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JEWISH ACADEMIC & UNIVERSITY NEWS
U.Va. Professor Explores Lost History of Russian-Jewish Composers
Source: UVA Today, 2-22-12
(Photo: Jack Looney)
University of Virginia historian James Loeffler explores the lost world of Jewish composers working in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution in his new, award-winning book.
“The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire,” examines composers who viewed themselves as both Jewish and Russian and who saw their work contributing to both identities. He focuses on the second half of the 19th century through the Russian Revolution, covering two generations of composers.
The research director of Pro Musica Hebraica, Loeffler is a pianist who has been actively involved in Jewish music for the past decade as a scholar, critic and performer. He co-founded the Jewish Music Forum, a new national academic organization supported by the American Society for Jewish Music and the Center for Jewish History in New York, and has served as a music consultant to numerous organizations and institutions.
Loeffler’s book has been lauded by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, receiving its Béla Bartók Award for Outstanding Ethnomusicology Book, and the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which presented him the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies. His work was a finalist for the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which recognizes the important role of emerging writers in examining the Jewish experience.
Loeffler’s book fills an important void in the scholarship of these composers, said Joel Rubin, an assistant professor and director of music performance in U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Music.
“This is the first substantial piece of research on this movement,” Rubin said. “A lot of what had existed before was old and romantic and not up to the standards of scholarship we are used to today. It is important he has tackled the subject and I am happy to have more material I can teach to my students.”
Rubin said the composers were influenced by Zionism and feelings of national aspiration, as well as by their Christian Russian contemporaries to create artistic music with Jewish roots. He said Western classical music evolved over a long time, without much contribution from Jews until the latter part of the 19th century.
“These are people who left the shtetl and went to the conservatory,” Loeffler said. “These are the contemporaries of Piotyr Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later Igor Stravinsky.” Among them was Anton Rubinstein, a Russian-Jewish pianist and composer and a founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first in Russia.
“The people I write about are complex, but they felt they had to be validated by others,” Loeffler said. “They thought they were Russians and Jews and that they didn’t have to choose. They thought they were furthering classical music, that their twin identities would feed into each other and that they would be more accepted. And for a brief period they were heralded as the young guns, bringing Russian classical music into the modern era.”
But the brief period did not last. Loeffler said they had to choose an identity; if they did not choose, one was assigned.
“They believed art would transcend politics, but they found that it didn’t,” Loeffler said. “The Russian culture liked Jewish music, but it didn’t like Jews.”
Russian composers, though, wrote on many classic Jewish themes, Loeffler said, citing Dmitri Shostakovich and his the song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and his 13th Symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar.”
“It becomes a symbol that represents to liberals a freer, more pluralistic Russia that embraces minorities and allows free expression – or it warns of the dangers of a fifth column within the society,” Loeffler said. “It becomes a barometer of what kind of Russian you are.”…READ MORE