U.Va. Professor Explores Lost History of Russian-Jewish Composers

University of Virginia historian James Loeffler explores the lost world of Jewish composers working in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution in his new, award-winning book.

"The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire," examines composers who viewed themselves as both Jewish and Russian and who saw their work contributing to both identities. He focuses on the second half of the 19th century through the Russian Revolution, covering two generations of composers.

"It is an attempt to rethink the stock image of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe," said Loeffler, an assistant professor of history in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The research director of Pro Musica Hebraica, Loeffler is a pianist who has been actively involved in Jewish music for the past decade as a scholar, critic and performer. He co-founded the Jewish Music Forum, a new national academic organization supported by the American Society for Jewish Music and the Center for Jewish History in New York, and has served as a music consultant to numerous organizations and institutions.

Loeffler's book has been lauded by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, receiving its Béla Bartók Award for Outstanding Ethnomusicology Book, and the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which presented him the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies. His work was a finalist for the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which recognizes the important role of emerging writers in examining the Jewish experience.

Loeffler's book fills an important void in the scholarship of these composers, said Joel Rubin, an assistant professor and director of music performance in U.Va.'s McIntire Department of Music.

"This is the first substantial piece of research on this movement," Rubin said. "A lot of what had existed before was old and romantic and not up to the standards of scholarship we are used to today. It is important he has tackled the subject and I am happy to have more material I can teach to my students."

Rubin said the composers were influenced by Zionism and feelings of national aspiration, as well as by their Christian Russian contemporaries to create artistic music with Jewish roots. He said Western classical music evolved over a long time, without much contribution from Jews until the latter part of the 19th century.

"These are people who left the shtetl and went to the conservatory," Loeffler said. "These are the contemporaries of Piotyr Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later Igor Stravinsky." Among them was Anton Rubinstein, a Russian-Jewish pianist and composer and a founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first in Russia.

"The people I write about are complex, but they felt they had to be validated by others," Loeffler said. "They thought they were Russians and Jews and that they didn't have to choose. They thought they were furthering classical music, that their twin identities would feed into each other and that they would be more accepted. And for a brief period they were heralded as the young guns, bringing Russian classical music into the modern era."

But the brief period did not last. Loeffler said they had to choose an identity; if they did not choose, one was assigned.

"They believed art would transcend politics, but they found that it didn't," Loeffler said. "The Russian culture liked Jewish music, but it didn't like Jews."

Russian composers, though, wrote on many classic Jewish themes, Loeffler said, citing Dmitri Shostakovich and his the song cycle "From Jewish Folk Poetry" and his 13th Symphony, subtitled "Babi Yar."

"It becomes a symbol that represents to liberals a freer, more pluralistic Russia that embraces minorities and allows free expression – or it warns of the dangers of a fifth column within the society," Loeffler said. "It becomes a barometer of what kind of Russian you are."

The revolution forced the artists to choose. Some, such as Mikhail Gnesin, managed to stay involved with Jewish cultural activities and go on to occupy a prominent place among the first generation of Soviet modernist composers, before being silenced by Stalin.

Some of those composers who left went to the United States, including to Hollywood. There, they felt they were exiled in paradise. Joseph Achron wrote Hollywood film scores and taught music, including to a young Andre Previn, but failed to build a national reputation as a composer. Michel Michelet, who made his money scoring film noirs in Hollywood, was virtually unknown as Mikhail Isaakovich Levin, a name under which he had composed Jewish-themed piano and string quartet pieces back in Russia.

"They are teaching and training other musicians and trying to make a living out of this weird world of film music," Loeffler said.

Those who went to Palestine were exposed to Jews from many cultures, so their mission became exploring the Jewish culture, music for theater, Israeli folk songs, music for youth movements and operas. These included Joel Engel, who left Russia in 1922 and moved to Palestine in 1924, a composer, critic and scholar widely regarded as the "father of modern Jewish music." He wrote the music to the most famous Yiddish play ever written, "The Dybbuk," and then he became an early pioneer of Israeli music.

"They tried to bring Russian and Europe together and uplift everybody," Loeffler said.

He said many Jews gravitated to classical music as a profession and that at one time about half of the conservatory populations in Russia were Jewish musicians. He said this appetite for classical music continued in Palestine, which had a symphony orchestras from the 1930s.

A native of Washington, D.C., Loeffler has been trained as a historian and a musicologist, educated at Harvard University, then Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Columbia University. In 2003 and 2004, he was U.S. Fulbright Fellow to Russia and Ukraine exploring the newly opened archives of the former Soviet Union. He found his first Jewish symphony in a library archive in Kiev in 2003.

"I had never heard of this before," he said. "I never knew that it had existed and been forgotten."

But why was it forgotten? The Russians had erased the memory because of the unpopularity of the Jews, while the Jews, Loeffler said, had their own reasons for forgetting. "On one hand, they may think 'We know how this story ends, it doesn't end well and we want to forget it,'" he said.

"On the other hand, there is a nostalgia for the simple folk culture, the lost old world. 'We were poor but happy until the revolution came along.' What I have written complicates the story."

— By Matt Kelly

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