Monday 16 May 2011

Violin, voice, and Jews

In the spring of 1897, on the eve of the Russian Orthodox Easter, two Russian musicians met in an encounter that was to have impacts on classical and popular music to this day.  Vladimir Stasov, music historian and promoter of the New Russian National School of “The Five” – Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakirev, Borodin and Moussorgsky – was introduced to the Russian Jewish composer and music critic Joel Engel.  Stasov berailed Engel for abandoning his own heritage for the Slavic culture of Russian intellectuals.  “Where is your national pride in the music of your own people!” shouted Stasov.

According to Jacob Weinberg, a close friend of Engel’s, “The young Engel was overwhelmed, bewildered… [Stasov’s] words struck Engel’s imagination like lightning… this was the memorable night when Jewish art music was born.”  From that moment, Engel dedicated his life to transcribing, arranging, and promoting the musical heritage of Russian Jewry.  He inspired a group of likeminded musicians of Russian Jewish origin, who together formed the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music.”  Members of the society included the violin virtuoso Joseph Achron, composer and pedagogue Mikhael Gnessin, and a band of lesser known composers.  

The group developed a unique style that merged the melodic elements of Jewish folk and liturgical music – the music of the “klezmer” – with the rich harmonies of the late Russian romantic style. Central to this new style was the uniquely haunting timbre of voice and violin in duo. Their work was an influence on many later composers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, including Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Bloch and others.  They laid much of the foundation of modern art music written in Palestine and later Israel, as well as Israeli popular and folk music. Without their work, there would be no Klezmer revival as it is flourishing today.

The Hebrew National Style

While each of the composers of the new Hebrew national school had his own style, there are a number of clear common characteristics.  First and foremost, these composers prefered the chamber or lied format over larger symphonic forms.  True, there are a few symphonic works, but the vast majority of the works are for voice and piano, or for small string chamber groups. 

Voice and string ensembles

One of the outstanding forms of the group was the song for voice, piano and either violin or viola.  The voice-violin combination, such a favorite during the Baroque period, was virtually abandoned by the classical and romantic composers.  Aside from the two songs opus 91 by Brahms for viola, contralto and piano, the romantic composers wrote almost nothing for this ensemble; Saints Saens wrote a few songs with violin/piano accompaniment, and Donizetti wrote a couple of songs.  Schubert wrote lieder with obbligato clarinet and obbligato horn, but nothing for violin or viola.  

It is somewhat surprising, then, that these composers chose to write extensively for this combination.  No doubt the importance of the violin in Jewish folk music of the time played a deciding role in their choice.  The violin was the instrument of choice, and was almost ubiquitous, in Jewish households.  “How do you know how many men live in a house?” asked Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz.  “Count the fiddles hanging on the wall – that’s how many men there are.”

Sivan Rotem (soprano), Gilad Hildesheim (violin) and Jonathan Zak (piano), perform Hebrew Melody by Joseph Achron

The Character of Jewish Folk Melodies

The melodies of these composers – whether original or transcriptions of Jewish folk melodies – bear the earmarks that we identify with Klezmer music.  The tunes are almost universally in minor; often they are in the “gypsy minor” with two augmented seconds (the raised fourth and the raised seventh). They are often modal, and occasionally end on the dominant rather than the tonic. They often have a minor second leading to the tonic as a cadence; for example in the song “Schlof Majn Kind” (“Sleep My Child”) by Alexander Schitomirsky:

Alexander Schitomirsky, Shloff Mein Kind

Regardless mood or tempo, there is always a soulful character about the song, a character that typifies Jewish Klezmer music.  The Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem vividly describes this character in his short novel Stempenyu: “[The violin] speaks; it pours out its speech, as a Jew pours out his supplication before his God.  It weeps and begs and sighs, its voice the voice of the broken heart and the yearning of the spirit ..."

Rich Harmonies

While the melodies have the earmarks of simple Jewish Klezmer-style folk tunes, the settings have all the complexity and sophistication of late Russian romantic music.  These composers, after all, studied in the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, with teachers like Anton Rubenstein, Tanayev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others; their fellow students included Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and others.  The harmonies are rich with chromaticism and frequent softening of the tonal center.  Take, for example, the song “Hachnissini Tachat Knafech” (“Take Me Under Your Wings”) by Israel Brandmann:

Israel Brandmann, Hachnissini Tahat Knafech
Songs are almost always in Yiddish, which was the spoken language of Russian Jewry.  Most of the composers were also Zionists who sought the revival of Hebrew as a national language; so some of the songs are in Hebrew or have Hebrew translations. 

The songs

Finding sheet music for these songs is not always an easy task.  Copies are available from the libraries of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Freedman collection at the University of Pennsylvania, the YIVO Institute in New York, and at the National Library of Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Joel Engel: Er Hat Mir Fest Gelobt (He Promised Me)

Joel Engel (1869 – 1927), the catalyzer and leader of the Society, was, in fact, not one of the best of its composers.  His arrangements, while competent, lack the depth and drama of some of the other songs discussed here.

This song is a rather grim lullaby – the lyrics are about a young woman who was ditched by her fiancé for another.  “Sleep, my child, sleep peacefully.  But God will avenge, because he betrayed, and swore a false oath.”  Engel offers lyrics in Hebrew, with a Yiddish translation underneath; but, in many places, the Yiddish seems to fit the melody better than the Hebrew. 
Joel Engel, Er hat mir fest gelobt
Engel left Russia for Germany in 1922, where he established the Juwal Publishing House, the publisher of most of the Society’s works.  He immigrated to Palestine in 1924, and probably wrote this song after that date (there is no date on the publication).  His reputation preceded him, and he was greeted by the Jewish community as a giant.  He died of fever after only two years in Palestine.

Alexander Schitomirsky

Schitomirsky (1861 – 1937) studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Rimsky-Korsakov.  There he met Engel and others, and became active in the Society.  He remained in Russia, where he became a well-known conductor, pianist and teacher.
The song quoted above, “Shlof Majn Kind”, is an arrangement of a traditional lullaby.  It is one of the few songs for viola and piano (most are for violin).  The tune is the basis for a popular Israeli lullaby.

As ich volt gehat” (If I had the riches of a king) is another traditional lullaby.  “All the wealth of the Kaiser’s kingdom could not make me content… When I look at you, my beautiful sweet child, the whole world is mine.”  By contrast to these upbeat lyrics, the tune is rather lugubrious; and Schitomirsky’s setting in B flat minor, with the tempo marking “Andante Lugubre”, doesn’t add a lot of brightness.  Nonetheless, the song is quite beautiful, with the violin accompanying the singer in a low register (did he really intend viola in this song?), and liberal use of diminished triads with an added major sixth (emphasizing the augmented second).

Alexander Schitomirsky, Ach ich wolt gehat

Israel Brandmann: Hachnissini Tachat Knafech (Take me under your wing)

This is, in my opinion, the finest of the songs for this combination, by one of the most forgotten composers of the Society.  The song is for soprano, viola and piano, with lyrics from a poem by the Israeli national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik.  The poem, rich in Biblical reference, expresses the poet’s desolation and loss of faith – “They say there is love in the world,/ What is love?”  The poem is written like a prayer, addressed to God, but in the female form, expressing the ambivalence between the pure love of the sacred and carnal love.

Brandmann’s setting of the song is brilliant.  The song opens with a major seventh interval between viola and singer, giving the listener an unsettling sense of lack of tonal center.  The singer continues with a line that is built with the augmented second building blocks of the gypsy minor; yet the viola accompaniment constantly disrupts the quest for tonal resolution.

Israel Brandmann, Hachnissini tahat knafech
The song develops, through composed, with haunting harmonies, and a melodic line that melds the breaking klezmer-style mode in an impressionist context.
Israel Brandmann (1901 – 1992) was considered a superstar of the Society composers.  A graduate of the Moscow conservatory, he moved to Palestine, then to Vienna, where he was one of the founders of the Viennese affiliate of the Society.  He made a name as a violinist, composer and choir director.  In 1935 he fled the Nazis and returned to Palestine.  In Palestine, and later in Israel, he continued to compose and to teach, but his works have almost all been lost.

Other composers

Janot Roskin

Little is known about Roskin.  He was not a member of the society, though his music bears all the earmarks of the new Hebrew national style.  He was born in a village near Vitebsk, in White Russia, and emigrated to the United States in the 1930’s, where he conducted a small orchestra and choir in Indianapolis.  He died in 1946.

His songs are perhaps the most dramatic of the repertoire, with violent changes in tempo and mood, and full of dramatic effects. For example, “Dos Gebet” (The Plea), a setting of a poem by Y.L. Peretz, is an expression of extreme suffering – the suffering of the Russian Jewish community in the time of pogroms and mass exiles.  “O Lord, how long must we suffer? … Our blood cries out from the depths of the earth.”

The song opens with a fortissimo melody in the violin, that falls quickly to a dying pianissimo – a recurring motive that expresses the suffering and tragedy of the poem:

Janot Roskin, Dos Gebet
Leo Löw

Like Roskin, Leo Löw (1878 – 1960) was not a member of the Society, though his music bears the same distinctive character.  Born in Poland and a graduate of the Warsaw Conservatory, Löw emigrated to the United States in 1920, after a successful career as choirmaster and composer in Poland.  He was a prolific composer who enjoyed great popularity in the Yiddish theater and music circles of New York and other Jewish communities of the period. 
His arrangements lack the interest of most of the other composers of the group.  But they are important historically, because they form a bridge between the art music of the Russian school, and the popular music of Yiddish theater in the 1920’s and 30’s in the United States.  Many of the songs written for the Yiddish theater in New York were published in arrangements with violin obbligato, and it was composers like Löw who carried this form into the popular music of the time.

Conclusion: the influence of these songs

Beyond the intrinsic musical value of these songs is the important influence they had on future generations of composers.  The most obvious and direct influence was on Shostakovitch, who included Jewish folk motives in many of his works, on Prokofiev, who wrote the Hebrew Melodies for piano quintet and clarinet, and on Milhaud and Ernst Bloch.  Both Milhaud and Bloch sought in their music to find a new Jewish voice that would merge their enlightened world view with their musical Jewish origins. 

Many of the musicians who were members of the Society or who were directly influenced by the society emigrated to the United States, where they were active in the Yiddish theater.  Löw, Rumshisky, Rotkin, and Frugg, among others, were leaders in this world, which later grew into the world of musical comedy.  Many of the heroes of the Broadway musical had their origins in the Yiddish theater, and Broadway composers like Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) and Richard Rodgers (“Oklahoma”, “South Pacific”) grew up in the musical culture that the St. Petersburg Society preserved.  Their influence is also felt in American jazz, with Jewish jazz musicians like Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, and George Gershwin bringing the sentiment of Jewish music to the world of jazz.
Some of the composers – most notably, Joel Engel, Joachim Stutchevsky, Israel Brandmann and Solomon Rosowsky – immigrated to Palestine, and were leaders of the musical community before and after the establishment of Israel. Paradoxically, though, a new school of composers – both of folk music and of art music – was arising who sought to distance themselves from the traditional sounds of diaspora music, which they viewed as expressing melancholy, submissiveness and weakness.  These composers – themselves primarily Russian Jewish immigrants who ironically shared the same musical tradition as Engel and the others – especially eschewed the augmented second, the interval that characterizes the gypsy minor.  “Its character is depressing and sentimental,” wrote music critic and composer Menashe Ravina in 1943.  “The healthy desire to free ourselves of this sentimentalism causes many to avoid this interval.”  In fact, the Israeli folk style that eventually emerged is a fusion of these two disparate schools.


  1. Hi Yoel. Please go to the JTS Library's digital collections. There you will find the finding aid for our Brandmann collection. We have most of his scores. Eliott Kahn

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