I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Sam Zerin recently to discuss the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music. It is a fascinating topic. Since Temple Emanu-El has a musical performance on Sunday, Dec. 3, at 4 p.m., featuring compositions from this group of Jewish-Russian musicians, I wanted to know more about them. Zerin, a Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology at New York University and a visiting lecturer in music theory at Brown University, is completing a dissertation related to this subject.
According to Zerin, the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music was formed in 1908 by a group of Jewish students who wanted to compose Jewish classical music. Among their activities were organized concerts and published Jewish sheet music, mostly violin music, piano solos, and vocal songs. They also met once a month to share their latest compositions and discuss what constituted Jewish music.
There were two major schools of thought, according to Zerin. One was promoted by Joel Engel (1868-1927), a Jewish composer, critic and ethnographer known as “The Father of Jewish Music,” who began arranging Jewish folk melodies in the 1890s. His lectures and compositions were a major inspiration for younger musicians to compose their own classical works inspired by Eastern European Jewish folk music. Counter to this thought was Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), one of the Society’s most polemical members, who claimed that most Jewish folk melodies are not authentic, but rather imitations of non-Jewish music. He urged his fellow Jewish composers to write music inspired by Jewish Biblical chant, or trope, which he viewed as the most pure and authentic form of Jewish music.
There will be a multi-talented cast of musicians performing “Jewish Art Music: From St. Petersburg to Palestine and Beyond” at Temple Emanu-El. The program features songs and choral music by Engel and Saminsky, in addition to works composed by other prominent members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music: Joseph Achron (1886-1943), Moshe Milner (1886-1953), Ephraim Shklar (1871-1941), and Mikhail Gnessin (1883-1957). Achron was a prodigy violinist-composer who is most famous for virtuoso Jewish violin pieces. Milner composed Yiddish art songs, as well as the first Yiddish opera. Shklar was a founding member, whose choral arrangements of Jewish folk songs were among the Society’s first publications. Gnesin was also a founding member, whose works forge together Russian symbolism and Jewish folklore. The concert will also feature works by Joseph Ness, cantor at Temple Beth El in West Hartford, Connecticut, whose own compositions have been deeply inspired by the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Ness has collaborated with Temple Emanu-El on numerous occasions, including the 2008 “Shining Through Broken Glass: A Kristallnacht Concert,” narrated by Leonard Nemoy.
The concert will be performed by Kol Arev, the chamber choir of Hebrew College. Conductor Amy Lieberman is an accomplished choral music conductor who, for five years, was director of choral activities at the New England Conservatory of Music. Cantor Lynn Torgove, co-organizer of the concert, has been the head of vocal arts at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music since 2012. Maayan Harel, who grew up at Temple Emanu-El, will perform a solo and sing with the choir. Musicologist Zerin will guide concert-goers through the program with historical commentary. Refreshments will be served. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For tickets: teprov.org/form/salon. For more information, contact Temple Emanu-el at 401-331-1616.
PAMELA HANZEL is chair of Arts Emanu-El at Temple Emanu-El.