Leo Zeitlin: Chamber Music. Paula Eisenstein Baker and Robert S. Nelson, eds. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2009. lxxxiv+199 pp. ISBN 978-0-89579-645-5
Leo Zeitlin’s life and music became a subject of Paula Eisenstein Baker’s research about twenty years ago. Fascinated by Zeitlin’s masterpiece “Eli Zion” for cello and piano, Eisenstein Baker, a cellist with a keen interest in musicology, started to investigate the life and works of this remarkable, but almost unknown, composer. Her research has resulted in this publication of Zeitlin’s chamber music compositions, which is accompanied by a carefully reconstructed biography of the composer, a critical study of his works, and a comprehensive presentation of text settings from the vocal works in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.
Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930), violinist, violist and composer, belonged to a group of early twentieth century young Russian-Jewish composers — mostly students of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg — who were united by the idea of creating a Jewish national music movement. Born in Pinsk and educated in Odessa and St. Petersburg, Zeitlin was active as a chamber music player, teacher and composer in St. Petersburg, and later in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine) and Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania). Zeitlin’s life in the 1910-1920s coincided with the revolutionary turmoil in Russia that led to long years of economic collapse and destruction. Living in scarcity was typical for many intellectuals and their families at that time, and eventually the Zeitlins decided to immigrate to the United States, where Leo continued his musical career as a composer, arranger, and violist for the Capitol Theatre orchestra in New York. Because Zeitlin had divided his creative talents and time between performing, teaching, composing, and arranging for commercial concerts, his compositional oeuvre is not vast; still, however, it is significant and interesting. He was a fine composer, which is certainly confirmed by the 27 compositions and arrangements published in this edition: including music for string ensemble, vocal ensemble and choir, voice and piano, and voice and string ensemble.
“The arrival of Leo Zeitlin: Chamber Music coincides with growing international interest in Jewish art music from early twentieth century Russia.”
Leo Zeitlin: Chamber Works is thoroughly annotated, and includes references to numerous sources in Russian, Ukrainian and American archives and libraries, as well as quotes from correspondence and personal interviews with the members of the Zeitlin family, scholars, and archivists. Thus it offers an extensive picture of a Jewish musical life that spanned the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States. In addition, the volume shows Eisenstein Baker’s interest in offering the reader a broader context for Zeitlin’s music and an explanation of his various compositional influences. Her efforts are reflected in the most detail in the chapter “Zeitlin’s Music: An Overview”—in which Eisenstein Baker places particular emphasis on Russian musical roots in his works and their melodic, harmonic and rhythmic specifics—and in the chapter “A Critical Evaluation,” which contains comprehensive discussions of each included work.
The book includes the texts of the vocal works in the original Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, original transliterations used by Zeitlin, transliterations of the Russian and Hebrew texts according to the Library of Congress system, and Yiddish text transliterations according to standards of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. It also contains translations into English.
A detailed critical report by music editor Robert S. Nelson provides a painstaking analysis of the different extant manuscripts and published versions of Zeitlin’s works. This section completes the book, and makes it an exemplary model of academic research for scholars and classical musicians.
The arrival of Leo Zeitlin: Chamber Music coincides with growing international interest in Jewish art music from early twentieth century Russia. As this music receives more attention and additional performances, filling the gaps in the history of Jewish music in Russia becomes an urgent matter. That is why Paula Eisenstein Baker and Robert S. Nelson’s publication of Zeitlin’s compositions must be considered a valuable contribution to contemporary Jewish musicology.
While working on this book, Paula Eisenstein Baker consulted numerous librarians, archivists, linguistic specialists, and Jewish studies scholars. I acknowledge my modest contribution to this publication by helping to provide transliterations of the Yiddish texts in accordance with the YIVO standards.
Lyudmila Sholokhova, YIVO (New York City)