Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Jewish Paradox of Russian Music

In his 1931 short story, ‘Awakening,’ the writer Isaac Babel recalls one of the great cultural spectacles of his childhood in fin-de-siecle Odessa. ‘[In] the course of ten years or so,’ he writes, ‘our town supplied the concert platforms of the world with infant prodigies. From Odessa came Mischa Elman, Zimbalist, Gabrilowitsch. Odessa witnessed the first step of Jascha Heifetz.’ Babel contrasts these Jewish prodigies with his own alter ego’s musical efforts: ‘The sounds dripped from my fiddle like iron filings, causing even me excruciating agony, but father wouldn’t give in. At home there was no talk save of Mischa Elman, exempted by the Tsar himself from military service. Zimbalist, father would have us know, had been presented to the King of England and had played at Buckingham Palace. The parents of Gabrilowitsch had bought two houses in St. Petersburg. Infant prodigies brought wealth to their parents, but though my father could have reconciled himself to poverty, fame he must have.’
‘Fame’ is not a word usually associated with the history of Jews in Eastern Europe. The traditional images—pious yeshiva students, enraptured Hasidim, defiant young socialists, pathetic pogrom victims—leave little room for Jewish violinists charming the Tsars and Russian public alike with their dazzling talents. But Babel’s portrait of the writer as a young, suffering fiddle-player derives from a startling fact of Russian Jewish life: year after year, across both the Tsarist and Soviet eras, a constant stream of musical virtuosi emerged from the Russian conservatories to parade across the stages of Odessa, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, violinist David Oistrakh, pianist Evgeny Kissin—the extraordinary list goes on and on. To be sure, not every Russian Jew was a musical genius, as Babel’s self-mockery suggests. But the Jewish presence in Russian classical music ran as wide as it did deep.

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It peaked in particularly dramatic fashion just before the Russian Revolution. Less than 5 percent of the total Russian population at that time, Jews numbered over 50 percent of the students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a demographic feat that produced its own commentary. Students joked that it was the only school in the Russian Empire with a quota for non-Jewish students. In Odessa the situation reached a point of absurdity. With over 80 percent of the student body Jewish, in 1916 the Conservatory officials reacted by launching a novel affirmative action scholarship program for ethnic Russians. Of course, Jewish visibility in a bitterly antisemitic regime had an obvious downside. Charges of Jewish opportunism were common, particularly since a conservatory degree provided a draft deferment and a legal pathway out of the Pale of Settlement. Professional antisemites, such as the music critic Emil Medtner, a leading member of the Russian symbolist movement, spoke darkly of a plague of ‘little Jew boys from Lodz’ ruining Russian and European music with their ‘Asiatic’ and ‘barbarous’ ways. Even well-meaning friends were liable to resort to specious racial explanations for the preponderance of Jewish musical talent. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin once declared that without Jews, ‘music would die out.’ Yet, he went on to explain that this talent stemmed from the biologically feminine character of the Jewish race, which predisposed them to more sensitive, lyrical instruments: ‘For an orchestra to sound right,’ he confided to a colleague, ‘it must have no less than 15 percent Jews in the string and horn sections.’

To explain the special relationship between Russian Jews and music we must return to the man who invented the modern classical music profession in Russia: Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894). Though his name is barely remembered today (and often confused with an equally great pianist of no relation: Artur Rubinstein), in the second half of the nineteenth-century Rubinstein stood virtually without equal as a pianist in Europe, considered by many as the sole successor to Franz Liszt. His colourful, titanic personality and prodigious musical feats inspired George Eliot to write him into Daniel Deronda, in thinly-veiled form, as Herr Klesmer, the symbolic centrepiece of the novel. Born in a shtetl near Berdichev and baptized as an infant, he grew up in Moscow and Berlin. The result was a quintessential European Jewish cosmopolitan, who summed up his own fate thus: ‘To the Jews I am a Christian. To the Christians, a Jew. To the Russians I am a German, and to the Germans, a Russian. For the classicists I am a musical innovator, and for the musical innovators I am an artistic reactionary and so on. The conclusion: I am neither fish nor fowl, in essence a pitiful creature.’
Rubinstein was not only prone to grand statements; he also sought grand solutions to his life’s dilemma. He dreamed up the Russian conservatory as an instrument of artistic emancipation for Jews and Russians alike. His quest to liberate classical music in Russia from its ancien regime legal shackles and Slavic provincialism took a decisive turn in 1862, when he opened the St. Petersburg Conservatory. From its founding, the school enjoyed a reputation as a particularly liberal and tolerant Russian educational institution. And it proved extremely popular with Jews. In the five decades before 1917, they flocked in increasingly large numbers to St. Petersburg and other music schools across the Russian Empire. To these thousands upon thousands of young Russian Jews, music beckoned as a path to European enlightenment and Russian citizenship, crucially one which didn’t demand an abandonment of their Jewishness. Music’s secular universalism required no grappling with dogmatic questions of belief. Nor did it insist on an existential choice about the proper language of expression, the recurring problem for Jewish writers. Besides this cultural neutrality, music’s appeal also stemmed from its continued accessibility as an educational option. When in the late 1880s the Tsarist authorities introduced quotas at universities and institutes to staunch the growing influx of Jews into Russian society, the St. Petersburg Conservatory—along with many of its sister schools around the empire—successfully staved off the new restrictive policy. Women were admitted in equal numbers as well, in stark contrast to almost every other university-level institution in Russia.
That this thin cordon of liberalism prevailed at all is remarkable given its cultural setting. For nineteenth-century Russian music was otherwise a seething cauldron of nationalist brio. However sentimentally we may like to remember the great Russian composers for their Romantic souls and rebellious spirits, many were also unabashed Slavic chauvinists and rabid antisemites, including the likes of Modest Mussorgsky and Mili Balakirev. Before the St. Petersburg Conservatory had barely opened, let alone admitted Jewish students in noticeable numbers, it was loudly attacked as a ‘synagogue’ run by one Rabbi ‘Rebenstein,’ a place where foreign ‘Yankels’ incapable of composing their own national art simply imitated and corrupted Russian music. Russian antisemites continued to voice this canard with increasing volume across the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. More striking, however, is the fact that after 1900 Jews also began to ask whether perhaps the antisemites were correct in their claims. The strange fact of the preponderance of Jewish musicians coupled with the ostensible dearth of Jewish classical music led even Jewish nationalists to lament that Jews had failed to grow their own musical garden. As one St. Petersburg critic wrote at the time, ‘They say that we Jews are the most musical nation, that the violin is our national instrument; we have given the world composers of genius; we have more professional musicians among us than any other people . . . . And at the same time, you will hardly find another nation whose national music has been so much neglected as ours.’
In 1908, a group of St. Petersburg Conservatory Jewish students took it upon themselves to rectify this problem. Their solution was to launch a new organisation known as the Society for Jewish Folk Music. The idealistic collective soon spawned a Jewish national musical movement that spread rapidly across Russia. Its leaders constituted the pride of Russia’s younger generation of composers:
Mikhail Gnesin, Moisei Milner, Joel Engel, and Alexander Krein. Disciples of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, friends and rivals of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, these young composers envisaged a modern Jewish music capable of standing alongside the grand national schools of Germany, Russia, Hungary, and Italy. Drawing on the rich folk sources of Ashkenazi Jewry—Hasidic nigunim, Yiddish songs, klezmer dance melodies, and the like—they forged a repertoire of Yiddish lieder, chamber works, choral arrangements, symphonies, and operas.
In the turbulent decade before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Jewish composers of Russia pursued their national mission. In St. Petersburg and Moscow, they formed nonprofit publishing concerns to disseminate their music virtually for free. They sponsored lectures, concert tours, and large-scale outdoor symphony performances, even as World War I raged on around them. And like all the great European Romantics before them, they worshipped at the altar of authentic folkpeople. Hauling primitive phonographs around the Pale, these Russified musicians raced to save the melodies and lyrics of Yiddish-speaking Jews as the world of the shtetl rapidly eroded. Their nostalgic devotion to folklore was matched, however, by a quintessentially modern impulse of reinvention. To save Jewish folk music meant uprooting it from its native cultural terrain. Once isolated, the ‘frozen folk songs’ could be freely recast along modern harmonic and rhythmic lines. More often than not, it was the stylistic conventions of Russian classical music—the late Romanticism of Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, and Taneev, the impressionistic modernism of Scriabin—that formed the template for this new genre of Jewish classical music. If Jewish music looked to Russian music for inspiration, the reverse also held true. For one of the most intriguing aspects of the Russian-Jewish musical encounter was the cultural infusion of Yiddishkayt into the heart of Russian classical music. There were, of course, the early flirtations with Jewish folk melodies on the part of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and even Glinka, part of their wider foray into Oriental exoticism. But ironically it was during the Soviet period that the sounds of Yiddish folk song and klezmer interpenetrated furthest into the aesthetic fabric of Soviet classical music. The trend began after 1917, as Krein, Gnesin and other Jewish compatriots initially received a surprising degree of recognition and support from the Bolshevik state for their Jewish symphonies, folk song collections, and related endeavours. The best example of this phenomenon is found in the famous friendship between the Soviet Union’s greatest composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and his Jewish doppelganger, Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). Their relationship reveals the depth of the Jewish imprint on the Russian musical imagination. Shostakovich’s biographers have all puzzled over why this ethnic Russian composer, so sensitive to the Bolshevik political winds, suddenly decided in the mid-1940s to start writing Jewishthemed music. The answer lies in the story of his wartime friendship with a younger Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland. During World War II, Weinberg, son of a Warsaw Yiddish theatre composer, sought refuge in the Soviet Union. The two men met in 1943, and from that point on were virtually inseparable. Weinberg came to Shostakovich as a young composer and quickly adopted some key features of Shostakovich’s musical style as his own, particularly the distinctive admixture of modernist textures and folk idioms. At the same time, Shostakovich found in Weinberg’s Jewish background a captivating source of inspiration. From the mid-1940s onward, he began to insert Yiddish melodic inflections, pulsating klezmer rhythms, and Jewish programmatic elements into his works. Over the next few years, both men produced a body of Jewish-themed music, including hauntingly similar settings of Yiddish poetry.
The relationship between Weinberg and Shostakovich was so close and continuous that scholars have often wondered who inspired whom. A case in point is their respective ‘Holocaust’ symphonies. Shostakovich’s 1962 Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled ‘Babi Yar,’ and Weinberg’s 1963 Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the ‘Jewish Violin’ represent two of the most searing musical memorials ever created. Remarkably similar in form and theme (both are five-movement choral symphonies in A minor, with the last three movements performed without interruption), they also constitute parallel portraits of the intertwined history of Russians and Jews. Taken together, the works reveal how resilient and entrenched Jewish musicality remained—as cultural symbol and social reality—in Soviet culture. Indeed, Shostakovich’s symphony, which commemorates the 1941 Nazi massacre of 33,000 Jews on Soviet soil, features one of the most provocative lines to emerge from the mouth of a modern Russian artist. At the end of the first movement, the narrator declares, ‘No Jewish blood runs through my veins, but I feel the corrosive hatred of the antisemites as if I were a Jew, and that is why I am a true Russian!’ Weinberg’s work repays the favour by combining Yiddish and Russian poetry to extol the universal, redemptive power of music, underscored by a dynamic third movement of surging rhythms and violin effects that summon up both the klezmer tradition and the somewhat similar scherzo movement in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. The Russian-Jewish musical encounter encapsulated in the friendship of Shostakovich and Weinberg is all the more compelling given the virulent antisemitism and Stalinist terror that overshadowed the middle decades of the twentiethcentury. From the outset, Soviet officials vacillated between the contradictory policies of promoting Jewish music and denying its existence. So too did the statistical predominance of Jews in Soviet classical music prove to be an embarrassment among Communist Party apparatchiks determined to put a proper ethnic Russian face on Soviet culture. The Stalinist anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the 1940s attempted to solve this problem once and for all. Bolshevik cultural officials produced detailed ‘exposeÅLs’ of the Jewish numbers in music, absurdly framed as a Zionist threat to Communist rule. Less laughable were the purges. Stalin’s ‘silent pogrom’ began in 1948 with the murder of actor Solomon Mikhoels, who happened to be Mieczysław Weinberg’s father-in-law and the person responsible for introducing him to Shostakovich. Soon other composers and musicians began to be rounded up. Weinberg’s turn came in February 1953, when he was arrested and accused of a secret CIA-funded plot to launch a breakaway Jewish Republic in the Crimea. Weinberg’s possession of a Jewish liturgical music anthology was taken as proof of his intent to launch the would-be Jewish Republic’s national conservatory along bourgeois, imperialist, and, of course, Zionist lines. Only Stalin’s death a month later ended the anti-Jewish campaign and spared Weinberg his life.
How far did Stalin intend to go in his repression of Soviet Jewry? Even with the benefit of hindsight and tantalising glimpses at formerly secret Soviet archives, it is difficult to say. One thing, however, is clear. In the case of Soviet music, he would have faced a formidable challenge in attempting to disentangle Russians and Jews. Stalin’s own favourite singer was Leonid Utesov, another native Jew of Odessa, who introduced jazz to the Soviet Union and klezmer to Russian popular song. His favourite pianist was Maria Yudina, whose recording of Mozart’s piano concerto (made in the middle of the night after Stalin heard a live radio broadcast and requested the disc be brought to him) was said to be spinning on his record player at the moment of his death. And the prestige of Soviet culture abroad depended in large part on the greatness of genius talents such as David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, and Emil Gilels. Year after year, these soloists were trotted out around the world to perform the Russian classics and burnish the Cold War reputation of Soviet culture as a repository of urbane European humanism.
Just as in the Tsarist era, individual Jewish fame did little to resolve later Soviet Jewish vulnerability. But it did suggest the fundamental embeddedness of Jews inside Russian culture. Political, religious, and ethnic outsiders, perennial scapegoats of the regime, Jews nevertheless emerged over time as remarkable cultural insiders and nowhere was this more obvious than in the musical realm. Music was not necessarily less political a cultural arena than literature or visual art in Tsarist and Soviet times. But its political import was not as immediately explicit, its ideological valences less transparent. Even at the most politically delicate moments therefore, the subject of Jewish musicians was somehow less fraught and more palatable to the authorities. Hence nineteenth-century Tsarist bureaucrats sometimes declined to enforce educational quotas on Jewish musicians by reference to the benign character of music (as opposed to commerce and law). Or the notoriously antisemitic, reactionary official who in the wake of the Revolution of 1905 legally approved the formation of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, noting with fondness how he had once heard klezmer music at a Jewish wedding in Odessa.
In fact, all roads eventually led back to Odessa. It was there that the intertwined dreams of Jewish musical fame and Russian liberal cosmopolitanism were born. Even at the height of Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR, when the political freedom of Soviet Jewry had become a subject of international controversy, the old Jewish musicians of Odessa still beckoned as a nostalgic symbol of the shared cultural past that linked East and West. Witness the famous quip of Russian-born violinist Isaac Stern, who summed up the entirety of Soviet-American cultural diplomacy in the simplest terms: ‘They send us their Jews from Odessa and we send them our Jews from Odessa.’ Isaac Babel could not have said it better.

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