The Gnesin project
Tribute to Mikhail Gnesin
The Gnesin Project, featuring Jewish songs and chamber music by Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin (1883–1957), was the first production of the Foundation for Jewish Music Projects (JMP).
Gnesin, a great Russian composer
Gnesin’s music was a find. When we launched this project, his music was virtually unknown in the West. It was not well known even in Russia, where Jewish music was “forgotten” during the repressive Stalinist regime.
We found his scores in libraries in various cities with the help of Anat Fort, Alexander Oratovski and Grigory Sedukh. The composer-musicologist Prof. A.G. Yusfin from St. Petersburg, who had studied with Gnesin, agreed to write a comprehensive introduction to Gnesin’s life and work providing much needed information.
Link to the introduction: ‘Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin, Composer, Scholar, Teacher, Citizen’ by Abram Yusfin
Prof. Yusfin regarded Mikhail Gnesin as one of the great Russian composers of the first half of the 20th century as well as an influential music theorist and teacher who played an important role in Russian musical culture. Gnesin was awarded the title of “Honored Worker of the Arts of RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic)” in 1927.
Gnesin, who studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Lyadov, composed many significant works inspired by Jewish musical traditions. His music is characterized by melodic intensity, liveliness and artistic originality. Gnesin was a founding member of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music established in 1908 by a group of young Jewish composers in an effort to create a Jewish national school of art music.
Yet, it was precisely the Jewish essence of his music that became the main obstacle to widespread recognition. His chosen style was disapproved of by the dictator Stalin, who prescribed socialist realism for the arts.
Prof. Yusfin writes “There was […] a secret oral instruction to limit the number of compositions on Jewish subjects for performance, and there are many testimonies to that: ‘There was a blacklist of musicians and musical pieces they were advised not to perform’ (‘Ogonyek’, No. 33, August 1990, p. 16). This was enough, and the rest was done by the ‘functionaries of the arts’. Understandably, performers began to avoid compositions and composers that could make it hard to obtain permission to include them in concert programs.”
Gnesin’s music was stigmatized and could not be performed for many decades.
Gnesin’s work rediscovered
After a smashing tryout in New York in 2001, where we performed Gnesin’s Jewish Songs, Op. 37, we organized and gave concerts in The Netherlands and in Geneva and London in 2002 with a full, varied concert program of Gnesin’s music. And in 2003 there was another round of concerts in St. Petersburg and Moscow celebrating the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
The musicians who performed in the first tour in 2002 were Sovali (Sofie van Lier), soprano, Anat Fort, piano, Perry Robinson, clarinet, Grigory Sedukh, violin & piccolo violin, Alexander Oratovski, cello and Roberto Haliffi, percussion. They came from different continents and backgrounds. As Anat, Perry and Roberto were improvising musicians, we agreed to make room for improvisations in the program. Alexander Oratovski and Jeroen Goldsteen did the arrangements. On a special occasion, pianist Marcel Worms also joined to play the 4-hand piano piece “(H)Ora” with Anat and the piano part of the Trio, Op. 63. At later concerts, clarinetist Michel Marang, violinist Marten Boeken, percussionist Michael Vatcher, cellist Alexander Sagalovich and pianists Reinild Mees, Galina Fialko and Sara Crombach took part in the performances. The combination of their talents and skills resulted in surprising, unconventional performances of Gnesin’s works.
Our program included the following works by Gnesin
• A Nigun fun Schajke Pfajfer, for cello and piano (1914)
• Song of a Knight Errant, to the memory of the minstrel Süßkind von Trimberg, for cello and piano, Op. 34 (1921)
• Jewish Songs, for voice and piano, Op. 37 (1923-1926)
• (H)Ora (Galilean Workman’s Dance). Variations for 4-hands piano, Op. 35 (1922-1923)
• Sonata in D-Major for violin and piano, Op. 43 (1928)
• Three Melodies (Small Pieces) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, Op. 60 (1942)
• Music to “The Story of Red-Headed Mottele by Josef Utkin” for voice and piano, Op. 44 (1926-1929)
• Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of the City Mayor (Grotesque). Suite of the Music to Gogol’s “Revisor” at the Theater of V.E. Meyerhold, Op. 41 (1926)
• Trio for violin, cello and piano “to the Memory of our Perished children”, Op. 63 (1943).
Prof. A.G. Yusfin said of the St. Petersburg performances, “The success of the concerts was due to the great performance of the international collective, their enthusiasm and dedication to this project. With interest and pleasure, I took part in these concerts with two lectures on the life and work of Gnesin. After the concerts, listeners expressed their gratitude and astonishment – they never heard Gnesin’s music before and didn’t realize that he was so great a composer. I think it’s very important that for the first time the listeners could hear the music of this professional Jewish composer, who was undeservedly forgotten.”
Our performance of Gnesin’s music was recorded on November 10 and 11, 2002, and December 12, 2005 at the Bethaniënklooster in Amsterdam by audio-engineer Dick Lucas. The recording was released on JMP CD003 Tribute to Mikhail Gnesin in 2009.
There are some programming changes on the CD. Not yet released on the CD were the improvisations on A Nigun fun Schajke Pfajfer and the Jewish Songs Op. 37, and the Sonata in D major for violin and piano, Op. 43.
Tribute to Mikhail Gnesin – Songs and Chamber Music
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“We enormously enjoyed the fascinating program […] already anticipating that something special was awaiting us […] you did not prove us wrong […] The musicians’ inspired playing set the audience aflame […] they were ravingly enthusiastic.”
“This CD captures essential rhythms of Russian Jewish life both religious and secular in a balanced fusion that is uncommon and memorable. […] It shows the range of the composer from evocative passion to playful dances. It is a wonderful introduction to Gnesin’s music.”
“This concert really gave London the opportunity to hear the varied output of this composer for the first time.”
“Congratulations! I see a great triumph and success in retrieving one of the great 20th-century musicians to the art of performance. Your project “Mikhail Gnesin”, which began in 2002, has now undergone wonderful development. You are returning Gnesin’s music to St. Petersburg, the city where he studied and matured, and received his professional basis at the highest artistic level, and to Moscow, which was the center of his life as a Jewish artist and an educator of generations of composers and musicians. As a former student of Prof. Litinsky and a student and teacher at the Academy of Music, I was also influenced and gained from Gnesin’s superb artistry that radiated on generations of musicians. I am very pleased that Prof. A. Yusfin wrote the concise and excellent article on Gnesin’s life and artistic creation.”
“I congratulate you for your artistic contribution to the renewal of the international interest on Gnesin.
“I listened to the recording of the concert and I can say that the concert turned out very good. Your singing is highly artistic and shows profound comprehension of this music.”
“For the first time in Russia an international ensemble performed the songs and chamber music of M.F. Gnesin. The professionalism, virtuosity and artistry of each musician made a deep impression on the audience. Sovali (soprano), Alexander Oratovski (violoncello), Michel Marang (clarinet) and Michael Vatcher (percussion) performed in friendly association with the Russian musicians Grigory Sedukh (violin, Piccolo-violin) and Galina Fialko (piano) an interesting and varied program fully showing Gnesin’s creative oeuvre. Singer Sovali gave an appealing performance of the song cycle ‘Music to the Story of Red-headed Mottele’.”
“It’s wonderful, that you do such an important work as your Gnesin project.”
“I have been listening to [the CD] steadily for several week and find a new composition drawing me in each time. As the program notes indicate, the CD “introduces the music” of this composer to an audience very probably unfamiliar with his work. Track one, “Song of a Knight Errant” for violoncello and piano is a melodic open door, leading into the first collection of Jewish songs for voice and piano from the 1920s. Delicate and haunting, they stretch traditional melodic lines into a modernist dissonance. The soprano Sovali (Sofie van Lier) […] is totally at home in this music, moving her haunting voice easily from lyrics based on the Song of Songs to secular pieces about standing in line at the market. Israeli pianist Anat Fort plays with a restraint that most expressive. The CD captures essential rhythms of Russian Jewish life both religious and secular in a balanced fusion that is uncommon and memorable. This is also a rare and beautiful production in giving voice and chamber ensemble equal footing. It shows the range of the composer from evocative passion to playful dances. This CD is a wonderful introduction to Gnesin’s music. Highly recommended.