Introducing the St. Petersburg School

Today when we hear the phrase “Jewish classical music,” we often think of composers such as Leonard Bernstein or Arnold Schoenberg. But the true modern history of Jewish art music begins more than 100 years ago in the city of St. Petersburg, then the cultural and political heart of Tsarist Russia.

It was there, beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, that a group of young composers embarked on a collective quest to forge a Jewish national style of art music. Using Jewish melodies passed down within their own families and collected from Jews still living in the Russian Pale of Settlement, the heartland of traditional East European Jewish life, these musicians produced a sophisticated repertoire of vocal, chamber, and orchestral music.

The Russian Jewish composers melded Hasidic melodies, Yiddish folksongs, and Jewish synagogue chants with the styles and techniques of their teachers and mentors, great Russian composers of the period such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, and Alexander Scriabin. The result was rich, passionate modern Jewish music.

Pro Musica Hebraica is a new organization founded with the express aim of bringing this and other great chapters in the history of Jewish art music to the concert hall. We aspire to expose our audience to the magnificent range of Jewish art music and to present Jewish composers not as cultural curiosities or ethnic heroes, but as complex, individual artists who have embraced the challenge of creatively expressing their Jewishness through the medium of music.

In our inaugural concert on April 10, 2008, Pro Musica Hebraica presented a program built around the vision and achievement of the St. Petersburg school of Russian Jewish composers associated with an early twentieth-century organization known as the Society for Jewish Folk Music. We featured a number of different composers’ works, including those of Joel Engel, Alexander Krein, Mikhail Gnesin, Leo Zeitlin, and Solomon Rosowsky. In addition, to convey the dramatic reach and powerful influence of the St. Petersburg school, we paired this music with that of one of their contemporary spiritual descendants, himself a leading young compositional voice in the United States today, composer Osvaldo Golijov.

In our 2008-2009 season, we explored further dimensions of the legacy of the St. Petersburg school. Our November 18, 2008 concert featured the ARC Ensemble of Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music in a dynamic performance of music composed in the aftermath of the two great world wars that remade the map of twentieth-century Eastern Europe, including two forgotten modern masterpieces by the mysterious Polish, Soviet and Jewish composer Miecyzslaw Weinberg, a haunting elegy written by Polish Jewish composer Szymon Laks shortly after his emergence from Auschwitz, and the evocative tribute to the St. Petersburg School by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, his post-World War I Overture on Hebrew Themes.

Then on March 19, 2009, the award-winning Biava Quartet returned to the Terrace Theater to present another journey a further journey into the world of the St. Petersburg Jewish composers and their descendants, including Leo Zeitlin’s stunning vocal suite and forgotten masterpieces by violin virtuoso Joseph Achron, Aleksandr Zhitomirskii, and Russian-born Hollywood film composer Michel Michelet, together with Dmitrii Shostakovich’s stirring Fourth String Quartet, inspired by his exposure to the world of Jewish folk music.

Our 2010-2011 season looked at the theme of war and exile, taking an original approach to the Jewish music of the Holocaust. In our November 18, 2010 concert, we examined the diverse paths Jewish composers traveled in their encounters with Nazi Europe. We revisited the forgotten genius of Walter Braunfels with a new release of his 1945 string quintet, Karel Berman’s Theresienstadt vocal cycle, and Paul Ben-Haim’s World War II-era love letters to the ancient Jewish homeland in the Middle East and the vanishing world of contemporary Jewish Mitteleuropa.