Dem rebens nigun, op. 3 (1910) for string quartet
Today the composer Aleksandr Matveevich Zhitomirskii (1881-1937) is nearly absent from the history of classical music. But in his day he was an important figure in both the Jewish and Russian musical worlds as a composer and educator, respectively. Like many of his fellow Russian Jewish composers, he was born in the Pale of Settlement, in his case in the city of Kherson (present-day southern Ukraine). Zhitomirskii studied first in Odessa at the Imperial Russian Music School, then journeyed to St. Petersburg to meet his musical heroes, Russian composers Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov, Anatoly Liadov, and Aleksandr Glazunov. Not only did he succeed in studying with all three of these professors, but four years after his own graduation, in 1914, he himself was appointed professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. For the next two decades he taught theory and composition at the Conservatory, training an entire generation of Soviet composers.
In addition to his work in the musical mainstream, Zhitomirskii joined his fellow Jewish musicians in the post-1905 national revival of Jewish music. The result was the Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908, in which he promptly assumed a prominent role. One of Zhitomirskii’s signature achievements in this sphere was his role as co-editor and arranger of the musical selections in the 1912 Songbook for Jewish School and Family, a singularly influential work that sold thousands of copies and went through four editions, ushering in a new era of compositional creativity among Jewish composers in Eastern Europe.
Among his own compositions was Dem Rebens Nigun (“The Rabbi’s Melody”), published in 1910, a string quartet piece that achieved great popularity. Dedicated to his father, the piece, marked “andante religioso,” transforms a Hasidic melody (literally, the Rabbi’s Melody) into a classical string fantasia. The simple loping duple-meter melody calls to the mind the khosidl, a Hasidic slow shuffle-cum-dance to which soulful melodies are chanted over and over in an ecstatic drone. In Zhitomirskii’s hands, the theme receives virtuoso violin flourishes, lively interplay between the string parts, and a steady upward melodic movement, denoting a spiritual search for transcendence.