New Life for Lost Jewish Music

  • Moment Magazine

It was Robyn Krauthammer who came up with the idea for what was to become Pro Musica Hebraica – a project to revive forgotten Jewish classical music from a century ago. A lawyer turned painter and sculptor, Robyn converted to Judaism before her marriage to Charles Krauthammer, the influential conservative columnist. “She is more Jewish than I am,” Charles says, smiling at his wife. “She has a real love and feeling for it.”

Pro Musica Hebraica grew out of a conversation Robyn had with the cantor at the couple’s Maryland synagogue about lost Jewish music. “I was intrigued when he told us that the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov criticized his Jewish students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory for not applying their own heritage to their music,” she says, “so they formed the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1908.”

Charles interjects: “Originally, they called it the Society for Jewish Music, but one of the tsar’s bureaucrats couldn’t imagine that Jews were capable of classical music, so he added ‘folk’ to the name.”

Most of this rich, passionate Jewish music was suppressed by the Communists when they came to power and was never performed. To rescue the repertoire from oblivion and bring it to the stage, the Krauthammers founded Pro Musica Hebraica in 2004. They began by recruiting James Loeffler, an assistant professor of European Jewish history at the University of Virginia, as research director. Loeffler combed through the archives of the former Soviet Union for unpublished manuscripts and recordings. “Ironically, much of the music survived because the Soviets saved all the paper, locking it up in benign neglect,” he says. “I was able to unlock it because there were librarians who held on to it for decades.”

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