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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2012
Number 77
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Painful Presence: Jews in Russian Music

A review essay by Brian Horowitz

James Loeffler, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press

Here is a first book from a young scholar on Jewish music in Late-Tsarist Russia. The book has much to recommend it. We find chapters on the central figures, including Anton Rubinstein, Joel Engel, Zisman Kiselgof, and a number of lesser-known individuals. We are also presented with the essential issues of the day: among them: whether Jewish musicians should be accepted in Russian music, how Jewish musicians feel as Jews about their work, whether Jewish music exists as a separate category of music, and whether a modern composer can compose folk music. Richard Wagner’s notorious essay, “Judaism in Music” (1850), had a pervasive influence among Russian composers, “society,” and educated Jews.

The author’s unexpressed, but identifiable thesis is that simultaneously the following was occurring: Jews sought to use their talents in music for social advancement when other avenues were closed to them; Jewish musicians, even those we associate with Jewish folk music, were liberals in the sense that they wanted to participate as equals in at least two contexts, Russian and Jewish music; the government and society was at a loss about how to deal with the many Jewish prodigies. The government gave them access to the St. Petersburg conservatory, but discriminated against them socially. Thus, the last circumstance inhibited the first two, but did not suppress them entirely.

So Jewish musicians fought on two fronts. While they attempted to expand their rights with the goal of achieving equal rights (with the nobility, let it be remembered), they also reserved for themselves the right to identify as Jews and write, collect, and study Jewish music. The biographical trajectory of Anton Rubenstein is emblematic. He converted to Russian Orthodoxy to facilitate his integration and yet neither he nor his detractors could forget his Jewish origins. He showed an undying interest in Jewish liturgical and folk music and especially in Jewish themes. His opera, “The Macabees,” is an example. Rubenstein’s role clearly was to blaze the initial path for others to follow. He did this most effectively by establishing the St. Petersburg Music Conservatory in which many Jews, boys and girls, thrived as musicians and gained upon graduation permanent privileges, such as the right to live in Russia proper (out of the Pale of Settlement).

In the book Professor Loeffler traces the rise of Jewish nationalism and the role of music among self-conscious Jewish intellectuals. Just as in my book on the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia (Jewish Philanthropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia, 2009), so too the author discovers that Jewish nationalism emerges not from the folk, but rather the highly acculturated educated elite. Young Jews almost fully russified had to react to anti-Semitism, but they also sought to enrich themselves by practicing cultural nationalism. In this case they promoted the appreciation of Jewish music. Their concerts, sheet music, and recordings on a gramophone acquire enormous success.

Professor Loeffler explicates debates over what constitutes Jewish music. Questions swirl around whether music written by a concrete author constitute folk music or is folk music only music that cannot be attributed to a concrete composer; should music played by Jews but sounding a lot like that played by Hungarians or Czechs be included in the Jewish canon? The author’s final verdict, borrowed from Engel, is that whatever sounds like Jewish music is Jewish music. Today’s comparative folklore studies offer a porous model of cultural development, but back then these issues were bound up with politics writ large.

My only criticism is that the author underestimates how cosmopolitan a city like St. Petersburg was, despite its anti-Jewish laws. The experience of Jews was clearly two-sided. They lived in a world of full acceptance with allies and friends among the cultural elite, and yet were objects of opprobrium by the state (however mainly in the abstract, since many of these Jews were invited to court to perform). Although the author explains that Jews who wanted to get closer to the folk found that they could not do so and therefore neither belonged to the Russians or traditional Jews, there lacks a discussion about liberalism as an identity, which was a true alternative in late-tsarist Russia. Most, if not all the musicians, embodied this identity.

This book describes the intersection of music, politics, Jewish nationalism, and Jewish identity. It fills an important gap in our knowledge and will rest on the handbooks shelf for scholars of Russian and Jewish studies.


Brian Horowitz holds the Sizeler Family Chair Professor at Tulane University and is a contributing editor.

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