by Abram Yusfin
Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin was one of the great composers of the first half of the 20th century. He made a significant contribution to the musical culture of the Jewish people and of his own country. He lived most of his life in the extremely harsh conditions of the totalitarian state, but managed to preserve his creativity and independence and create fine works in many genres of the musical art.
Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin was born in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on February 2, 1883. His father was a state rabbi and a responsible representative of the Jewish community. By virtue of his high moral values and outstanding competence as well as substantive social commitment, he helped improve the situation of Jews in Rostov. Gnesin wrote in his autobiography, “I inherited the appetite for public activity from my father.” Gnesin’s mother came from a musical family. Her father was a famous folk singer and klezmer musician, who composed numerous tunes that still feature in Jewish folk music today. Two of Gnesin’s aunts, his mother’s sisters, became famous singers. The youngest one was a soloist at La Scala in Milan for many years. Gnesin’s mother was also an excellent singer, though she remained an amateur. She and her sisters studied with the well-known Polish composer S. Moniuszko. All her children inherited her musical talent. Her five daughters became professional musicians and teachers. Together they founded one of the world’s most inclusive and prestigious music educational institutions in Moscow, named after the Gnesins. It now consists of the Russian Academy of Music, the Music College, the Secondary Specialized Music School and the Children’s Music School. The youngest brother, Grigory, was a highly talented singer, writer and actor.
In early childhood, Gnesin was instilled with a love of Jewish folk music through melodies passed down from his mother’s father Schajke Pfajfer (Ieshayagu Fletzinger), who was a badchen (a folk singer and a composer) from Vilnius. Later Gnesin used some of his grandfather’s tunes in his compositions. The synagogal chants were introduced to him by Eliezer Gerovich, who was the cantor of the Rostov synagogue and a talented composer of liturgical music. As Gnesin writes in his memoirs, he was “the hero of my childhood.”
In 1901, Gnesin entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the class of N. Rimsky-Korsakov. A. Lyadov and A. Glazunov were among his other teachers. Gnesin felt fortunate to study under the guidance of the great Russian composer. Interestingly, a whole constellation of young Jewish composers emerged from Rimsky-Korsakov’s class – Solomon Rozovsky (1878-1962), Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), Alexander Zhitomirsky (1881-1937), Pesach Lvov (1880- 1913), who later founded the first Jewish school of composers.
In 1911, two years after graduating from the conservatory, Gnesin went to Ekaterinodar (now Krasnodar), and then to Rostov, where he taught at the music schools and did phenomenal work in the field of sociocultural enlightenment that radically changed the musical life of the city.
With other young Jewish musicians, he co-founded the Jewish Folk Music Society in 1908. On behalf of the Society, in 1914 he took his first trip to Palestine, where he became acquainted with the status quo of music education and studied Jewish folk music. In 1922, Gnesin visited Palestine for the second time. A year in the Promised Land allowed him to delve deeply into the world of Jewish music, as was reflected in all his later compositions and in his musicological research and pedagogical activities.
After the Jewish Folk Music Society closed down in Petrograd, an attempt was made in 1923 to reopen it in Moscow. Together with Y. Engel, A. Krein and D. Shor, M. Gnesin played an active role in its reconstruction. One of its goals was to organize a future music academy in Palestine. Many years later, with none of them alive, it was established in Eretz Yisrael. After having existed for some years, the Moscow Society was closed as well…
In 1923 – 1935 he headed the new Composition and Music Theory Department he had set up at the Music College named after the Gnesins. At the same time, in 1925-1935, he was a professor and dean of the Pedagogical Faculty of the Moscow Conservatory. From 1935 to 1944 he was a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and in 1944 – 1951 he headed the Composition Department of the new Gnesins Institute (now Academy).
He became a board member of the Union of Composers of the USSR in 1948. In 1927 he was awarded the title Honored Worker of the Arts of RSFSR. He obtained a doctorate in art history without defending a thesis in 1943 and he received the State Award in 1946.
Gnesin died on May 5, 1957.
Mikhail Gnesin was one of the leading representatives of Jewish as well as global musical culture – a musician with broad and diverse influence. He was a talented, original composer, co-founder of the school of Jewish art music as well as a serious musical scholar, who authored a number of profound scientific ideas that enriched musical science. Moreover, he was a brilliant educator who taught several generations of composers from diverse national cultures. Lastly, he was an important public musical personality, an energetic builder of culture, whose high moral authority shaped the destiny of Russian music in many ways.
Mikhail Gnesin composed more than fifty romances and songs, works for chamber music ensemble and orchestra and the unfinished opera-poem “The Youth of Abraham.”
The special role of the thought, the idea, is elementary in Gnesin’s entire oeuvre. His music is always distinguished by a vivid and expressive emotionality. The composer was convinced that “Music is a realm of emotionalized thinking” (M.F. Gnesin. Initial Course of Practical Composition. Moscow, 1962, p. 16). In his music, he organically combined his serious and profound ideas with vibrant and powerful expressiveness and intense emotionality, embodying vivid human feelings.
Jewish folk and synagogal music, eagerly absorbed by him in his early childhood, became the authentic basis for his musical language and shaped his artistic style and his musical way of thinking. It is no coincidence that Gnesin himself noted that “elements of Jewish music have so captured my musical sense and imagination that even where I did not set myself the task to look for a Jewish style, they began to appear in my compositions” (M. F. Gnesin. Articles, Memoirs, Materials. Moscow, 1961, p. 206). This insight into Jewish musical styles enabled him – as one of the first contemporary Jewish composers – to find a way to create authentic Jewish art music. The excellent composition training Gnesin received for eight years, his intimate knowledge of Jewish culture, his rare talent and powerful intellect allowed him to create works that fully reveal the beauty, grandeur and power of Jewish folk music. Gnesin’s teacher N. Rimsky-Korsakov once told his Jewish students, “Jewish music exists; it is great music, and it’s waiting for its Glinka” (L. Saminsky. On Jewish Music. Collection of Articles. St. Petersburg, 1914, p. 74). Mikhail Gnesin and his colleagues became a kind of “collective Glinka” for Jewish music.
However, in the first decade of his creative life, Mikhail Gnesin rarely referred to Jewish themes, which often seemed strange, given that he was very familiar with both spiritual and secular Jewish music since childhood. Once I asked him about this and he replied, “For some reason, people think that folk music is very simple and, as it were, offers itself to be adapted, but it only seems so. In fact, the professional approach to it is extremely difficult. On the one hand, there is a great danger of slipping into banality, of writing cheapish music (as Gnesin liked to say) that only discredits the ingenious folk tunes. On the other hand, as you know, there is diversity in the stylistic forms of Jewish synagogal and folk music, and as the Jews lived in diaspora among many peoples for centuries, they naturally adopted some elements of those cultures. That is why it is very difficult to write specifically Jewish music, instead of Russian, German or Polish music with a slight “Jewish flavor” – that kind of music has been and still is being written a lot. So I was in no hurry to become a Jewish composer. I felt it would not run away. It was only after my first trip to Palestine in 1914 that I suddenly felt I was ripening for a transition to the Jewish intonation. And as soon as I really sensed the intrinsic spirit of the Jewish melody or, more precisely, the distinctly unique essence of the melody, I destroyed all my countless previous attempts in this field.”
And indeed, starting in 1914, Mikhail Gnesin began composing Jewish works. His first piece was a free adaptation of a tune composed by his grandfather, “A Nigun fun Schajke Pfajfer.” This was followed by a long string of compositions in the Jewish style, “Variations on a Jewish Theme” for string quartet, “Song of a Knight Errant” in memory of the minstrel Süßkind von Trimberg for string quartet and harp, “Symphonic Fantasy (in Jewish Style)” for symphony orchestra and many others.
The ideological pressure on culture in our country intensified in the mid-1920s. Any reference to synagogal music was interpreted as Zionism, which was forbidden at the time. That is why Mikhail Gnesin was compelled to turn to the music of other peoples in the 1930s. The sextet “Adygeya” and various pieces for violin and piano are based on Chuvash, Mordovian, Circassian, Kazakh and Mari folk songs and dances. But even in these works, the ethnicity of their author clearly showed through and they can be rightfully attributed to the Jewish national school just as, say, the “Spanish Capriccio” by N. Rimsky-Korsakov belongs to the Russian national school.
On the face of it, it may seem strange that a composer with a clearly pronounced intellectual and philosophical orientation does not write symphonies or tackle large forms at all. One of the essential features of Gnesin’s work reveals itself in his strong preference for self-restraint, avoiding anything that seems too grand-scale. He was convinced it was possible to express a musical thought of any depth or significance in restricted musical forms. His Symphonic Fragment “From Shelley,” the Symphonic Dithyramb “Vrubel,” the Symphonic Monument “1905-1917,” “Requiem” for piano quintet, his other chamber works, his vocal cycles and even the separate romances … in all their conciseness, the content is expressed with the required integrity and persuasiveness.
Gnesin worked in a difficult, tragic epoch. The tragic perception of the world and its fate was reflected to some degree in many of his works including “Requiem,” written before the revolution, and “Mourning Dances from Shelley’s ‘Songs of Adonis,’” the “Piano Trio ’in Memory of Our Perished Children’” and the “Piano Quartet ‘Sonata-fantasia.’” But in these works tragedy is not irremediable. It is a typical Jewish perception of tragedy with always a place for hope. So in all his works, through all the cataclysms and dramatic collisions, the light of hope shines through.
Irony and humor are another side of the colorful world of Gnesin’s music and characterize many of his vocal and instrumental works including the song cycle “Music to the Story of Red-Headed Mottele” to lyrics by I. Utkin and the orchestral suite “Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of the City Mayor” derived from incidental music he wrote for Gogol’s play “Revisor” (“The Inspector General”). They stand out for their wittiness and character. However, just as elements of “laughter through tears” almost always illuminate his tragic music, dramatic tones can be heard in his grotesque music.
Music is first and foremost melody. It always was. But in the 20th century, a tendency emerged in serious music to discard melody and turn music into theoretical structures. Nevertheless, Gnesin, who was affiliated with the Jewish music tradition, created his melodies as living organisms. Whatever their imaginative tenor, they were always melodies in the usual sense of the word – lively, expressive and naturally evolving. Most of them were ethnically identifiable – the melodic intonations of the Torah cantillation or the Jewish folk songs and dances were clearly discernable. He was not afraid to quote them or to freely reproduce their spirit and style. In doing so, he was one of the few in Jewish music, along with Y. Engel, E. Bloch and later with L. Bernstein and M. Weinberg, who was able to completely avoid ethnographic bondage where the composer, in aesthetic admiration of the “exotic material”, slavishly copies folk music and oversimplifies or trivializes it. Gnesin’s melos was an independent development of the tradition established in the works of his great predecessors in Russia, starting with Glinka and Mussorgsky. In his compositions, the Jewish melos found – almost for the first time – a new life in art music, preserving its soul, charm, subtlety and depth. No matter what Gnesin’s melodies are, embellished and ornamental like the free improvisations of klezmer musicians or pensively lilting as in the Chassidic niguns without words or intensive recitations like the cantillations of prayers, whether tender and lyrical, sharp and tense or playful and ironic, they always remain authentic, full of emotions, original and imaginative and ethnically defined. And always alive and humane.
At the very start of his individual career, Gnesin’s music clearly aroused great interest from many prominent performers such as N. Zabela-Vrubel, I. Alchevsky, P. Casals, J. Szigeti, A. Ziloti, M. Yudina.
Unfortunately, the subsequent fate of his music was completely different. It was only rarely performed and here the obvious question arises. How was it possible that one of the great Russian composers of the first half of the 20th century did not get the attention of his contemporaries and had no audience?
All the qualities to attract performers seemed to be there: melodic richness, vivid imagery, artistic courage, a rooted ethnic basis and genuine originality.
The answer is very simple – it was the very Jewish essence of his music that became the insurmountable obstacle to its widespread dissemination. To our knowledge, there were no special legal written instructions “from above” on this matter. There was only a covert oral directive to restrict the performance of compositions on Jewish themes, of which there is much evidence, “there was a ‘black list’ of musicians and music not recommended for performance.” (“Ogonyok,” No. 33, August 1990, p. 16). This was enough for the art officials to do the rest. Understandably, performers began to avoid compositions and composers that could pose problems when included in concert programs.
And the composer himself made no effort to promote his music, although he could have easily done so because of his high standing. Of course, like any composer, he wanted his music to be played and to have an audience. But it was completely unacceptable for him to lobby for the performance of his music, since at the time this would usually mean a humiliating attempt to win favor with the powers that be.
In addition, most of his published compositions were limited editions (many remained unpublished) and in essence, inaccessible to performers. And Gnesin himself did nothing to ensure that his works were published. As a sad result, up to the end of the 20th century most of Gnesin’s compositions remained unknown to listeners and musicians alike.
Some of his compositions were, of course, well known to inquisitive Jewish composers and important for the development and evolution of the Jewish composers’ schools in Russia, America and Israel. But this could not replace the direct experience of hearing them live in concert halls…
So today we can rightfully say Gnesin’s music is a 21st- century discovery. I would like to believe its fate is fortunate and its beauty, originality, richness, ethical purity and philosophical depth will at last open up to a new audience.
Gnesin was one of the great Russian thinkers on music. He created his own original musical system. He was one of the first in musicology to convincingly substantiate the concept of music as an “autonomous way of thinking” rather than just a “way of expressing human feelings” (M.F. Gnesin. “Initial course of practical composition,” p. 19). By demonstrating the affinity between music and logical thinking, the composer successfully challenged the widespread notion that music is an art of pure emotion, which often leads to a misperception of the significance of the great musical masterpieces, while the importance of the “entertaining” forms of music is overstated.
Gnesin pointed out the basic patterns of musical thinking based on the dynamic interflow of “proceeding” and “crystallizing.” By “crystallizing” he meant the final result of a creative process, i.e. the ultimate form of a composition, completed and formed like a crystal, and by “proceeding” he meant the progress of the continuous movement of sound, the development of a composition in time.
He explained in depth and in detail the generative process of a musical work, i.e. how the individual musical elements form a complete musical composition.
Gnesin’s role was important in developing and substantiating one of the most important genres of symphonic music, the epic symphony, which is prevalent in Russian music in the works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Glazunov and many others.
Many ideas, first expressed by Gnesin, were later adopted by other Russian musical scholars. They were included in musicological and pedagogical practice and became the subject for multiple musicological studies.
The fifty published writings by Gnesin include books (“An Initial Course of Practical Composition,” “Thoughts and Memories of N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov”), comprehensive essays (“On the Nature of Musical Art and On Russian Music,” “On Russian Symphonism”), Memoirs and “Notes About.” They differ in their purpose, scope and even in their addressees. But whatever their subject, they have one thing in common, they are all meaningful, serious and bear the clear imprint of the personality of their author, who never beats around the bush. All his writings reflect his vibrant and unique nature. And even in the passing comments, they always contain spirited, novel ideas.
Unfortunately, most of his ideas are still unpublished. They are in his archived manuscripts and in the uncorrected transcripts of his speeches. Perhaps most of all, they were articulated by him during his (unrecorded) oral educational lectures at the conservatories and the Gnesins Institute. It is no coincidence that many of his ideas circulated in musicological and educational circles long before they were published.
When I once asked him about this, Gnesin initially doubted the novelty of his ideas, “everything I tell the students is absolutely obvious.” Then he expressed his satisfaction that someone was interested in them. “If they have any significance, there is nothing nicer than spreading them. As for their authorship, as you know, the creators of most ideas and inventions were anonymous. Who first came up with the idea of dividing the world into “up” and “down”? Who invented the wheel? Who taught people to use fire?…”
Gnesin was a born teacher. All his students felt this from the first moment they entered his composition class. It manifested itself in everything, but above all in his ability to identify and encourage the individual talent and uniqueness of each composer and in his rare capability to give his students confidence in their potential and prospects. And each of us had moments of doubt when nothing went right and everything fell to pieces and it seemed that all our efforts to “become a composer” were in vain. There was no need to talk to Gnesin about it, he somehow sensed our low spirits and helped us overcome them. Yet he never spoke consolatory words nor dissuaded us from our surging doubts. Instead, he usually took out some notes and seated us at a piano, sat down at a second one and we would play unfamiliar interesting music. Somehow without our noticing it, our doubts would disappear, the uncertainty was gone and we went back to being our former selves, encouraged, looking forward to our future as composers with hope…
As for his capacity to see the individual in each student, not only as a composer but as a human being, he was truly unparalleled among composition teachers. It is a known fact that a teacher’s personality influences his pupils and that their music often resembles their teacher’s. However, this was never the case in Gnesin’s class. Suffice it to say that he taught A. Khachaturyan, T. Khrennikov, V. Samanov, F. Eshpai, B. Kluzner, S. Yudakov and many other composers, and none of them resembled any of the others. His students were all able to fully explore their talent and realize it in their compositions. It is not surprising that none of the composers who studied with Gnesin are alike.
It is also important that he encouraged all of them to address their own indigenous national cultures, Armenian – Khachaturyan, Uzbek – Yudakov, Tatar – Muzafarov, Russian – Khrennikov, Jewish – Kluzner. He taught dozens of composers and each of them became a prominent musical figure among his own people.
In all the forty years of his teaching career, not a single student ever quit his classes. Everyone who studied with Mikhail Gnesin found his path in life and achieved the greatest possible success…
In my youth, I was fortunate to study with Gnesin for several years, and I still have many memories of this remarkable man. Most astonishing was his ability to detect budding composing talent in beginners where no one else saw it. I remember how once a country boy came to see Gnesin. He wore peasant clothes and spoke with a heavy northern accent, which struck us as very funny. He came from a place somewhere near Saratov. The compositions he showed us were a kind of songs with bayan accompaniment (bayan is a button accordion). The music was blatantly elementary and naïve and we felt it was totally uninteresting. We stood around Gnesin and watched him closely. He played the musical scribbles with such care, as if they were music by Bach or his favorite Rimsky-Korsakov. We expected to hear slashing criticism of what appeared to be a helpless concoction, and were astonished to hear the exact opposite. Gnesin frowned, looked directly at the boy who was trembling in fear and said, “You do not know anything yet, but you have something to say in music and you should study. You will make a real composer.”
…Many years passed and now that “boy” is a well-known composer and the author of popular chamber and symphonic music. And so it happened more than once that behind the awkwardness of an ill-conceived sketch, Gnesin mysteriously foresaw the future development of a talented person.
I also remember perhaps more common instances when self-confident young people appeared in our class who showed calligraphically written musical manuscripts that sounded clean and smooth. On these occasions we were surprised to see Gnesin sadden, frown and speak slowly, “Everything in your work is done skillfully and almost professionally. And your music sounds good. You know how to speak with music, but apparently you have nothing to say. As a composer, you probably won’t make it, but as a musicologist or performer you might succeed. And very well.”
Such a stern sentence, uttered with the greatest kindness, never offended anyone. Many young musicians spurred by Gnesin became famous musicologists, folklorists, performers or educators…
Gnesin as a citizen and a public figure in music
Gnesin managed to maintain his independence under the extremely trying conditions Russian artists were forced to submit to, the pressure of a prevailing ideology that defined the development of all forms of culture in the USSR. By staying true to himself in these, you might say, intolerable circumstances for the artist, he not only kept aloof from the official viewpoint, but was able to effectively challenge it.
So for example, when the notorious Resolution on Music of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was issued in 1948, accusing the leading Soviet composers of musical formalism and alienation from the people, the authorities forced them to publicly admit their “mistakes,” recant and promise to make amends in their future works. And indeed, the greatest composers, accused of all kinds of sins, humbly repented, beat their breasts, and promised to do better.
You have to understand why they all acted like that. Anyone who failed to admit his “guilt” could be deprived not only of the ability to do his usual creative work, but even of his freedom and life. Thus, even the most courageous and decisive among them, S. Prokofiev, sent a letter to the Central Committee of the Party saying, “The Resolution of the Central Committee of the CPP (b) of February 10, 1948 separated the rotten tissues from the healthy in the works of our composers. […] The Resolution is particularly important, because it shows that the formalistic orientation is alien to the Soviet people and leads to the impoverishment and decline of music. […] I will say about myself: elements of formalism were inherent in my music. […] The contamination apparently occurred through contact with some Western trends. […] In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude to our Party for the clear guidelines of the Resolution that help me in my search for a musical language that is understandable and close to our people.” (S. Prokofiev. Documents and Materials. M., 1991, pp. 158 – 160)
And only Gnesin, who attended all the meetings at the Central Committee, at the Union of Composers and at the Conservatory, did not humiliate himself by repenting for non-existent sins. Here are some excerpts from his public statements in 1948, “Personally, I am not in favor of a rapid response in the form of a mandatory statement of remorse like ‘I, here, wrote such and such composition and I wrote it by mistake, but now I understand it is bad and starting tomorrow I promise my compositions will be good…’” (“Music Academy,” 1998, No. 3-4, book 1, p.135).
All the more impressive was Gnesin’s civil and humane tone. He spoke calmly, sensibly, without fear of repercussions about his attitude to all the guidelines presented. He spoke of the importance to artists, as to any person, to be true to their beliefs and ideas without the imposition of beliefs and ideas from outside, because an artist needs the right to free self-expression and artistic exploration and artistic courage is inherent in all true artists, etcetera.
He had the rare ability to present his observations in such a way that no one could really disagree with him or refute his opinions. And all this happened in the midst of a total crackdown on freedom…
I remember Gnesin’s speech in the Hall of Composers very well. The audience literally froze when they heard him say, “There’s one quality that always accompanies formalism in art – it is inertia.” He took the liberty to publicly debate the Resolution, which was beyond criticism at the time. In his speech he convincingly showed that formalism was not an artificial complication of the musical language and would not make music inaccessible to the people. Contrary to the official viewpoint, Gnesin regarded formalism as a lack of artistic empowerment, as the mere formal following of models and as amateurism. He reasoned persuasively that complexity in music had nothing to do with formalism.
Like many of Gnesin’s speeches, this one made each of us feel that even in those times of terror, we had the right and the capacity to defend our human and artistic dignity against any attack. And it occurred to me that even if Gnesin had not been the creator of so many magnificent works and an eminent composition teacher, his independent conduct in the face of total ideological terror in itself would have kept his name alive among the few people who had not only managed to preserve their individuality but also helped others not to lose theirs…
…Many years after these turbulent events, I asked Gnesin how he managed to stand up against the predominant mindset so courageously. He chuckled and replied, “It was much easier than it seemed at first. I just had a clearly defined vision of the future of music in our country. In my opinion, it was well founded, so it was easy for me to speak about it. Actually, it is entirely possible that my colleagues who so easily changed their stance on music and their works at the time did so as far as I can tell not so much because of conformism, but because they had no vision at all. They effortlessly accepted any viewpoint that was asked of them.”
Mikhail Gnesin has his own very important place in Russian music culture. It may seem as if he could not have exerted any real influence because his music was not that well known, but the resonance of his input is actually noticeable in all facets of its evolution.
He had significant influence on the formation of various emerging composer schools – Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tatar, Bashkir, Yakut, Mari and many others. His special approach to the professional adaptation of folk music became the footing of these schools.
His influence manifested itself in the growing attention to music where the intellectual aspect is in harmony with the emotional expression – as a continuation and development of the traditions of the Rimsky-Korsakov school.
His brilliant adaptations of biblical cantillations set an example for other composers and encouraged similar efforts in Jewish music as well as the music of other religious and ethnic cultures.
By rehabilitating the epic symphony, Gnesin considerably heightened the interest in this type of music among many home-grown composers of various national schools.
Of particular importance was Gnesin’s long-term pedagogical activity. His methods of teaching composition became the foundation of composer training in the country. Some pupils adopted these methods directly from their creator, others from his students and all of them from his unique book “Initial Course of Practical Composition,” where he presented a completely original and extremely effective method of educating composers. This book was widely used in composition classes at the conservatories in the USSR. Although written in the 1920s, it has fully kept its practical value.
Gnesin’s musicological research and scholarly writings greatly influenced the development of Russian theoretical and historical musicology.
And lastly, there was the direct impact of Gnesin’s noble personality. A man of rare originality, courage and intellectual strength in whose presence there could be no banal language or vulgar behavior. To everyone who knew him, Gnesin was and will forever be a shining example of humane, artistic and civil behavior, a person of rare intellectual and spiritual qualities.
The outstanding Creator. The great Teacher. The real Man.
A. G. Yusfin, St. Petersburg, 2002
Revised translation from the Russian, 10 March, 2022
Brief summaries of the works performed
A Nigun fun Schajke Pfajfer (1914) was Gnesin’s first published work in Jewish style. It is a free adaptation of a melody by his grandfather for violin and piano. A. Oratovski made a version for cello and piano.
Song of a Knight Errant (in Memory of the Minnesinger Süßkind of Trimberg) for Cello and Piano, Op. 34 (1921). The composition is dedicated to a unique personality from the Middle Ages, the Jewish minstrel from the 13th century. It is based on an organic fusion of medieval Provençal and Jewish melodic intonations; the percussive chords in the piano evoke the hoof beats of the minstrel’s horse.
Jewish Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 37 (1923-1926).
I. “Yad Anuga Haita Lah” / “There Is No Hand More Tender” is an artistic adaptation of an Arabian melody Gnesin transcribed in Palestine in 1921. The Hebrew lyrics are by Zalman Shneur.
II. “Song of Mariamna” (fragment from Hebbel’s tragedy “Herod and Mariamna”) is a vocalization without words. The melody is structured upon archaic intonations of the oldest Jewish melodies.
III. “From the Song of Songs” (chapter 8, stanza 8-10, “Akhot Lanu Ketana” / “We Have a Little Sister”) is a playful song based on melodic elements from Jewish dances.
IV. “Song About Red-headed Mottele” (“Grandfather and Father Both Worked”), to lyrics from the ”Story of Red-headed Mottele” by I. Utkin, portrays the lyrical and ironic image of a poor small-town tailor who can laugh at his poverty. It realistically recreates the sound world of the Jewish province, the special way of chanting a poetic word and serves as the opening song of Gnesin’s vocal cycle Op. 44, which includes seven more songs from I. Utkin’s “Story of Red-headed Mottele.”
V. “Der Soyne Ba Di Toyern” / “The Enemy Is at the Gates,” to lyrics by Osher Schwarzman, stigmatizes the instigators of pogroms. Its melodious language is based on a fusion of synagogal recitative and Jewish song.
In this vocal cycle, Gnesin elaborates on Mussorgsky’s tradition of creating realistic musical images, depicting scenes from the ancient and modern history of the Jewish people.
“(H)Ora” (Galilean Workers Dance). Variations for Four-hand Piano, Op. 35 (1922-1923) is based on a traditional Jewish dancing tune Gnesin transcribed during his stay in Palestine.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G-Major, Op. 43 (1928) is dedicated to Galina Vankovich (Wankowicz), Gnesin’s second wife. It is an inspired lyrical poem in a very light mood, fully reflecting Gnesin’s artistic style that deeply penetrates the spirit of Jewish music without citing the well-known traditional melodies. This is his native musical language, organically fused with modern musical dynamics.
Three Melodies / Small Pieces for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 60 (1942). The three melodies stem from incidental music Gnesin wrote for the plays “On the Eve”, “Russian People” and “A Soldier Came Walking from the Front” staged at the Mari Drama Theatre in Ioshkar-Ola, where Gnesin was evacuated during the war.
I. “Song of Dzjerèn” is based on a Turkmen tune
II. “Ukrainian Dance”
III. “Lyrical Intermezzo” is a free interpretation of a Russian folk
“Music to ‘The Story of Red-Headed Mottele’ by I. Utkin,” for Voice and Piano, Op. 44 (1926). This song cycle contains eight songs depicting realistic scenes from a small Jewish town just after the Revolution. The clash of traditional Jewish customs with new revolutionary practices creates cheerful, absurd and sad situations that Red-headed Mottele, the hero of this cycle, collides with. In keeping with the poetic text, which renders a refined interpretation (in Russian) of Yiddish shtetl speech with its typical idiosyncrasies, the music subtly reproduces its intonations, using the whole arsenal of shtetl music – lyrical nigunim, festive melodies and synagogal recitatives. The composer thus not only attains a perception of authenticity in the musical setting, but also a rare artistic wholeness, almost unparalleled in Jewish art music.
Many years later Shostakovich attained this in the song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry,” as did M. Weinberg in his “Jewish Songs.”
“Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of the City Mayor.” Suite from the Incidental Music to Gogol’s Play “Revisor” (Grotesque), Op. 41 (1926).
I. Félicitation (Fantasia),
II. Quadrille (Polka, Romance, Waltz, Gavotte, Petits Pieds, Gallop).
Gnesin composed this work for the performance of Gogol’s play at the Meyerhold State Theater, staged by the great director V. Meyerhold. In the party scene, Meyerhold staged a Jewish orchestra that played ballroom dance music, as in Gogol’s time. Gnesin noted, “this work, called ‘grotesque,’ belongs to the realm of musical humor; jest and burlesque are transported to ‘laughter through tears’ […] a peculiar phenomenon common in folk music, namely the music of Jewish klezmer musicians is imitated by means of professional art music.” (M. Gnesin, Articles, Memories, Materials. Moscow, 1961, p.196-207). Using the form of conventional mid-19th-century dances, the composer saturates them with typical Jewish intonations, creating the comical effect of paradoxical disharmony of form and musical content. The melodic material of this composition is largely by the composer, but he made extensive use of melodies from his grandfather’s songs (who lived, by the way, at the time Gogol wrote his play).
Trio “In Memory of Our Perished Children” for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 63 (1943). The incentive for this work was the death of Gnesin’s son Fabiy during the war in 1942. This explains both the tragic nature of the music and the musical material used in it. The leitmotif of the trio is the Jewish folk song “Amol iz geven a judele” (Once There Was a Little Jewish Fellow) which tells of the death of a son. The second theme is a melody composed by Gnesin’s son in 1915 at the age of eight. The intense interaction of the two themes and their dramatic development form the musical drama of the trio.