Curtain Call for the St. Petersburg Jewish Music Society (1908) – 100th anniversary
Jewish songs and piano music by the 20th-century Russian composers Joseph Achron (1886-1943), Mikhail Gnesin (1883-1957), Alexander Krein (1883-1951), Moshe Milner (1886-1953) and Alexander Veprik (1899-1958)
This project pays tribute to five prominent composers affiliated with the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society, founded in 1908. They joined in an unprecedented collective effort to create a Jewish national school of art music. They researched Jewish folk music and traditional music and used elements of them in their works. The movement was crushed during the Stalin regime. The political boycott overshadowed this music ever since, and the recognition of its composers is still overdue.
What’s in a name?
You may have noticed that we left out the word “folk” in the title of our project. Here’s why. The composers wanted to call their society “Jewish Music Society”. However, as composer Solomon Rosowsky, one of the society’s founders, reported, the magistrate in charge of licensing claimed there was no such thing as Jewish music, there was just Jewish folk music. Hence he would issue the license if the word “folk” was included in the name.  Aside from this official’s implicit repressive attitude, the problem is that the addition of the word folk is confusing. For example, the music would end up in the folk rack in the music stores. However, its composers composed art music inspired by Jewish traditional music.
The St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society
The urge to create a Jewish national school of art music arose from a revival of Jewish culture and folklore in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, which is also reflected in the works of artists Chagall and Lissitzky, and writers Bialik and Sholem Aleichem. The stimulus was also linked to a broader movement of cultural nationalism in the arts that swept Europe and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers wanted to free themselves from the dominance of German music and went to their roots for new inspiration. It was Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the Russian “Mighty Five” , who encouraged his Jewish composition students to focus on their own musical heritage. As Solomon Rosowsky noted, he said to them, “Why do you imitate European and Russian composers? The Jews possess tremendous national treasures. I myself have heard your religious songs and they have made a deep impression on me. Think about it. Yes, Jewish music awaits its Jewish Glinka.”  His words did not go unheeded.
In a relatively short period of time, these composers created a sizable repertoire. It contains arrangements of traditional material as well as original works ranging from songs and chamber music pieces to symphonies, choral works and operas. They also had a publishing firm, organized concerts and had a journal and a library. And with their research into traditional Jewish music, conducted in co-operation with the St. Petersburg Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society, they helped create a valuable collection of Jewish folk music.
The St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society ceased functioning after the Russian Revolution, although some activities still continued until 1922. After that, its composers went their separate ways. Achron stayed for a while in Berlin but ultimately immigrated to the U.S.A. Gnesin also spent some time in Berlin, where he and Achron ran the Berlin branch of the Jibneh Edition music publishing company, but he returned to the Soviet Union. Milner, Krein and Veprik remained in the Soviet Union, where they and Gnesin tried to further the movement in Moscow under the name of The New Jewish School. After 1930, however, Stalin’s cultural policy made Jewish culture no longer acceptable in the Soviet Union. The music of the Society ceased to be performed and its memory was erased.
 Weisser, A., “The modern renaissance of Jewish music: events and figures, Eastern Europe and America.” New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1954, p. 44-45
 The Mighty Five , also known as the Mighty Handful, or the New Russian School, were five prominent 19th century Russian composers who worked together to create a Russian national style of classical music. They were Mily Balakirev , César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.
 Weisser, A., p. 44.
Biographical information of the composers
Joseph Achron (1886, Lozdzeije, Russia – 1943, Hollywood, California)
Joseph Achron was a musical prodigy who made his debut as a violinist at the age of seven. After initial lessons from his father, who was a cantor, Achron was thoroughly taught European classical music. He studied violin with professors Michalovich and Isidor Lotti in Warsaw and Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition with Anatoly Lyadov and Maximilian Steinberg. Achron was always open to new musical developments.
Achron performed and toured as a violin virtuoso, and also composed and taught his students. He joined the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society in 1911 and devoted himself to creating “Jewish art music of a quality comparable to that of other nations” as he put it. He is best known for his Hebrew Melody, which was immortalized by Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman.
Achron wrote many more works on Jewish themes including three violin concertos and smaller pieces for violin and piano, pieces for orchestra, choir, chamber music, piano pieces, songs, liturgical music and incidental music for the Yiddish theatres of Alexander Granovsky (St. Petersburg, Russia) and Maurice Schwartz (New York). Some of his scores appeared in print, but many remain unpublished. Achron immigrated to the United States in 1925 and chose New York as his base of operations. In 1934, he moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed until his death.
Arnold Schoenberg, who became a friend of Achron’s, held his music in high regard. He called Achron “one of the most under-estimated of modern composers; the originality and profound elaboration of Joseph Achron’s ideas guarantee that his work will last.”  In the words of Sholem Rav, “Joseph Achron gave [Jewish art music] a face, teeth, eyes, heart, soul and life.” 
For our program we chose Achron’s song cycles Two Songs, Op. 52 (1922) and Three Songs, Op. 53 (1923), and a selection from his Statuettes, Op. 66 for piano solo (1930). The song cycles Op. 52 and Op. 53 are sublime early 20th C. art songs to Hebrew poetry. Achron dedicated them to his wife, singer Marie Raphof, who premiered the songs of Op. 52 in St. Petersburg in 1922.  Achron used tropes (melodic motives) derived from Lithuanian Biblical cantillations as basic elements for the songs and developed them in contemporary counterpoint and harmony. The tropes were a never-ending source of inspiration for him. Both song cycles were published by Jibneh, Berlin – Jerusalem, in 1923. Achron made an arrangement of Op. 52, No 2, Canzonetta, for violin or cello and piano, which was also published by Jibneh in 1923.
Achron’s Statuettes for piano, Op. 66 are short monothematic tone poems, which were published in Henry Cowell’s New Music Editions, San Francisco, October, 1931.
 Program notes for a concert at Wilshire-Bell Theatre, Los Angeles, March 1945, cited in Moddel, P., “Joseph Achron”, Israeli Music Publications, Tel Aviv, 1966, p. 46 / footnote 33, p. 62.
 For anyone interested in learning more about Joseph Achron, Philip Moddel’s Achron biography provides insightful information about his life and work and recounts how Achron’s musical legacy was almost lost, but miraculously saved from total destruction.
 “Joseph Achron the Jewishcomposer”, Morgen freyheyt, New York, 18 September 1963, quoted at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com› lex › achron-joseph.
Mikhail Gnesin (1883, Rostov on Don – 1957, Moscow)
Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin co-founded the Society in 1908 and was on the board of the music committee. He composed many significant works inspired by Jewish musical traditions. He was the son of a rabbi and inherited his musical talent from his mother, who came from a musical family. She was a good amateur singer and pianist and her father, Schajke Pfajfer (Isay Flötsinger), was a famous klezmer musician and folksinger.
His musical legacy deeply influenced Gnesin and instilled in him a love for Jewish folk music. Eliezer Gerovich, the cantor of the Rostov synagogue, introduced him to the cantorial chants (chazzanut). He studied piano and violin with Oskar Fritsche in Rostov and continued his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Anatoly Lyadov (1901-1909).
Gnesin’s career as a composer began brilliantly. Famous musicians such as Pablo Casals, Joseph Szigeti, Nadeshda Zabela-Vrubel, Xenia Dorliac, Alexander Ziloti, Ivan Alchevski and Mikhail Bikhter performed his early music inspired by the Symbolist movement and he won the Glinka Prize twice. Later champions of his music were Vera Dukhovskaya and Maria Yudina.
Driven by an interest in Greek tragedy, he developed theories of a declamatory style of singing, called by him “musical reading in drama,” which caught the attention of stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and led to a collaboration that lasted intermittently from 1909 to 1927. Gnesin composed music in this declamatory style for Antigone and Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and Phoenician Woman by Euripides. Only Antigone was eventually performed at the Meyerhold Studio in Terijoki.
Although Gnesin zealously supported the activities of the Jewish Folk Music Society from the very beginning, it was some time before he published Jewish-style compositions himself. He was concerned about the quality and integrity of this kind of music. He loathed “cheap music” with a “Jewish flavor” and wanted to write music that did justice to the inherent beauty of the Jewish melodies. His first composition in Jewish style, A Nigun fun Schajke Pfajfer, was published in 1914 by the St. Petersburg Society. After that various works inspired by Jewish traditions followed, compositions for orchestra and chamber ensemble, incidental music, songs, piano pieces and an (unfinished) opera-poem The Youth of Abraham.
He travelled to Palestine in 1914 and 1921 to research Jewish music. On his way home in 1922, he stayed a while in Berlin doing editorial work for the music publishing house Jibneh. He considered emigrating, but decided to return to Russia.
Back home, Gnesin and his colleagues Yoel Engel, Alexander Krein, Alexander Veprik and others devoted themselves to reviving the Jewish Music Society in Moscow. In the years 1923 – 1929 they regularly organized musical events in which prominent musicians performed their works. On such an occasion in 1926, Maria Yudina performed her transcriptions of some of Gnesin’s works and music by Achron, Milner and Bloch. Unfortunately, the ideological pressure on Jewish culture in the Soviet Union increased in the 1930s. The Jewish movement in music was attacked by the Soviet party line for being reactionary and anti-Soviet. The composers had to write music in line with Soviet socialist realism. The Moscow Society ceased to exist in 1931.
Gnesin trained many Soviet composers at the conservatories of Leningrad and Moscow and the music institutions named after the Gnesins founded by his five sisters and led by his sister Elena in Moscow. He remained true to his beliefs in turbulent times when Soviet music unions disagreed on the kind of music that best represented the communist ideals. In this atmosphere, Gnesin countered relentless hostile attacks by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) that eventually led to his suspension from the Moscow Conservatory in 1931. However, by a reversal of fortune, he was reinstated in 1932 as RAPM was liquidated along with all the other cultural unions.
In 1948, the year of the notorious crusade against “formalism” in which the greatest Soviet composers were persecuted, Gnesin, who was not accused himself, took an ethical stance and was loyal to his colleagues Shostakovich and Prokofiev, although he must have known it wouldn’t please the authorities. There was indeed a reckoning and in 1951 Gnesin was forced to resign from the Gnesins Institute. He was saved from further persecution by the death of Stalin in 1953, and he spent his later years writing articles and books, including Thoughts and Memories of N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov and On Russian Symphonism, the latter remaining unfinished.
Gnesin received the title Honored Art Worker of the RSFSR in 1927, an arts doctorate in 1943 and the States Prize in 1946.
For our program, we chose two songs Gnesin composed to lyrics from the Song of Songs, and two songs he composed for Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest.
The Fragment from the Song of Songs, Ani Havatzelet Hasharon (I am a Rose of Sharon), Op. 33 (1919), has the groove of a slow dance in syncopated rhythm. An undulating, pentatonic melody alternates in rondo form with counter melodies, culminating in a dramatic climax that reveals Gnesin’s penchant for opera.
The Fragment from the Song of Songs, Akhot Lanu Ketanah (Our Sister is Little), Op. 37, No. 3 (1925) is a playful song with melodic elements of Jewish dances.
Gnesin composed the Two Songs of Laura, Op. 51 for a radio broadcast of Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest in 1937. The songs are written in a Russian-Spanish musical idiom, corresponding to the couleur locale of the play, and are a fine example of Gnesin’s skillful approach to the interpretation of other national styles.
Read more about Gnesin in the essay, Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin, Composer, Scholar, Teacher, Citizen, by Prof. A.G. Yusfin, which is published on our Gnesin Project page.
Also: The Russian Wikipedia has an excellent, informative biography of Gnesin, Гнесин, Михаил Фабианович, which can be translated using Google Translate.
Alexander Krein (1883, Nishny Novgorod – 1951, Moscow)
As was the case with some of his colleagues, Alexander Krein’s familiarity with Jewish music dates back to his early childhood. His father was a well-known klezmer musician and young Alexander played in his father’s band with his brothers, who also became professional musicians.
Krein studied cello at the Moscow Conservatory with Glehn and composition with L. Nikolajew, S. Taneev and B. Jaworski. He joined the St. Petersburg Society in 1909 as a representative of the Moscow branch. While serving as an editor at the State Publishing House, he did all he could to support the publication of the music of his Jewish colleagues. When the St. Petersburg Society was dissolved, he joined Gnesin and Veprik in their effort to revive the Jewish Music Society in Moscow in 1923.
Krein wrote many works in which he assimilated the Jewish liturgical and folk melodies in a harmonic language close to Scriabin’s. He wrote symphonic, chamber, vocal and piano music as well as incidental music for the Jewish theater. The staging of the play The Night at the Old Market Place (Y. L. Peretz) at the Moscow State Jewish Theater (GOSET), for which he wrote incidental music, became a triumph for both composer and theater. None of his compositions were mentioned in the Soviet Encyclopedic Dictionary of Music.
After 1930 he too had to comply with the Soviet ideology of socialist realism in which Jewish subjects were no longer allowed. Despite the policy, however, his composition 10 Yiddish Songs, Op. 49 he wrote in 1937 was still published by the State Publishing House in 1939.
For our program, we chose a selection of his 10 Yiddish Songs, Op. 49 and Dances for piano solo, Op. 50. They are arrangements of traditional Jewish folk songs and dances, several of which were collected by the ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski.
Moshe Milner (1886, Ratkino in Kiev province, Ukraine -1953, Leningrad)
Moshe Milner was fully committed to his Jewish heritage and his music, characterized by Yiddish speech patterns, is imbued with the spirit of Eastern European Judaism.
His musical education began in the Kiev synagogue, where he studied with cantors Nissan Belzer and Jakov Morogovsky and piano with choirmaster Abram Dzimitrovsky. He continued his studies at the Kiev School of Music and the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied piano with M. Miklashevsky and M. Barinova, and composition with Anatoly Lyadov and Maximilien Steinberg. His first compositions were published by the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society, which he joined shortly after it was founded in 1908.
Milner established himself primarily in vocal music, but he also wrote works for piano, choir, orchestra and theater. He wrote three operas. His opera Die himlen brenen (Heaven is Burning) (1923) – the first Yiddish opera ever performed – was banned by Soviet censors after the second performance. His other two operas Anschel (1933) and Joseph Flavius (1933–43) were never staged. However, his early songs such as In cheder (At School) became quite popular. They were performed in concerts in Petrograd and New York.
For our program, we chose Milner’s Vocal Suite to Y.L. Peretz’s Ten Children’s Songs for voice and piano, which he composed in 1916. They are poetic Yiddish art songs depicting the mother-child relationship. After separate publications of the songs in 1919, the complete song cycle was published by Kultur Lige – Meluche Farlag, Kiev in 1921. The title varied slightly in the different editions,
– Vokal-svite oyf Perets’s tsen kinder-lider
– Vokal-svite oyf “tsen Perets’s kinder-lider”
– Vokal-svite tsen kinder-lider fun Y.L. Perets.
Later the song cycle was translated into Russian and published with the title, “Мать и дитя” (Mother and Child), which led to some confusion in the cataloging of the work.
The piano piece Khevre leytsim (Jesters) is the second movement from the piano suite Goylem. It is dedicated to the folklorist S. A. Kisselhof.
Milner’s refusal to accept the doctrines of Soviet party politics ultimately led to his exclusion from Soviet musical life. After the Society disbanded, it became increasingly difficult for him to find publishers, and like some of his Jewish colleagues, he was doomed to write “posthumous works”.
Alexander Veprik (1899, Balta – 1958, Moscow)
Alexander Veprik composed many works inspired by Jewish themes, and served with Alexander Krein and Mikhail Gnesin on the board of the Moscow Jewish Music Society, which was founded in 1923 after the St. Petersburg Society was dissolved.
From the time he was born, Veprik’s family moved quite a few times, first from Balta to Warsaw and then in 1909 to Leipzig, and in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, the family repatriated to Russia, where they settled in St. Petersburg.
In accordance with his father’s wish that the children receive a musical education, young Veprik began taking piano lessons from students at the Warsaw Conservatory. [*] He continued his piano studies at the Leipzig Conservatory with Karl Wendling and studied composition with Alexander Zhitomirsky at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1921 Veprik moved to Moscow, where he continued his composition studies with Nikolai Myaskovsky.
After his graduation in 1923, he was appointed to the staff at the Moscow Conservatory. He became involved in the reform of Soviet musical education, and in 1927 he was sent on a study trip to Germany, Austria and France. There he met with Ravel, Hindemith and Schönberg, who made a deep impression on him. [*] However, his recommendation to keep in touch with musical developments in Western Europe was not followed by his superiors. .
In the 1920s Veprik composed many works inspired by Jewish themes, symphonic, chamber and vocal music. His composition Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Op. 12 (1927) gained international fame. It was premiered by conductor Hermann Scherchen in Leipzig in 1927, and conducted by Toscanini at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1933, and by Isai Dobrovain in Philadelphia [no date]. [*]
Yet, when censorship of Jewish culture increased in the 1930s, Veprik had to adapt to Soviet rules and refrain from writing Jewish music. Instead, he and his colleagues had to write music from other Soviet nations. In 1938-1950 Veprik mainly focused on Kyrgyz music. Still, the obligatory bow to the rules of the party did not prevent Veprik’s dismissal during a purge at the Moscow Conservatory in 1943, and in 1950 he was arrested and sentenced to eight years at a prison camp in the Urals on charges of composing Zionist music and maintaining foreign contacts. He was released and rehabilitated in 1954 as a broken man. Shostakovich’s appeal for his rehabilitation may have stimulated his release.
For our program we chose Kaddish, Op. 6 (1925) and Two Jewish Songs, Op. 8 (1926). Kaddish, op. 6 is an elegiac without words in which themes from liturgical chants are interwoven in a complex contrapuntal texture with contemporary extended harmonies. (Kaddish is the prayer for creation and the dead.) The Two Jewish Songs, Op. 8 are lovely arrangements of traditional folk songs.
[*] Source: Mikhail Goldstein, Композитор Александр Веприк (The Composer Alexander Veprik), in: Menorah Magazine, No. 14, December 1977 (5738). https://berkovich-zametki.com/2009/Zametki/Nomer15/MGoldshtejn1.php
Acquisition of scores
Mascha Benya gave Sovali some beautiful songs by Achron, Gnesin, Milner and Krein, arousing her curiosity for the music of these unknown composers. Since their music was not available in music stores, more scores were collected with the help of friends and family from libraries in Amsterdam, New York, Berlin and St. Petersburg, resulting in a wonderful program with great music by these unjustly forgotten composers.
For this project, singer Sovali (Sofie van Lier) teamed up with pianist Paul Prenen. They gave concerts in the Netherlands in 2005 – 2010. Sovali also gave a few performances in Russia and the U.S.A with parts of the program. Milner’s Vocal Suite to Y.L. Peretz’s Ten Children’s Songs was performed by Sovali and Galina Fialko at the Moses Milner Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 1st, 2003.
The program includes the following works:
Moshe Milner (1886-1953)
• Vocal Suite to Y.L. Peretz’s Ten Children’s Songs (Mother and Child) (1916)
• Khevre Leytsim (Jesters), for piano solo (1920s)
Joseph Achron (1886-1943)
• Two Songs, Op. 52, to lyrics by J. Fichmann and A. Ben-Yitzchak (1922)
• Three Songs, Op. 53, to lyrics by D. Frischmann, J. Cohen and Y. Karni, (1923)
• Statuettes for piano solo, Op. 66, Nos. 1, 3, 5, 6 (1930)
Mikhail Gnesin (1883-1957)
• Fragment from the Song of Songs, Ani Havatzelet Hasharon, Op. 33 (1919)
• Fragment from the Song of Songs, Achot Lanu Ketana, Op. 37, No. 3 (1925)
• Two Songs of Laura for the 2nd act of The Stone Guest by A. Pushkin, Op. 51 (1937)
Alexander Veprik (1899-1958)
• Two Jewish Songs, Op. 8 (1926)
• Kaddish, Op. 6 (1925)
Alexander Krein (1883-1951)
• Dances for piano solo, Op. 50, Nos. 1, 3, 6, 10 (1937)
• Selection from Ten Yiddish Songs, Op. 49 (1937)
Sovali and Paul Prenen’s performance was recorded at several sessions in the Bethaniënklooster and the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam between 2005 and 2008 by audio-engineer Dick Lucas. The recording was released in 2008 on JMP CD002 Curtain Call for the St. Petersburg Jewish Music Society (1908) – 100th Anniversary.
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“Nowadays, with Yiddish operetta and folk songs frequently performed in the Klezmer revival there is finally attention for the Jewish classical art song. […] Everything has have been carefully done with good transcriptions of the Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian lyrics, and translations, so the contents are accessible to everyone. […] The Sovali-Prenen duo gave a magnificent performance, full of love for the music“.
Curtain Call for the St. Petersburg Jewish Music Society (1908) – 100th Anniversary
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