Although he excelled in a number of musical genres, sacred as well as secular and classical as well as commercial, Sholom Secunda will always be remembered primarily for his illustrious association with the American Yiddish musical theater. He established himself as one of the preeminent composers and songwriters in that arena of mass popular entertainment known as Second Avenue, which flourished among Yiddish-speaking immigrant generations from the late 19th century through the 1940s.
Born in Aleksandriya, in the Kherson region of the Ukraine, the young Secunda became a coveted boy alto soloist in major synagogue choirs, and he soon gained a reputation as a brilliant wunderkind boy hazzan (cantor). Following a pogrom in Nikolayev, where his family had relocated, he emigrated to America with them in 1907 and, until his voice changed, was known in the New York area too as “the prince of the young hazzanim.” By 1913 he was engaged as a chorister in Yiddish theater productions, for which he also began writing songs. A year later he began studies at the Institute for Musical Art (now The Juilliard School), and shortly afterward, together with Solomon Shmulevitz (1868–1943), a well-established songwriter and lyricist for Yiddish theater and vaudeville, he wrote his first full-length score—Yoysher (Justice). In that same time frame, the legendary prima donna Regina Prager introduced one of his songs, Heym, zise heym (Home Sweet Home), which became his first real success. But after his studies at the Institute, his interest in classical expression remained. When he became acquainted with the music of Ernest Bloch, he was struck by the high artistic level to which Jewish music could be elevated, and he took lessons with Bloch for about a year.
After working in Yiddish theaters in Philadelphia for three years, Secunda saw his first operetta with his own orchestration, Moshka, produced in New York (Brooklyn) in 1926. As his composing for the Yiddish theater increased, he began simultaneously turning his attention to serious Yiddish poetry with a view to writing art songs. But the lure of the theater remained paramount for him in those years, along with opportunities in Yiddish radio programming and broadcasting. Between 1935 and 1937 alone, Secunda wrote scores for at least seven shows, and he also began to experiment with more serious incidental music for Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater.
In the late 1930s Secunda began a rewarding artistic association with Cantor Reuben Ticker, who subsequently became the international superstar opera tenor Richard Tucker and reigned for many years at the Metropolitan Opera House. Secunda composed and arranged a considerable amount of Hebrew liturgical music for Tucker’s cantorial services, recordings, and concerts; and Tucker became the principal advocate for Secunda’s synagogue music.
All in all, Secunda wrote more than eighty operettas, melodramas, and musical shows for the Yiddish stage, in addition to numerous independent songs. Although he claimed to have concluded his Second Avenue career after The Kosher Widow, in 1959, he was still writing for Yiddish shows in the 1960s. His final musical— produced as late as 1973, long after the thriving days of Yiddish theater had become memory—was Shver tsu zayn a yid (It’s Hard to Be a Jew), a musical version of a well-known Sholom Aleichem play that was first presented in New York in 1921. But without question, his most famous song from his entire career was—and will most certainly always remain—Bay mir bistu sheyn (In My Eyes You’re Beautiful), which he wrote for his 1932 musical comedy, M’ken lebn nor m’lost nit (One Could Really Live, but They Won’t Let You)—officially subtitled in English as I Would If I Could. The song, an instant hit in the Second Avenue milieu, was shortly thereafter catapulted onto the international scene as an overnight commercial sensation, and over the years it has generated gargantuan sums in royalties and revenues. Its recording by the Andrews Sisters, with English lyrics by Sammy Cahn that bear little relation to the original Yiddish words by Secunda’s collaborator, Jacob Jacobs (except for the four words of the title, retained in the original Yiddish), led to the ASCAP award for the most popular song of 1938. It was subsequently given further new treatments and arrangements in renditions by dozens of singers and orchestras—including Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, the Barry Sisters, Judy Garland, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and many others. The best-known “swing” version was introduced by Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, and the English version has been translated into dozens of languages. Even though it remains in many quarters only in its English or English-based version, it can still be asserted safely that Bay mir bistu sheyn is simply the world’s best-known and longest-reigning Yiddish theater song of all time—familiar among non-Jews as well as Jews, even if they are unaware of its Second Avenue origin.
From the 1960s on, Secunda accelerated his energies toward serious concert music. In addition to String Quartet in C Minor, that part of his aggregate oeuvre includes a violin concerto and an orchestral tone poem (both recorded for the first time by the Milken Archive), as well as two major cantatas: If Not Higher, on a classic story by Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz, and Yizkor—both of which were sung at live performances and on television broadcasts by Richard Tucker. Secunda made no secret of his desire to be remembered principally for those classically oriented accomplishments rather than as a Yiddish theater songwriter, and following the critical success of If Not Higher, he is said to have remarked that he hoped that this serious work might make people forget that he was the composer of Bay mir bistu sheyn. That hope, however, will probably go unfulfilled.