Jewish Art Music: A Brief Historical Tour

As long as there has been art music as we know it, Jews have been involved as performers, composers, conductors, scholars, critics, publishers, and impresarios

The first Jew to rise to prominence as a composer did so in the early seventeenth century. In the context of the Italian Renaissance, Salamone de Rossi began the tradition of writing complex choral music for the synagogue. De Rossi’s compositions remain a popular choral work to this day.

This trend of liturgical composition continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the most modern of the Jewish communities in Western and Central Europe produced oratorios and even cantatas complete with soloists, choirs, and orchestral parts. Much of this music has lain forgotten in archives and libraries throughout Europe, and only recently have scholars begun to recover these obscure masterpieces.

By the early nineteenth century, Jewish musicians had begun a dramatic entry into the world of European classical music. Hundreds eventually achieved local and international artistic fame, a significant number as composers, including Jacques Offenbach, Jacques Fromenthal-Halevy, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Anton Rubinstein, and Felix Mendelssohn.

These composers ranged in their approach to Jewish music. Jewish themes, both melodic and otherwise, are strongly visible in several of Halevy’s major works. Others, like Mendelssohn and Rubinstein, were notable for their very ambiguous and complicated relationship to Jewishness, which is reflected in their oratorios and operas.

In addition to these great, well-known masters, there was as well a whole host of other nineteenth-century composers writing Jewish art music.

Fascinating figures from this period abound, such as the English Jew Isaac Nathan, who set his good friend Lord Byron’s famous cycle of poems, “Hebrew Melodies” to music, the French Orthodox Jewish mystic Charles-Valentin Alkan, a close friend of Liszt and Chopin, who wrote music to biblical themes in a grand Romantic style, the Viennese cantor and synagogue composer Salomon Sulzer, to whom Schubert dedicated his own musical setting of a Hebrew psalm as a gesture of esteem, and the German Jew Ferdinand Hiller, renowned for his Jewish liturgical choral works.

In a curious parallel trend, many non-Jewish nineteenth-century composers also began to write Jewish-themed art music as well, including the likes of Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Max Bruch.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a new school of modern Jewish composers stormed onto the European stage. Gathering in the great Russian conservatories of St. Petersburg and Moscow, these young Jewish musicians imbibed both the bold currents of the Russian Silver Age and the sweeping winds of secular Jewish nationalism.

Encouraged by eminent Russian musical figures such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, and Alexander Scriabin, composers such as Joel Engel, Alexander Krein, Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnesin, Leo Zeitlin, and Lazare Saminsky collectively embraced a more explicit and ambitious goal of forging a new, modern style of Jewish art music.

To do so, they went beyond any of their predecessors in terms of researching and collecting the most distinctive, ancient examples of Jewish liturgical chant and the wide range of secular folk songs and instrumental tunes. The result was very quickly recognized as an electrifying blend of the Jewish traditional and European classical musical styles.

Over the course of the twentieth century, this new Jewish musical ethos spread rapidly west from Russia to Europe and then the Americas, and east to the Middle East. Soon it would penetrate the works of other great twentieth-century composers, both Jewish (Ernest Bloch, Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland, Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco, Paul Dukas, Leonard Bernstein, and Steve Reich) and non-Jewish (Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitrii Shostakovich, and Roy Harris).

Beyond this general burst of creativity, many of these composers enlarged the formal structures of Jewish music, producing symphonies, grand oratorios, operas, and works that cleverly elide even further the distinction between synagogue and concert hall.

Behind the most famous names, there were literally scores and scores of other talented twentieth-century Jewish composers who wrote explicitly Jewish art music, from the relatively well-known (Karl Goldmark, Alexander Zemlinsky, Stephan Wolpe, Alexander Tansman, David Diamond, Samuel Adler) to the unjustly obscure (Paul Dessau, Eric Zeisl, Rudolf Reti, Moses Pergament, David Tamkin, and Lukas Foss).

So too the modern composers of Israel contributed a considerable body of work (Paul Ben-Haim, Alexander Boskovich, Max Stern, Mordechai Seter, Ben-Zion Orgad, Mark Kopytman, Tzvi Avni, Odoeon Partos, and Shulamit Ran, and Joseph Dorfman).

Today Jewish art music remains a huge arena of compositional activity, as major new work continues to emerge from contemporary composers. It is these Jewish musical expressions, past and present, which Pro Musica Hebraica hopes to introduce to the international concert stage.