Jews and Russians: The Case of Music

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

The history of the Jews in Russia, before and during the first decades after the 1917 revolution, is a complex amalgam of segregation, poverty, exclusion, persecution, and extraordinary intellectual and cultural achievement both within the confines of Jewish society and culture and also outside in the larger non-Jewish Russian world. The significance of Russian Jewry to the development of modern Russian culture, and indeed to the central elements of the modern Russian national self-image, cannot be overestimated.

It is therefore not surprising that from the very start of communism and the Soviet Union, Jews were treated as a distinct nation rather than a religious group, comparable to the Georgians or the Armenians. Jews were given status as such. Yiddish rather than Hebrew was considered the Jewish national language and under Soviet rule (until the devastating purges of the late 1940s during Stalin’s final years), the Yiddish language, and the theatre and music associated with Yiddish culture, received extensive state patronage. The supposed elevation of Jews to a national status, however, was both ambivalent and disingenuous. It was designed to blunt the allure of Zionism and Hebrew, as well as to circumvent, with a fatal embrace, the hope that under communism, anti-Semitism would disappear. The official recognition of Jewish nationality actually insured the persistence of anti-Semitism; after all, on all official documents, including passports, one’s nationality was identified. Every Jew was labeled as such.

All the composers on this program were Russian Jews by birth. The oldest is the piano virtuoso, conductor, and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose fame—particularly in the United States—was legendary. Rubinstein, who taught Tchaikovsky, also was chosen to lead the celebrated Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. His works won wide acclaim. Posterity, however, has been less kind. Despite its once enormous popularity, his “Ocean” symphony has lapsed into obscurity, together with the rest of his orchestral oeuvre. Rubinstein’s family (including his almost equally famous musician brother Nikolai) converted from Judaism when Anton was a young boy. Anton was brought up as a Christian but like so many converts, he realized that baptism was never a cure or antidote for anti-Semitism, since the prejudice was racial and political, not theological: once a Jew, always a Jew. Anton Rubinstein is alleged to have observed, “Russians say I am German, Germans think me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, and Christians say I am a Jew.”

The fact is that more of Rubinstein’s music deserves to be played, as this concerto for cello and orchestra makes clear. Rubinstein’s musical output was enormous. Much of the best music was dramatic music written for the stage. A vast number of dramatic works with a “Jewish” connection appear in Rubinstein’s catalogue, including an opera on the Maccabees, works on the Tower of Babel, and Moses, all alongside works explicitly on Christian subjects (most notably a setting of Paradise Lost). In the late-19th-century debate on what ought to be truly “Russian” music, Anton Rubinstein was unfairly derided as a second rate purveyor of German musical traditions.

Two of the Russian Jewish composers on this program are represented with works written when they were young. Both Krein and Gnesin became prominent for their contributions as explicitly “Jewish” composers. Both men, influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, celebrated the folk roots of their own specific national origin as Jews. They became leading members of the legendary and seminal St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908.

Yet the works on this program remind us that their distinction and contribution as composers were not limited to the extent to which they utilized their Jewishness in their music. It is easy to overlook the extent of acculturation and symbiosis between the Jewish and the Russian in ways that bypassed the Fiddler on the Roof stereotype; we associate that process of cosmopolitan intermingling more readily with the historical dynamics between Jews and non-Jews in German speaking Europe before 1933. Krein and Gnesin absorbed and extended—as did their contemporaries Joseph Achron, Lazare Saminsky, and Sergei Prokofiev—the influence of symbolism and of Scriabin and Rimsky. Gnesin and Krein, at the time they wrote the works on this program, were Russian cosmopolitan advocates of an avant-garde first and Jewish culture second.

The last work on the program is by a rival and contemporary of Stravinsky’s, Shostakovich’s teacher Maximilian Steinberg. One of the ironies of history is that Steinberg’s ballet Metamorphosen was scheduled for the same 1913 season as the Rite of Spring, and Stravinsky, who was jealous that Rimsky favored Steinberg and that Steinberg married Rimsky’s daughter, did everything he could to thwart Steinberg’s competing work.

Steinberg was the son of a major Hebrew scholar. Despite his extensive background in Jewish history and culture, unlike Krein and Gnesin, but rather more as a latter day Anton Rubinstein, Steinberg did not privilege his Jewish identity in his work and chose a quite eclectic array of inspirations for his music—from Uzbek folk material to the legend of Till Eulenspeigel. As Steinberg’s early symphonies—and the 1913 ballet score—suggest, the talent and facility of the young composer were extraordinary, as was his familiarity with the compositional traditions of Western Europe and Russia.

Steinberg is most often remembered not for his music but indirectly, first on account of his place in Stravinsky’s life, and second, because of his connection to Shostakovich. He deserves more. Nonetheless, perhaps the most admirable indirect consequence of Steinberg’s career derives from the Shostakovich connection, not the link to Stravinsky. Shostakovich was rather the exception among Russian composers in his complete lack of anti-Semitism. Indeed Shostakovich identified with the plight of the Jews. He showed rare courage in his support of the family of Solomon Mikhoels, the great Yiddish actor who was killed by Stalin in 1948, and his protective advocacy of and friendship with the Polish Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who settled in Russian after 1945. Perhaps it was Shostakovich’s admiration and affection for his teacher that sustained his decency and courage on this issue.

Together, these four Russian composers, whose life and career span the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th—arguably the heyday of classical musical culture—reveal the extent of acculturation, integration, and participation in Russian intellectual and artistic life by Jews. We have the unfortunate tendency to reduce the complexity of the past to stereotypes. The Jews of Russia evoke—legitimately—the image of mass poverty, the shtetl, sardonic humor, klezmer and Yiddish eloquence: a distinctly Jewish culture born out of the unique experience of the Pale Settlement. It is to those roots that Krein and Gnesin—much like the young painter Marc Chagall—eventually turned in search of a unique source for a modern art and culture of their own. By so doing they were following a parallel pattern of discovery that would become audible in the music of Bartók and Stravinsky.

This concert reminds us that in literature, science, art, and above all music, there was a Russian Jewish elite, fully conversant with Russian and European traditions that made seminal contributions to the mainstream of culture and art without foregrounding or even referencing their status as Jews. That remarkable achievement by an extraordinary elite is highlighted on today’s concert program.

Aleksandr Krein, The Rose and the Cross

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 20, 1883, in Nizhniy-Novgorod, Russia
Died April 21, 1951, in Staraya Ruza, Russia
Composed in 1917–21
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tam-tam), 2 harps, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Aleksandr Blok, perhaps the greatest Russian symbolist poet, died in 1921, four years after the October Revolution. Although he had welcomed the Revolution, he was hardly a Communist and by the time of his death at the age of 41, he had become disillusioned by the Bolsheviks. Blok had a great affinity for music; his mystical drama The Rose and the Cross was originally planned as a ballet whose score was to have been written by Aleksandr Glazunov. (In 1914, Mikhail Gnesin composed incidental music for the play.)

In the event, the play had more than 200 rehearsals at the Moscow Art Theater but was never performed in public. In his book Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, Simon Morrison offers the following summary of Blok’s play:

The plot brings together dissimilar characters, settings, images, and events: a grief-stricken lady and a dejected knight, a dilapidated castle and a windswept beach, the bells of a sunken city and a ghost in a dungeon, a peasant dance around a decorated tree and a song contest in a flowering dale. The spring that sets the plot in motion is a song so provocative that it haunts the dramatis personae for years after they hear it performed by an itinerant troubadour. The troubadour reappears at the drama’s end for an encore performance…the song’s pastoral text identifies joy and suffering as equivalent emotional states. Its music was intended to mesmerize its listeners—both those on and off the stage.

Krein was deeply steeped in Eastern European klezmer musical traditions, and the majority of his works were inspired by Jewish folklore. But not all of his works are Jewish in inspiration, and he honored Blok’s memory, a few years after the poet’s death, with the present five-movement orchestral suite, providing that ‟mesmerizing music” the play called for.

The score includes the following epigraph from the play:

The world’s boundless ecstasy
belongs to the heart that sings,
the roaring ocean calls
to a fatal and aimless wandering.

Surrender to the impossible dream,
You will fulfill your fate,
It is the heart’s immutable law:
Joy and suffering are the same!

(transl. P. L.)

Movement I (‟The Castle of Archimbault at Dawn”) opens with a dark motif for low strings and clarinets, accompanied by dramatic tremolos; a gloomy idea that gradually rises in dynamics to reach fortissimo, only to sink back, suddenly, into the mysterious atmosphere of the opening.

A brief fanfare for three muted trumpets leads into Movement II (‟The Rooms of Isaure”), a passionately romantic sketch with a colorfully orchestrated, explosive melody.

Movement III (‟On the Ocean Shore”) reprises the main motif of the first movement in a more dramatic presentation; it is followed without pause by Movement IV (‟Gaetan’s Song”), in which we hear the song that is so important in the play (and from which Krein took the above-quoted epigraph). The expressive melody, first heard on English horn, viola, and cello, is later taken over by the entire orchestra. Movement V (‟The Death of Bertrand: Epilog”) opens as a funeral march that, however, segues into a recapitulation of ‟Gaetan’s Song” from the previous movement, fashioned into the work’s triumphant conclusion, representing the ‟boundless ecstasy of the heart that sings.”

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Anton Rubinstein, Cello Concerto No. 2

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born November 28, 1829, in Vikhvatinets, Ukraine
Died November 20, 1894, in Peterhof, Russia
Composed in 1874
Performance Time: Approximately 29 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and cello soloist

Anton Rubinstein, one of the most celebrated pianist-composers of the 19th century and founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, composed two cello concertos for his colleague Karl Davydov, whom Tchaikovsky described as the ‟tsar of all cellists.” The first major composer in Russia to write concertos for any instrument, Rubinstein had important European models to draw on, but he strove to ‟Russianize” those models—something his more radically nationalist contemporaries from the ‟Mighty Handful” gave him little credit for. Yet several of the themes in the present work are undeniably Russian in their melodic style, and the concerto consistently eschews the methods of thematic development that German composers from Beethoven to Brahms were so fond of using.

The concerto is an eminently melodic work, in three movements played without pause. The first movement is serious and expressive; the second, which begins with a chorale-like introduction scored for woodwinds, delicate and lyrical. Between the second and third movements, the soloist plays a cadenza, punctuated by orchestral interjections; this is followed by the finale, a rondo based on a melody clearly inspired by Russian folksong. After a second cadenza, the meter changes from duple and triple for a varied recapitulation of the main theme.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Mikhail Gnesin, From Shelley

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born February 2, 1883, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Died May 5, 1957, in Moscow
Composed in 1906–08
Performance Time: Approximately 8 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French Horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, 2 harps, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

A generation before Samuel Barber wrote his Music for a Scene from Shelley after Prometheus Unbound, Mikhail Gnesin was inspired by the same play for his own ‟symphonic fragment.” Shelley was particularly admired by the poets of the Russian Silver Age; one of the leading Russian poets of the time, Konstantin Balmont, translated the complete works of the great English Romantic.

Gnesin studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov around the same time that Stravinsky did, and they were rather good friends for a while. (The famous Gnesin Institute of Moscow bears the name of this eminent composer and his three sisters, all pianists.) Gnesin was one of the founders of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and later became known as the ‟Jewish Glinka” for his Jewish operas. In his book Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-garde, Larry Sitsky compares Gnesin to Krein: ‟In contrast to Krein, Gnesin was a much more cerebral composer, concerned with the inward-looking and the contemplative rather than the external sensuality of his colleague.”

The present composition is Gnesin’s first orchestral score, written during his years of study under Rimsky-Korsakov. On the front page, we find the following excerpt from Prometheus Unbound in Balmont’s translation:

There was a change: the impalpable thin air
And the all-circling sunlight were transformed,
As if the sense of love dissolved in them
Had folded itself round the spherèd world.

(Act III, sc. 4)

A vision of light and sun, then, fills the pages of Gnesin’s short symphonic poem, which develops a single brief motif in rich orchestral colors, describing a gradual crescendo and accelerando followed by a diminuendo and ritardando. It was all intended to please Rimsky-Korsakov but, as we may learn from the latter’s memoirs, the master realized that the young man was only trying to placate him by the simplicity of his music, and that the young generation had begun to move in some new stylistic directions. Still, From Shelley was an auspicious start for a composer who went on to have a distinguished career in Russia and the Soviet Union.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Maximilian Steinberg, Symphony No. 1

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 4, 1883, in Vilnius, Lithuania
Died December 6, 1946, in Leningrad
Composed in 1905–06
Premiered March 18, 1908, in St. Petersburg
Performance Time: Approximately 40 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, bass drum), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil and son-in-law, Stravinsky’s rival, Shostakovich’s teacher—Maximilian Steinberg was a central figure in Russian musical life before, during, and after the October Revolution. Yet in spite of these illustrious associations, history has not been kind to Steinberg, whose music is hardly ever heard today. Granted, he was no innovator and never seemed to rock the boat in any way. Still, anyone who could compose a symphony like what we’re going to hear, while still a student in his early twenties, must be taken seriously: one cannot help but admire the young man’s mastery of compositional technique—form, harmony, orchestration—as well as the confidence with which he deploys that technique. Concurrently to his musical studies, Steinberg was also an aspiring scientist at the university, and he graduated with a gold medal in biology in 1906.

The son of a distinguished Hebrew scholar from Vilna, the city that used to be called the ‟Jerusalem of Lithuania,” Steinberg did not immediately adopt the Russian nationalist style of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. His models in the First Symphony seem to be entirely Germanic, with influences ranging from Beethoven and Schumann to Mendelssohn and Wagner. The first movement opens with a pure D major that had become rare in the first years of the new century; the 6/8 time that the classics used so often to evoke the hunt comes to new life in this radiant ‟Allegro non troppo.” The scherzo that follows bristles with energy, with a gentle waltz for a trio section. In the slow movement, a single melodic-rhythmic idea is exploited through a succession of attractive wind solos. The dynamic Finale, complete with the obligatory fugato, also contains a slower episode offering a different take on the fugato theme. Just before the end, we hear two sustained, mysterious chords providing a last-minute moment of suspense, followed by the powerful final chords.

The symphony was dedicated to Aleksandr Glazunov, another teacher of Steinberg’s, who became the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905. It received its premiere in St. Petersburg on March 18, 1908.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.