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Klára Móricz - The Art of Jewish Music, à la Russe

Jewish Identities - book coverMy knowledge of music in general, and of classical music in specific, is limited. But hearing of a lecture about Russia's Jewish Folk Music Society, during this, the centennial of the society's founding, was exciting. Here's the thing. Back in the early 20th century you had the Jews infiltrating Russian conservatories. They decided to band together and create "Jewish music." But, what did that mean?

First off, the name. Even though the society had little to do with folk music directly (although one society member, Joel Engel, was part of the An.sky expedition, and I'd guess that the expedition, itself, was an outgrowth of the Society's work and the intellectual ferment in which it existed), Russian law basically said that you had to claim to be a folk music society or nothing. So, "Jewish Folk Music Society." The compositional output of the society was primarily modern art song in Yiddish and Hebrew.

Yiddish and Hebrew? Are we speaking about the 20th century with which the rest of us are familiar? Well, one of the issues the Society dealt with was that it spanned communities. While some members were Zionist, some Bundish; some Yiddishist, some Hebraicists; many were apolitical. But all spoke in the language of ideology.

There are some fascinating parallels with modern times. According to the stories, the society was founded when Rimsky-Korsakov, listening to a Jewish-themed composition by one of his students, essentially said, "don't you folks have your own musical culture to build from? Do it?" I've twisted the story just enough to suggest a story told often by Klezmer revivalist Hank Sapoznik about a comment made by one of the bluegrass musicians he was interviewing back in the day.

An even stronger parallel could be made between the Art Song of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and the Radical Jewish Music that has been so popular in New York (although, like the relatively short arc of the SJFM, Radical Jewish Music is less explosive, less influential just a bit over a decade since John Zorn began recording it). There are some interesting differences between the two. In Russia 100 years ago composers were working with Jewish texts in Hebrew or Yiddish (depending on the political views of the composer), but attempting to remove the "oriental" elements from their music. The RJM of our century is largely without text--and most musicians recording on Zorn's label do not have the Jewish knowledge to approach Hebrew or Yiddish. But where they ignore text (however odd that may be for people of the book) they are very focused on Jewish-sounding music. No deracination of sound here.

Tonight's talk by Klára Móricz had nothing to do with Radical Jewish Music. Instead, she spoke about the music and politics and ideology (and lack thereof, in some cases) of these musicians. Ultimately, they had little interest inside Russia, and even those who left—Joseph Achron, Lazare Saminsky, and others, had relatively small influence on Jewish music, or on music in general, although several of them had respectable careers in music.

Móricz has written a recent book, Jewish Identities: Nationalism, Racism, and Utopianism in Twentieth-Century Music (California Studies in 20th-Century Music). The subject of tonight's lecture is from the first chapter in the book. If the rest is as good as tonight's lecture, I will thoroughly enjoy the book.