Overture on Hebrew Themes 08:37

Liner Notes

Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes is the offspring of an encounter between a small group of Zionist-oriented Jewish musicians committed to Jewish culture and a non-Jew who will always be counted among the major and most influential composers of the first half of the 20th century. The work, composed in New York in 1919–20, was the result of the coincidental confluence of the Russian-born New National School in Jewish Music (the movement centered originally within the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik in St. Petersburg and its branches) and an artistic inspiration that was ignited and fulfilled when a chamber ensemble of six Russian-Jewish representatives of that New National School performed in New York during Prokofiev’s years there. They were known collectively as the Zimro Ensemble and also as the Palestine Chamber Music Ensemble: ZIMRO. 

The story framed by that ensemble’s birth in 1918 and its American concerts between 1919 and 1921 en route to Palestine constitutes a fascinating but short-lived and obscure episode in the history of Jewish music in the modern era. For Zimro would offer the American public (which, at the time, included Prokofiev) its first aural glimpse of the genuine folk melos that had flourished for at least a century in the outlying regions of the Czarist Empire and an insight into the fruits of the Gesellschaft’s mission and its activities within the Russian cultural sphere.

Tracing the “founding” of an organization and identifying its prime organizer(s) are often hampered by conflicting memories (sometimes but not always self-serving) as well as by legitimate semantic issues that can cloud the difference between the conception of an idea or plan and the chronological reality of its initial implementation. The search can be complicated further by considerations of the birth of its legally or otherwise officially sanctioned existence as an entity, such as a charter or an incorporation. Although some accounts suggest that Zimro’s founder might have been its cellist, Joseph Cherniavsky (1895–1959), it is generally accepted that the ensemble was in fact organized in Russia by the Moscow-born clarinetist Simeon Bellison (1881–1953), who would become one of the most internationally renowned virtuoso exponents of his instrument.

Bellison, the son of a military-band leader, recalled in his biographical recollections that he became enamored of the clarinet at the age of four. A few years later his father gave him sufficient instruction to enable him to join the band, and by 1890 he was playing in his father’s regimental band of the artillery brigade in Smolensk—the garrison site of Napoleon’s famous victory over the Russians in 1812 and the city from which the Red Army, at enormous human cost, would later drive back the German army during the Second World War. Coincidence and the vicissitudes of travel intervened when the well-known conductor and director of the Moscow Imperial Conservatory, Vassily Ilyich Safonoff (1852–1918), was delayed or diverted in Smolensk as the result of a train wreck, and he happened to hear the young Bellison playing difficult solos and cadenzas during one of the band’s weekly concerts. Instantly impressed with the prodigy’s gifts, Safonoff took a personal interest in him and organized his entrance into the conservatory in Moscow—from which he graduated in 1903 with medals and prizes. In his adult life, Bellison was fond of quoting a Russian proverb in connection with Safanoff’s fortuitous visit: “It would be no happiness if some mishap would not be of help.”

Following his graduation from the conservatory, Bellison played with the opera and symphony orchestra of the private Moscow Art Theatre, toured simultaneously with chamber ensembles, and later was solo clarinetist at the Bolshoi Theatre. Meanwhile, he came under the sway of the burgeoning activities of the coterie of composers, other musicians, and intellectuals who had taken an interest in Jewish cultural heritage and, even before the formal foundation of the Gesellschaft in 1908, had begun to promote the development of a new Jewish national art music. As with many of those associated with or ultimately influenced by the Gesellschaft and the emerging Jewish musical consciousness, who often came from fully assimilated or Russified families, there is no evidence of Jewish observance in Bellison’s family life—religious, cultural, or national (Zionist). His future commitment to Jewish national-cultural ideals appear to have been spawned by his association with some of the Gesellschaft circle and his participation in their public presentations. His first collaboration with Joel Engel occurred in 1910, in connection with Engel’s well-documented Moscow lecture—at which Bellison performed in Alexander Krein’s Jewish Sketches for Clarinet and String Quartet, which would eventually become a staple in Zimro’s repertoire. Bellison remained active in the Moscow branch of the Gesellschaft and, after he relocated to Petrograd in 1915, in its flagship organization there.

Over the next few years Bellison’s Jewish cultural sensibilities matured into an abiding, though never parochially exclusive, involvement in the flowering Jewish musical and national renaissance, which remained of significant concern for him even after he abandoned his plans for aliya and settlement in Palestine. In 1925 he would claim, in the American Yiddish-language daily newspaper Der Forverts, that music by Jewish composers—even if it contains historically Jewish melodic material—cannot be called “Jewish Music” if it “lacks the spark of a nationalist awakening.” By that standard, of course, the entire genre of cantorial art, or any liturgical repertoire, could not be considered “Jewish music.” Yet Bellison was not alone in that perception, which sometimes informed the thinking of those who had no religious orientation or framework, and for whom the national—or “peoplehood”—dimension, reinforced by modern political Zionism, took precedence over religion in defining Jewish consciousness. It was, in a way, analogous to ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovsky’s different but equally reductionist assertion in the 1930s that Yiddish folksong could not be considered “Jewish folksong” if it did not express the aspirations of, and solidarity with, the proletariat.

After his initiation into the world of Jewish folk music and its artistic possibilities, Bellison formed a small ensemble composed of clarinet and string quartet. Known as the Moscow Quintet, it gave concerts in Russia, Lithuania, and Poland, concentrating as much as possible on the newly emerging repertoire based on the collected folk melos of Jewish life in the Czarist Empire. Because that repertoire, especially for clarinet, was still limited, Bellison began to collect Jewish folk melodies on his own, to arrange them for the quintet, and to commission other composers to develop them into bona fide artistic compositions. The quintet ceased to function with—or even before—the commencement of the Great War (as the First World War was known until it was superceded by a second one), in which Bellison, who was also a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, was wounded in action while serving in the Russian army. By the time the Bolshevik Revolution had taken hold, his Zionist sympathies and awareness had percolated to the point where he was prepared to leave Russia (the new Soviet Union) altogether for permanent settlement in Palestine.

Thus, in 1918, he gained support and sponsorship from the Gesellschaft to organize the Zimro Ensemble, to which piano was added to the combination of string quartet and clarinet. The ensemble gave its inaugural concert on January 21, 1918, in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed in Russia after the commencement of hostilities in the Great War in order to avoid the German name, which would be renamed yet again as Leningrad). The program booklet that night underscored that the ensemble was to perform only pieces that had been approved by the Gesellschaft.

By that time, Zimro’s raison d’être was no longer solely artistic or cultural, but political as well. Although its initial concerts were geared to local audiences—often including curious non-Jews—within that same year Zimro acquired a specific mission of its own: to travel eastward for a series of concerts for Zionist organizations in far eastern Russian cities, in eastern Asia and the Orient, in Alaska, and in America, with Palestine as its ultimate destination. There, with funds raised from that concert tour, Zimro intended to establish and build a “Temple of Jewish Art,” also sometimes cited in its literature as a “Jewish Temple of Art.”

The intention was to raise sufficient funds in Russia and the Far East—through concert ticket receipts, donations, and other anticipated assistance from the local Zionist committee in each city—to provide transportation to the United States. Once there, Zimro hoped that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the American Zionist Federation (AZF) would assist more directly by helping to raise funds not only for the journey to Palestine but also for the Temple of Art project. Net proceeds from concerts in America were to be deposited with the American office of the Jewish National Fund for transmission to Palestine when needed. 

Meanwhile, Zimro’s cultural-artistic aims remained indelibly linked to the overall desiderata of Jewish renaissance in all its manifestations, and the ensemble’s artistic purpose continued to center around the promotion of the music as well as the ideals of the New Jewish National School—specifically, as its prospectus stated, “to propagate Jewish folk music, artistically cultivated.”

Alongside such works, Zimro deliberately programmed chamber music from the standard Western canon (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others), as well as lesser-known works by such Russian composers as Arensky and Borodin. This was not only to balance the Jewish offerings with more familiar pieces and names but also to elevate the Jewish works to what the ensemble maintained was their rightful plane.

A third stated objective was:

to united all Jews who are active in the fields of art and literature in one common bond under the name of omanut [art], in order that they may contribute potentially to the revival of the Jewish Nation and cooperate in the development of Jewish art in Palestine. 

Zimro’s opening statement in its booklet, which was printed in English as an explanation of its goals and achievements to American readers, went on to praise “the results that can be achieved by proper propaganda of the Jewish National creation, in order to uplift the self-consciousness of the Jewish masses.”

Zimro’s members thus saw their political role as extending beyond the specific Temple of Art project to include a more general Zionist message to educated world Jewry and to contribute to an awakening of Jewish nationalist sensitivity. Even the modest proceeds from the sales of the booklet—which included favorable reports from the Zionist committees in the Russian and East Asian cities that had hosted Zimro’s concerts on its way to America—were to be deposited with the Jewish National Fund to supplement the overall fund-raising effort.

Many of the works in Zimro’s aggregate concert repertoire were written originally for ensembles that included other instruments or had larger complements; and some were originally solo vocal and choral. Bellison and others (not yet identified in all cases) rearranged and reorchestrated such pieces to suit Zimro’s special instrumentation. Collectively, its programs for the tour included Engel’s six-movement Suite No. 1, which incorporated Hassidic and other dance tunes; Alexandre Krein’s two suites, Jewish Sketches; Solomon Rosowsky’s trio, Fantastischer Tanz; Mikhail Gniessin’s [Gnesin] Variations for String Quartet on Jewish Themes; an instrumental arrangement of Moses Milner’s cantorial-choral setting of Unetane tokef, one of the central piyyutim in the High Holyday liturgy; and an instrumental setting of the kol nidre melody written especially for Zimro by S. Gurovitsch, the choirmaster at the Petrograd (and formerly the St. Petersburg) Choral Synagogue. There were solo violin pieces by Joseph Achron, Jacob Weinberg, Alexader Zhitomirsky, Efrem Zimbalist, and I. Kaplan; viola pieces by Boris Levensohn and Rosowsky; cello pieces and arrangements by Leo Zeitlin, Levensohn, Achron, and Cherniavsky (as well as Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre); solo piano pieces by Ilya Aisberg, Hirsh Kopit, Milner, and Achron; and solo clarinet pieces by Grzegorz Fitelberg (Tsu der khupe—To the Wedding), Pesakh Lvov, and Weinberg—and Taksim, a virtuoso clarinet concerto filled with pyrotechnics by “Pedoster” (Abraham Kholodenko of Berditchev, 1828–1902), a legendary klezmer composer who was active in the Ukraine and southern Russia during much of the 19th century.

The first violinist of the string quartet within the Zimro Ensemble on its tour to and in America was Jacob Mestechkin, a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory as well as a pupil in Leopold Auer’s famous class at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Odessa-born Mikhail Rosenker, who was also in Auer’s class from 1914 to 1917, originally played second violin, but he left the ensemble in 1919 before it crossed the Pacific Ocean. Jacob Mestechkin’s wife, Elfrieda Bos, became the second violinist. She was subsequently replaced by Gregory Besrodny. (Rosenker later came to the United States on his own and eventually became the associate concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic [1943–1962]. He was also concertmaster of the NBC Radio Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh and Baltimore symphonies.) Nicolas Moldavan (listed in the Zimro booklet as “K. Moldavan”) was the violist. Both he and Besrodny were graduates of the Petrograd Conservatory. The pianist, Leo [Lev] Berdichevsky, was a graduate of both the Petrograd and the Berlin conservatories. The cellist was Joseph Cherniavsky.

The Zimro Ensemble left Petrograd on March 11, 1918, to begin its tour through the Ural Mountains and across Siberia. (A copy of the travel itinerary of which Rosenker’s son, Misha, is in possession, indicates the date of departure from Petrograd as December 1917. But if Zimro’s inaugural concert occurred in Petrograd in January 1918, the departure date in that itinerary must either be an error or an earlier projected date that was changed.) Travel was especially difficult and hazardous in the midst of lingering military operations related to the Revolution and the beginnings of the civil war. “The absence of the most primitive means of communication,” wrote Cherniavsky,

quite often forced the Zimro Ensemble to travel in teplushkas [wagons for transporting cattle], and many a time they were compelled to cover long stretches of open Siberian plains with the instruments in their hands.

The list of cities, countries, and provinces in which they performed, always under Zionist auspices, is today in itself a fascinating reminiscence of the far-flung reaches into which organized Zionism had spread by that time, and it is a reminder of its truly transnational character and zealous spirit of commitment: Omsk; Tomsk; Vologda; Perm; Archangel [Archangelsk]; Yaroslav [Yaroslavl]; Vyatka; Harbin (now in the People’s Republic of China); Shanghai; Irkutsk; Yekaterinberg (where the imperial family and its retinue were murdered, as is now generally known, on Lenin’s veiled orders); Novo Nikolayevsk; Semarang; Java (for the Netherland-India Zionist Federation); Surabaya, Dutch Indies, Java; Japan; and Beriozovka—at a camp for still unrepatriated First World War Jewish prisoners of war from the former Ottoman Empire, Germany, and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The ensemble was delayed for six months in China and the Dutch Indies, awaiting permits from Washington that were required to enter the United States. Rosenker apparently remained in Shanghai, where his daughter was born in July 1919. His son, Misha, assumes that he left the ensemble at that point because of the difficulties that would have surrounded a transoceanic voyage with an infant.

Eventually the permits arrived from Washington, and by September 1919, Zimro appeared with much fanfare at the twenty-second annual convention of the American Zionist Federation in Chicago. It performed twice: first at the opening plenary session and again at an evening celebration at the Auditorium Theatre (Chicago’s principal opera house at that time), which was open to the public. Those performances turned out to be much more significant than the usual ancillary entertainment typical at such conventions. A journalist reporting on the event observed that Zimro’s music did more than anything else there to accentuate the aims and purposes of Zionism—that their distinctive sounds

spoke more eloquently than the chosen leaders in their forensic frenzy, and oratorical celebrities were eclipsed by the scintillating tones and coruscating harmonies left floating in the air. 

In contemporary terms, Zimro seems to have stolen the show. And although so large a gathering of delegates for a political cause was bound to include at least some degree of healthy debate among opposing factions over particular issues, positions, or strategies, sharing Jewish heritage through the medium of high art proved to be above any such divisions. Perhaps even more telling was a comment in the Chicago Herald Examiner—obviously made from a dispassionate stance—that “the Zimro Ensemble has been a great asset in reviving the nationalism of the Jew by appealing to his deepest sentiment.”

In most of the other cities on Zimro’s itinerary before its New York debut, its concerts were hosted not in Jewish communal venues, but in major concert halls, where the audiences included people from the concertgoing public; chamber music enthusiasts; expected Jewish supporters of the Zionist movement; and politically-nationally unaffiliated Jews whose curiosity was piqued by the opportunity to hear “Jewish folk music.” Those cities included Dayton, Ohio, where the general press remarked that “the old music of the Jewish nation was particularly well exploited with numbers more modern”; Cleveland, where the concert was introduced by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, one of the towering leaders of American Zionism; Forth Worth, Texas; and Boston, at its venerable Symphony Hall, after which The Boston Post commented that the mixed audience appeared to have been even more enthusiastic about the Jewish works than about the more familiar classical pieces.

Zimro’s New York debut took place at Carnegie Hall on November 1, 1919. The concert was presented by none other than the illustrious impresario and manager Sol Hurok. Throughout his now fabled career, Hurok was famous for his willingness to take huge risks, which included such potentially hazardous ventures as pianist Artur Rubinstein’s return to the United States in 1937 after his dismal failure there in 1906, as well as, much later, during the coldest days of the Cold War, bringing the Bolshoi Ballet to America along with other Soviet artists in the early period of the “cultural exchange”—David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Svaitoslav Richter, Leonid Kogan, and many others. Like most of Hurok’s adventures, this financial risk, an exotic, untried concert of “Jewish folk music”—a genre of which even the musically educated public, Jewish or not, had no knowledge—performed by musicians unknown in America, paid off beyond any expectations.

Carnegie Hall was packed to capacity one of the few times that season for any program. Critics for all the major newspapers and music- and arts-oriented magazines expressed uniform trilateral astonishment: at the very “discovery” of so rich yet so unknown a mine of European Jewish musical folklore, which was immediately acknowledged to have serious aesthetic value; at the sophisticated use to which the folk melodies had been put through their artistic arrangement and development; and at the high level and consummate artistry of all six members of the ensemble. If the audience had expected—perhaps understandably—typical self-taught and less polished “folk musicians,” it must have been pleasantly surprised to encounter this ensemble of conservatory-trained performers in full concert attire. For the first time in New York, secular Jewish folk-inspired and folk-derived music had been placed on an equal footing with the Western canon of chamber music. And the entire tour marked the first acceptance of any aspect of Jewish music—in this case its secular folk dimension, augmented by elements of liturgical oral tradition—by the mainstream of the serious music world in America. Matter-of-fact descriptions and reactions in so firmly rooted a part of the musical establishment as the magazine Musical America are testimony to that acceptance beyond the circumscribed milieu of folk music aficionados.

Because of New York’s centrality in both the American Jewish and the American music worlds, that evening at Carnegie Hall—even more than Zimro’s previous concerts on the tour—was a watershed event in the intertwined histories of world folk music, Jewish folk music, and the recently launched genre of cultivated Jewish art (or “classical”) music. It was New York’s introduction to the fresh legacy of the Gesellschaft and the Russian Jewish composers of the New National School in Jewish Music, about which at most a handful among the cultural intelligentsia in America had heard only vaguely.

From 21st-century perspectives, in which the existence of an eastern European Jewish folk music tradition is hardly a revelation, and in which at least a part of that tradition (though much less than one might assume) has become popularized, it may be difficult to appreciate the sheer novelty of Zimro’s programs in 1919—or its subsequent ones. Even among immigrant-generation Jews in America at that time (a large number of whom had come from urbanized communities within the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire), authenticity was almost totally lacking—especially outside the synagogue—in whatever diluted echoes of eastern European Jewish folk melos reached their ears. The exceedingly popular commercial entertainment of Second Avenue Yiddish musical theatre and vaudeville, despite naïve perceptions and admittedly delightful songs, reflected very little of genuine folk tradition beyond the most superficial trappings, relying instead on a fusion of idioms from Viennese light operetta and contemporaneously current American pop music styles, rhythms, and clichés. 

The ubiquitous wedding bands (which now would be dubbed “klezmer bands”), too, offered at most the musical veneer of the traditions of European klezmorim, preferring to capitalize on what attracted their patrons: Roumanian bulgars and other dances; invented pseudo-Russian, pseudo-Bessarabian, and so-called oriental tunes that appealed to America’s hunger for perceived exotica; and the latest hit songs from Second Avenue. Thus, many of the melodies—and much of the overall musical substance and spirit—embedded in Zimro’s repertoire of artistically fashioned arrangements and compositions did come as an eye-opening disclosure to Jews and non-Jews alike, just as that aggregate melos had been new to the Haskala-oriented Zionist audiences in Siberia and the Far East who were also removed from the heart of the Pale and thus from the actual cauldron of Jewish folk traditions and lore.

Advance notices and publicity concerning the Zimro concerts in America referred to the programs simply as “Jewish folk music.” It is therefore likely that many people came expecting to be treated to more simply rendered folk tunes in their original form—even at Carnegie Hall—rather than to a manifestly classical format. Hearing the anticipated if unfamiliar Jewish folk music clothed in the polyphonic and refined garb of cultivated art music must have come as a heightened revelation, if not as a revolutionary art form, even for those familiar with such works as Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World—in which the imprint of Czech and Moravian folk melodies is unconcealed—or with music of Russian composers who had preceded (and openly encouraged) Russian Jewish cultural nationalism by turning to their own Russian folkloristic roots. It is to the credit of the arrangers and composers of these works that, in most cases, they refrain from obscuring the basic folk material with excessive elaboration or clutter, so that the transparency of the original tunes, rhythms, or phrases is respected and preserved. That pervasive feature was not lost on the more knowledgeable critics. Apart from a lone reviewer (for a Yiddish periodical) who appears either to have misunderstood the artistic framework or to have harbored an agenda concerning Zimro’s Zionist mission, there seems to have been no hint of disappointment with the presentation and refraction of folk music through artistic prisms. 

One émigré—albeit, as it turned out, temporary—New Yorker who was intrigued by Zimro’s revelation of Jewish folk materials was the twenty-eight-year-old Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Looking back later on his introduction to Jewish folk music that year and his composition of the related work that is now no new discovery for those versed in the standard repertoire, he wrote in his autobiography,

In the autumn, the Jewish ensemble Zimro came to America. It consisted of a string quartet, a clarinetist, and pianist. All of them had been fellow pupils of mine at the Petersburg Conservatory. They had a repertoire of quite interesting Jewish music for various instrumental combinations. They asked me to write an overture for six instruments for them and gave me a notebook of Jewish melodies. At first, I didn’t want to take it because I was accustomed to using my own themes. But finally I kept it and one evening I chose a couple of nice melodies from it and began to improvise on them on the piano. I didn’t place much importance on this overture, but it was quite a success.

Simeon Bellison’s recollection is a bit different. In his telling (in his memoirs) it was Prokofiev who approached him and other Zimro members after the Carnegie Hall concert and offered to compose a “Jewish piece” for them. Having naturally gained the ensemble’s interest, Prokofiev then visited Bellison the following day at his hotel and selected two melodies from his notated collection of Jewish tunes and themes. Jewish music historian and scholar (and brilliant pianist) Jascha Nemtsov, who has written extensively on the Gesellschaft and the New National School in Jewish Music and mined pertinent archives in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, is inclined to accept Bellison’s account—in part because he thinks it unlikely that Bellison would have let that collection out of his possession even for a day. Also, Nemtsov assumes, quite logically, that the Jewish nationally and Zionist-oriented ensemble at the summit of its public acclaim would not on its own have thought to invite a non-Jewish Russian to contribute a piece—especially inasmuch as Prokofiev was still relatively unknown in America (the Chicago Opera Company’s world premiere of his now famous opera The Love for Three Oranges, for example, was two years away). In fact, as he confessed, he was experiencing a “dry spell” at the time.

Whichever account is more accurate, Prokofiev did, to Zimro’s delight, compose the piece. For it he selected two melodies or themes from Bellison’s collection: a freilakhs, a joyous instrumental dance tune that was played in Europe by klezmorim; and a Yiddish wedding song, Zayt gezunterheyt (May you stay healthy!), in which a bride, in a bittersweet moment, expresses her doleful anxiety at leaving her parents’ home for her new one with her husband.

Zimro presented the world premiere of the Overture on Hebrew Themes the following February (1920) at the Bohemian Club in New York—with Prokofiev as the guest pianist. The group repeated it, also with Prokofiev at the piano, in April of that year, at the ensemble’s second concert at Carnegie Hall. They played it again at Carnegie Hall at least twice: with their own pianist, Berdichevsky, in 1921; and in December 1920, possibly with guest pianist Lara Cherniavksy substituting for Berdichevsy (the extant printed program is unclear). Subsequently the piece was revised for larger ensembles as well. 

Although it was later reworked as an alternate version for larger ensembles, the Overture in its original form became a model for Jewishly related arrangements and new works for its original sextet instrumentation—almost, as Nemtsov suggests, a sort of “Jewish instrumentation” suitable in its coloristic possibilities and variety of timbres for a “Jewish style” as well as eminently practical. 

Although it may not be related directly to the Overture, it would be leaving the reader unfairly in suspense not to acknowledge that in fact, the Zimro Ensemble never made it to Palestine as a group. All six musicians had come to America in good faith only as part of their projected journey to their ultimate Zionist destination and as part of their dream of a Temple of Art there—which appears to have evaporated. Although the subsequent lives and careers of all six have not yet been thoroughly traced, it is clear that at least some of them succumbed individually to the musical as well as practical temptations of America—and especially New York. Indeed, the story of the Zimro members’ American years provides a transparent illustration of how quickly and how easily European Jewish musicians could become Americanized. The ensemble did not remain intact for long, and its members went their separate—and in some cases, quite different—ways. 

Jacob Mestechkin played thereafter in a number of local New York orchestras and radio station ensembles; and he taught violin both privately and at the Third Street Settlement School. He died in 1953.

Joseph Cherniavksy’s American path was rather different, and it crossed the classical music boundaries. He became attracted to the Yiddish theater as early as 1920 (having written the music for a Yiddish play himself, Moyshe der fidler), when he collaborated with Maurice Schwartz on a 1921–22 production of An-Ski’s famous play, The Dybbuk, at Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre. He also recorded a version of the score of his incidental music for that play under the title Dybbuk khasene. Afterward he went on to become intensely involved as a composer and conductor for the more popular entertainment of Second Avenue Yiddish musical theater and vaudeville. He formed an entertaining and unusual ensemble of his own, Joseph Cherniavksy’s Yiddish-American Jazz Band, sometimes called the Hassidic-American Jazz Band or the Oriental-American Syncopaters. For a while it was a popular act on the vaudeville circuit, performing in costumes of presumed or perceived Russians, Hassidim, Old World klezmorim, and even Cossacks, and including among its ranks such famous or soon-to-be famous serious klezmorim as Shloimke Beckerman, Naftule Brandwein, and Dave Tarras. Cherniavksy also operated as an impresario, manager, and booking agent in the world of Jewish popular music entertainment; and he attempted, without success, to break into Hollywood and the film industry. He died in 1959, probably without having played any of the repertoire of the Zimro Ensemble since its dissolution in 1921.

Nicolas [“K.”] Moldavan became the violist of the Coolidge and Flonzaley quartets and played in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He died in New York in 1974.

Simeon Bellison accepted a permanent position in 1920 as clarinetist with the Philharmonic Society, which was subsequently renamed the New York Philharmonic, and he held the post of principal clarinetist until 1948. In 1924, together with some Jewish colleagues, he founded the Stringwood chamber music ensemble, which had the same instrumentation as Zimro, and which functioned for five years. Part of its mission was to revive some of Zimro’s repertoire, divorced from its Zionist agenda. Bellison’s more visible and more recognized brainchild was his unusual Clarinet Ensemble, which he began in 1926 with four students and which included the entire clarinet family—from the A-flat piccolo to the contrabass clarinet. Eventually other instruments were added, but the clarinets remained the primary and most numerous element, analogous to the strings in a symphony orchestra.

According to a program from the 1937–38 season (its last), the ensemble had sixty-eight members, of which fifty-one played ten different types of clarinets. Since there was no repertoire for that unique combination, Bellison commissioned arrangements and wrote quite a few himself. After his retirement from the New York Philharmonic, he formed yet another ensemble—once again with the same instrumentation as Zimro—which played until shortly before his death, in 1953. He also wrote a novel that portrays the lives of poor and obscure musicians in Czarist Russia.

Bellison never realized his earlier aim of settling in Israel, but his music and memorabilia in effect did so in his stead. His family donated his vast collection of music manuscripts and printed music—including his many arrangements as well as compositions—together with artifacts and papers to the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, via the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. That collection is housed permanently as the Simeon Bellison Archives of the academy, where many of his instruments (including the entire clarinet family) are on permanent display. Among the music holdings are sketches and earlier manuscripts of pieces that predate the printed or published versions, and they often differ. There are also many concert programs and reviews that document musical life in Russia between 1910 and 1918.

Once Zimro ceased to function, no other ensemble was successful in taking over the advocacy in America of the New National School in Jewish Music or its repertoire. Composers who had been part of the Gesellschaft milieu in Russia and who settled in America—such as Joseph Achron, Jacob Weinberg, Solomon Rosowsky, and Lazare Saminsky—continued to develop the ideals of the Gesellschaft and the related Jewish national-cultural flowering, but they did so primarily in their own compositions or through lectures and journal articles. Apart from occasional performances in the 1930s and 1940s of a very few Gesellschaft-related pieces for smaller insular gatherings of elite Jewish music societies, and apart from a tiny handful of Yiddish art songs by Gesellschaft composers, programmed on occasion by a few learned cantors and other Jewish recitalists who addressed serious Jewish lieder, very little if any music of the type Zimro attempted to propagate remained in either the American or the American Jewish consciousness—or, for that matter, in Israeli musical awareness—and even less so in Europe. Credit must be accorded to Jascha Nemtsov for his current and ongoing series of European CD releases that reintroduce and disseminate much of this repertoire.

Despite its resounding success and enthusiastic reception within general musical and Jewish circles, the memory of Zimro’s tour receded quickly into oblivion. It is an ironic twist of Jewish cultural history that, of the repertoire Zimro promoted and offered to the public, only the one piece by a non-Jewish composer—Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes—can be said to have entered the mainstream chamber music repertoire. Oddly enough, inasmuch as its goal was to disseminate as well as expand the music and musical ideals of the New National School in Jewish Music, this work became Zimro’s most enduring direct legacy. 

In a way, Prokofiev might be said thereby to have participated indirectly in the stirrings of Jewish national sensibilities of that time. Of course we cannot know for certain whether he had any views on the subject, or what those might have been. But Zimro’s connection to Zionist aims and to the Zionist movement was fairly transparent, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Prokofiev knew of this, if only from the printed program at the Carnegie Hall debut and from press references. At the very least, therefore, in writing the Overture expressly for Zimro and participating in its concerts (regardless of who approached whom in the first place), he probably cannot be said to have borne any negative attitude toward the Zionist ideals Zimro was openly expressing.

By: Neil W. Levin



Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Length: 08:37
Genre: Chamber

Performers: Chen Halevi, Clarinet;  Jascha Nemtsov, Piano;  Vogler String Quartet

Additional Credits:

 Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes


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