz composer and musician Billy Childs recalled, "These musicians really played as a group in a way I’d never experienced before. There was a different sense of time. Everyone was tuned in to each other; there was a give and take."

The chamber works included in Intimate Voices span from the early 20th century to the early 21st and illustrate a broad range of approaches to Jewish music. But the mere fact of its existence is due to a prominent but relatively short-lived organization that sprang up in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century.

V10 Full ArtIntimate Voices by Ralph Gilbert.

The Society for Jewish Folk Music

Also known under various translations of its name (German, Russian, Yiddish), the Society for Jewish Folk Music was an organization formed by an ambitious and inspired group of composers, musicians, and scholars who sought to redefine Jewish music on “national” terms. Inspired by the groundbreaking folklore collecting undertaken by Sha’ul Ginsburg and Peysekh Marek, and encouraged by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a cadre of young Russian Jewish musicians affiliated with the St. Petersburg Conservatory set out to create a unified Jewish music that, like other national musics, would be based on indigenous folk traditions.

Members of the Society drew on folk songs that had been collected by the Ginsburg/Marek endeavor and used them to create arrangements and new compositions suited to the formal context of a concert hall. Through meetings and publications, they exchanged ideas and spurred a vibrant debate about the history and content of Jewish music, as well as its future development. As can be expected with such an endeavor, the Society became the site of bitter conflicts over how Jewish music should be defined. (For more on the Society for Jewish Folk Music, see James Loeffler’s brief encyclopedia entry for YIVO or read his excellent book, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire.) Debates aside, the Society was successful in spurring a streak of creativity, research, and conversation that forever changed the course of Jewish music.

Joseph Achron and Jacob Weinberg
Joseph Achron (left) and Jacob Weinberg. Two composers whose careers changed course as a result of the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

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Joseph Achron

The Most Underestimated of Modern Composers

Joseph Achron Portrait

Joseph Achron was a prominent member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and the one of the first to put its principles into practice in America. Achron was born into middle class Jewish family in Lithuania in 1886. His father was an amateur violinist and lay cantor. His younger brother became an accomplished pianist. So, it is not surprising that when Joseph began violin lessons at age five he was quickly recognized as a prodigy. The family later moved to St. Petersburg so Joseph could enroll in the conservatory and study with the famous Leopold Auer. In doing so, Achron became part of a cohort that included some of the 20th century’s most lauded violinists. 

Upon graduation Achron’s goal was to build a career as a composer and violinist within the general orbit of Russian music. But he had always harbored an interest in “Jewish” music as well. This interest grew after Achron became affiliated with the Society for Jewish Folk Music around 1911. His first composition following his joining the Society was his Hebrew Melody for violin and piano based on a theme he remembered hearing in a Warsaw synagogue in his youth.

Joseph Achron and Leopold
Photo Credit: Department of Music, Jewish National and University Library.

In step with the Society’s mission to create a “national” Jewish music, Achron became preoccupied with creating a systematic approach to Jewish music. This involved developing a harmonic and contrapuntal idiom that would be more appropriate to Jewish melodies than typical Western techniques, and using cantillation motifs as basic melodic material for large compositions. Neil W. Levin points to the appeal of this approach in his liner notes to Achron’s Children’s Suite:

As the perceived oldest layer of aggregate Judaic musical continuity, the constituent motifs (ta’amei hamikra) of the variant regional cantillation systems, traditions, and rites provided an inherently Jewish thematic framework and a means of rooting particular works in an authentic oral tradition.

World War I and the Russian Revolution affected much of the Society’s work and catalyzed a splintering that was already in progress among some of its chapters. Achron served in the Russian Imperial Army during the war and then moved to Berlin in 1922. There, in addition to working with the Habima theater company, he was involved in an unsuccessful effort to establish a Berlin branch of the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

It was the year after Achron arrived in Berlin that he first composed Children’s Suite. Initially written as a solo piano work, the suite consists of twenty short character pieces that depict childhood scenes. After a brief sojourn in Jewish Palestine, Achron immigrated to America in 1925, and in the same year arranged several of the suite’s movements for a performance by a newly formed chamber group called the Stringwood Ensemble.

Organized in the previous year, the Stringwood Ensemble was a sextet consisting of clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano. Among their ranks were some of New York’s finest musicians of the day, including members of the New York Philharmonic. They were known for their exceptional skill, but also for playing works of Jewish orientation and contemporary compositions alongside standard repertoire. The ensemble premiered Children’s Suite at Aeolian Hall on November 7, 1925 on a program that included works by Brahms, Dvorak, and Tanayev. (Interesting aside: the Stringwood Ensemble was featured the following year on the Jewish Daily Forward’s first ever radio program on WNYC.)

During Achron’s nine-year stint in New York he wrote several scores of incidental music for productions at Maurice Schwarz’s Yiddish Art Theater, building on his Berlin experiences with Habima and the Teatron Eretz Israeli. Among the plays for which he wrote music were Goldfaden’s The Tenth Commandment, Leivick’s The Golem, Sholom Asch’s The Witch of Castille, and two by Sholom Aleichem: Kiddush hashem and Stempenyu. 

The Golem Achron
Joseph Achron (right) with the cast of The Golem (Photo Credit: Department of Music, Jewish National and University Library)

In Stempenyu, the main character is a Paganini-like virtuoso violinist in the mold of a klezmer who mesmerizes his audiences with electrifying playing and evocative displays of emotion. As an incidental theatrical score, Stempenyu was not entirely successful, so Achron salvaged the music by reworking parts of the score as a concert suite for violin and piano titled Stempenyu Suite. It was premiered by Joseph Szigeti in 1931 and later programmed by Jascha Heifetz. The first movement, “Stempenyu Plays,” represents Stempenyu’s virtuoso gifts; the second and third movements refer to two popular celebratory dances at traditional eastern European Jewish weddings: the sher and the freylekh.

Joseph Achron is one of the most underestimated of modern composers. ”

—Arnold Schoenberg

After moving to Los Angeles in 1934, Achron fell in with the crowd of famous émigré composers (among them Arnold Schoenberg, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Ernst Toch) that had taken refuge from Europe’s theater of war. He continued to compose and perform, including premiering his second and third violin concertos with Otto Klemperer and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Achrom KlempererJoseph Achron with Otto Klemperer (Photo Credit: Department of Music, Jewish National and University Library)

Wind Sextet: “Cantillations” comes from Achron’s Los Angeles period, a time when he was increasingly experimenting with modern compositional techniques such as those advanced by Schoenberg. This sextet, however, is more akin to his earlier work and shows shades of his interest in French Impressionism. The subtitle refers to the fact that he has drawn on a host of cantillation motifs to build the melodic design.

Though Achron enjoyed a successful career in Los Angeles, he was undoubtedly overshadowed by all the talent that surrounded him. Arnold Schoenberg is said to have frequently commented that Achron was “one of the most underestimated of modern composers.”

The String Quartets

Weinberg – Secunda – Milhaud – Zorn – Schoenfield

The career of Jacob Weinberg contains many parallels with that of Joseph Achron. He was born into an affluent family and exposed to music at an early age. And he followed a similar path to America, first working in multiple locations in Europe, followed by a brief stay in Jewish Palestine. 

Born in Odessa, Weinberg also showed musical promise at a young age. But he was encouraged to pursue a more conventional educational and career path. After studying business and working for a short time as a bank clerk, Weinberg’s passion for music took him to Moscow, where enrolled at the conservatory to study piano and also pursued a degree in law. Around the same time, he began to compose.

Later, after travelling Europe and building a reputation as a virtuoso pianist, Weinberg returned to Moscow to teach and became involved with the Society for Jewish Folk Music, whose Moscow branch was officially established in 1913. “There began my interest in things Jewish,” he later remarked. “I became very much absorbed in Jewish music, and I began to collect and study Jewish folksongs. A new, great, and practically unexplored vista was opening before me.” He had, up to that point, evinced little interest in Jewish culture.

Weinberg returned to Odessa in 1916 to teach at the Imperial Conservatory. With Bolshevism on the rise and the fallout from the civil war, he moved to Jewish Palestine in 1921 and resumed contact with Joel Engel, who had been the first of the Society’s members to become deeply involved in the collection and study of Jewish folk music.

weinberg jacob 1
Composer Jacob Weinberg

Weinberg immigrated to the United States in 1926 and became active in New York’s Jewish music world. Though there was no official Society for Jewish Folk Music in the United States, Weinberg continued to carry out the group’s mission by presenting concerts, lectures, and organizing Jewish arts festivals. He was also involved with two organizations that had formed in the Society’s wake: the Jewish Music Forum and the America-Israel Musical Association (MAILAMM).

Weinberg’s String Quartet (op. 55), which was composed in 1952, draws on melodies from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy and from Hasidic tunes.

I became very much absorbed in Jewish music, and I began to collect and study Jewish folksongs. ”

The first movement is built partly upon the traditional melody associated with the evening service (ma’ariv) on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The second movement is based on the well known Ashkenazi kol nidrei melody for the Yom Kippur evening service. The third movement was originally subtitled “Sukkot.” However, as Neil W. Levin deftly explains in his liner notes to this piece, Weinberg had mistakenly construed a Hasidic tune associated with Shmini Atzeret as Sukkot tune, since the two holidays are more or less fused in Israel, where he first heard the melody. These motifs eventually become interlaced with recapitulations and echoes of the opening phrase of the kol nidrei melody as the piece begins to draw to a close.

Sholom Secunda

String Quartet in C Minor

Say the name Sholom Secunda and the melody for Bay mir bistu sheyn will likely spring to mind well before the notion of a string quartet. But despite the fact that he made (and gave away) his fortune in the Yiddish theater, Secunda was a versatile composer and had a vast knowledge of Jewish music. His String Quartet in C Minor illustrates this, while also offering an opportunity to look more closely at the raw materials of Jewish art music. 

Like Achron and Weinberg, Secunda was an exceptional child. His latent musical ability was discovered when he began attending chedar in the Kherson region of the Ukraine, where he was born. He was recruited as a synagogue chorister and soloist and soon after became a famous child cantor. When his family wanted to immigrate to America but couldn’t afford the cost, their tickets were paid for by an artist manager who recouped his expense from Secunda’s performance earnings in the U.S. 

Secunda boy cantorSholom Secunda as a young cantor.

Though this quartet represents a certain synergy with the aims of Society for Jewish Folk Music, Secunda was not involved with their work. By the time any faction of the Society had arrived in America, Secunda had graduated from Juilliard (then called the Institute of Musical Art) and established a burgeoning career in the Yiddish theater. But he also composed extensively in the realm of Jewish liturgical music and classical forms. His collaborations with cantor and opera star Richard Tucker are considered watershed moments in the history of American Jewish music.

Since composers tend to go with what they know, it only makes sense that when Secunda did work in the realm of instrumental art music he drew on his deep knowledge of Jewish liturgical music. The Quartet in C Minor features a pastiche of interwoven Jewish melodies and motifs—from High Holy Day and Three Festivals prayers to cantorial melismas and klezmer styles. In some parts it includes identifiable melodies and fragments, while in others it mimics certain styles and patterns—the nusaof Ashkenazi music more generally.

The first movement begins with a prologue that mimics the style of cantor and choir, with a descending melodic figure repeated in succession by each of the four instruments. This leads to the exploration and development of the two principal themes upon which the movement is based:

  • A well-known quasi-congregational tune for certain passages of the ḥatzi kaddish prayer in its rendition as an introduction to the musaf services specifically on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
  • One of the principal chantlike motifs of the traditional Ashkenazi rendition of kiddush for the Three Festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot).

 The figure below illustrates the main theme of the first movement.


Secunda C Minor Theme1

Above: First fragment of the main theme of the quartet’s first movement as stated by the cello. Below: the ḥatzi kaddish prayer tune as sung by a cantorial-choral ensemble, followed by the statement of the main theme from the first movement of the C Minor Quartet.


The quartet was composed at a time when Secunda was involved with a number of simultaneous ongoing projects. He was writing music for the Entertainment Bureau of America for events at Madison Square Garden, putting on shows at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, writing reviews for the Jewish Daily Forward, and lecturing. In his writings and lectures he expressed concern about waning interest in Jewish musical heritage, which was one of the factors that galvanized him to compose the piece (see Secunda, 203).

After a personal pitch to the first violinist of the NBC String Quartet (Max Hollander), the String Quartet in C Minor received its world premiere on a 1947 radio broadcast of Arturo Toscanini’s weekly Sunday program. A few subsequent broadcasts followed, but the piece more or less fell into oblivion until its discovery by the Milken Archive among Secunda’s papers and manuscripts.

Darius Milhaud

Études sur des thèmes liturgiques du Comtat Venaissin

Darius Milhaud Portrait Two

John Zorn

Kol nidre

Those familiar with John Zorn’s work know that he is one of the most prolific of composers working today. Much of that work pertains to Jewish music and occupies a significant part of his overall body of work.

Those who know of Zorn but are less familiar with the full gambit of his creative output tend to know his more controversial work—screeching saxophone solos, submerged duck calls, and lightning-fast jump-cut changes that starkly juxtapose different genres and styles.

In Jewish music circles, Zorn is most known for his Masada series: 613 short compositions that utilize an array of Jewish melodic and rhythmic devices and are meant to be interpreted and arranged for a variety of performance contexts. Those contexts can range from 3-piece punk and rock oriented bands to a range of small ensembles or solo instruments, many of which fit reasonably well into the category of chamber music—not only for the size and instrumentation of the ensemble, but also for the “classical” style in which the performances are typically executed. The recordings by the Masada String Trio or Eric Freidlander's solo cello recordings provide good examples.

If there is one aspect of Zorn’s Masada series that contradicts generally accepted notions of chamber music, it is the central role that improvisation plays. (Although, improvising chamber ensembles are becoming more common.) The Masada compositions are written in the mold of jazz lead sheets and generally realized in the same fashion. The basic tune structure is notated, but once the initial statement of the tune has been completed, the players improvise. And, as with most jazz performances, the tune is restated again at the end of the performance.

Zorn’s Kol nidre is loosely based on elements of the standard Ashkenazi rendition associated with kol nidre (all vows), one of the holiest prayers in Jewish liturgy. Recited annually on Yom Kippur, kol nidre is an early medieval legal formula in Aramaic that absolves Jews of all vows that may be made in the new year (“from this Yom Kippur until the next”) that do not affect the interests of others. That is, vows made between an individual and God, not between persons. 

In contrast to the Weinberg quartet featured above, which quotes the kol nidre melody directly, Zorn simply hints at it. However, the quartet is a through-composed work that does not call for improvisation. And therein lies an interesting point. For although the kol nidre most Ashkenazi Jews know today is a relatively fixed form, historically it was a collection of motifs that were improvised upon. Thus the following statement from Neil W. Levin’s liner notes to this piece:

The traditional kol nidre missinai melody is really a conglomerate series and assortment of loosely related, individual, and separable motifs and phrases that have acquired variants over time—and from one generation to another—rather than a precise tune in the Western sense (i.e., the Western “closed form” with a fixed beginning, middle, and conclusion, or an established order of phrases and sections). Its complexity probably reflected the structural properties of certain ornate, labyrinthine Western medieval song forms. But its free form—in which those constituent motifs can be alternated, reordered, repeated, repositioned, and even improvised in different ways, almost as a mix-and-match procedure—reflects the equally significant inherited Near Eastern influences that were operative even on the early formulation of Ashkenazi tradition. 

That the piece avoids improvisation is curious mainly because it belies a paradox. Because improvisation is so key to Zorn’s approach to composition, one might expect Zorn to find a natural synergy in the improvisatory nature of kol nidre. One can only speculate as to why Zorn chose through-composition, but perhaps it was to prevent any improvisation from straying too close to the kol nidre so many know and love, or suggesting any of the myriad performances that have become well known in recent history. 

For this piece, Zorn draws on melodic fragments, intervals, and harmonic moves without ever stating a complete theme from the kol nidre melody. Most of the linear movement occurs in parallel perfect fourths in the inner voices, suggesting the antiquity of liturgical chant. The outer voices provide a drone effect.

Paul Schoenfield

Tales from Chelm

Paul Schoenfield Portrait

For Paul Schoenfield, any perceived line that might stand between folk and art music has always been thin. For although he is a thoroughly trained classical musician, folk materials and style pervade virtually all of his work. At the same time, Schoenfield’s music is complex and intense, full of frenetic energy and dissonance.

Tales from Chelm: Four Pieces for String Quartet is a programmatic work based on the folklore associated with the Polish city of Chelm and its imaginary Jewish inhabitants. In his program notes to the piece’s 1996 premiere, Schoenfield related that it was inspired by the story collection, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer originally heard many of the tales from his mother and grandmother.

According to said folklore, Chelm is a city plagued by a reputation for stupidity and the ridiculous. Typical folktales involve asinine solutions to simple problems and overly complex calculations and lines of reasoning. One well-known story concerns a group of laborers who are constructing a building atop a hill. They must bring many large, heavy boulders up the hill by hand. More than halfway through the process, a passerby notices them struggling to carry the rocks up the steep incline and suggests that they roll them up the hill instead. Seizing on that advice, the workers proceed to carry each boulder to the bottom again so that they can avail themselves of the passerby’s advice.

The work has four movements, each of which depicts a particular event or character.

In the first movement, A Meeting of the Council of Sages, Jews have decided that they need a new synagogue. The residents all pitch in and begin digging a hole for the foundation. Working furiously, they eventually have an excavation, as well as a huge mound of earth, and they are at a loss to know what to do with it or how to dispose of it. So the council of elders is convened to find a solution. After days of deliberation, the council comes up with the solution: Dig a second hole and put the earth from the first one into the second.

The program of the second movement, A Tightrope Walker in Chelm, finds the city in the throes of a severe winter, with all the Jews suffering from debilitating colds. Their noses run incessantly, and no one can work or sleep. The wise men of Chelm come up with an ingenious solution. They string a wire high above the main square of the town and invite Veruchika, the beautiful female tightrope walker from the city of Pultusk, to perform her tightrope-walking stunts scantily clad. The townsfolk raise their heads and crane their necks to see Veruchika above the square on the tightrope, and their noses cease to drip.

The third movement, Witch Cunegunde, depicts the purported evil sorceress Cunegunde, who is said to live in the forest outside Chelm. Cunegunde is a long-standing local legend whom parents invoke as a threat to misbehaving children. This scene is a tale of unrequited love, as the witch has fallen in love with a rabbi who is impervious to her scorcery. The witch’s name has obvious but unexplained parallels with a prominent character from Voltaire’s Candide.

In the final movement, The Soldiers of Chelm, a famous rabbi from Lublin is about to arrive one morning on a visit to Chelm, following a snowstorm the previous night. Remarking on the beauty of the freshly fallen layer of pristine snow covering the ground in front of the synagogue, the people try to come up with a way to avoid having the rabbi make footprints in the snow, thus ruining its breathtaking effect. They huddle in council and arrive at a solution: A welcoming committee of four strong men will meet the rabbi at the railroad station, hoist him up into a high chair fitted with long slats, and carry him into the synagogue, so the rabbi’s feet need never touch the ground and ruin the layer of snow.

The first and last movements are rich with frenetic energy that evokes both the vigorous debates of the “wise men” and the calamitous effects of their solutions. The second movement is march-like, depicting the slow, steady pace of the tightrope walker. The third movement is slow and meditative, suggesting the sadness of Cundgunde’s unrequited love.

From Jewish Life

by Ernest Bloch

Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life is a set of three short pieces, or movements, written by the composer in 1924 for the cellist Hans Kindler. The following performance was recorded in New York City in 2013 and features cellist Julian Schwarz.

Ernest Bloch Portrait


Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

Children’s Suite
Wind Sextet
String Quartet Op. 55
String Quartet in C Minor
Études on Liturgical Themes for String Quartet
Kol nidre
Tales from Chelm
From Jewish Life

Featured Composers:

Joseph Achron
Jacob Weinberg
Sholom Secunda
Darius Milhaud
John Zorn
Paul Schoenfield
Ernest Bloch


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


Lanset, Andy. 2011. "First Jewish Daily Forward Radio Program is on WNYC." Available at:

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

Secunda, Victoria. 1982. Bei Mir Bist Du Schön: The Life of Sholom Secunda. Magic Circle Press: Weston, 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.