The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. James Loeffler.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2010. 288 pp.  ISBN 978-0-3001-3713-2

Reviewed by Simon MorrisonThe Most Musical Nation

This is a book about the struggle to preserve and promote the music of the Jewish enclaves in the Russian empire. St. Petersburg and Moscow dominate the framing chapters; the villages, or shtetls, of the Pale of Settlement the core. To tell the tale, James Loeffler draws on an enormous trove of documents gathered from libraries and archives in Russia, Israel, and the United States. Organizing the material must have been a challenge, but Loeffler prevailed to write an elegant, moving account of the effort to perform, in new arrangements, a repertoire threatened with extinction. Russian nationalism hampered the effort; revolution and war terminated it—with extreme prejudice.

In terms of writing, the best chapter is the first. It concerns the bittersweet career of Anton Rubinstein, and sets the context for the detailed description of the Jewish musical repertoires that follows. Loeffler offers a well-paced assessment of the chief events in Rubinstein’s complicated, multifaceted career: his founding of the Conservatory in St. Petersburg (his brother would do the same in Moscow); his Western European concert tours; his efforts to create non-nationalist “spiritual” operas (as riposte to Richard Wagner’s music dramas); and the political attacks that clouded the 1889 celebrations of his fifty years as a performer.

Loeffler reports that Rubinstein was born in the Pale of Settlement, but his grandfather insisted that he and his siblings be raised as Christians. Growing up in Moscow and Berlin, he spoke Russian, German, and Yiddish. He considered himself Russian, but his complicated background and endless border crossings as a touring virtuoso made him feel like an outsider, foreign to all ethnicities. Though the clashes with bureaucrats, tsarist officials, and conservative ideologues in St. Petersburg and Moscow only increased his anxieties, he was not deterred from his quest to contribute to Russian culture by establishing a professional school for the training of composers and performers. In his energetic middle years, he fended off anti-Semitic accusations that he had rigged the admissions decisions at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in favor of underprivileged Jewish students. The accusations were unfair—both Rubinstein and his attackers knew it. But the invective intensified in the twilight of his career, forcing him to expel those students who failed to meet his ever-stricter standards. Most of them, Loeffler notes, were women.

Entire books have been written about Rubinstein; this chapter is better than them all. Whereas others leave the impression of Rubinstein’s life and work as chaotic, Loeffler paints a picture of a rigid, tough individual, a cultural warrior who achieved greatness almost despite himself.

The undisputed hero of The Most Musical Nation is the ethnographer and composer Joel Engel, who had little direct exposure to Jewish music as a youth, but who made it his mission to preserve the living traditions of the shtetls. In 1912, he dragged a phonograph and a couple of colleagues from Moscow to the village of Ruzhin, outside Kiev. He returned with 44 recordings and a profound sense of estrangement. In Loeffler’s words, “the closer he came to the shtetl, the more Engel sensed his own distance—linguistic, cultural, even spiritual—from the folk itself” (91-92). The music he captured was of one world, he of another, and he sought to reconcile the two in his own compositions. He aspired to create, in art, the synthesis of Jewishness and Russianness that had been denied him in life.

Engel had his opponents within the Jewish intellectual elite, one of the most strident being Lazare Saminsky, who dominates a chapter of the book dedicated to the years 1915-17. Saminsky subscribed to the myth of original pureness, basing his definition of Jewish music on a single mode and a small group of time-tested melodic intonations. He sought to rid the oldest tunes he identified of the “impurities” accrued from later peoples in later times. Engel adopted a much more cosmopolitan approach, allowing for non-Jewish influences on the repertoire and disputing the reductive emphasis on discrete pitch sequences. The musical dispute finds a parallel—one Loeffler draws cautiously on p. 195—with the Hebrew-Yiddish language debates of the 1920s and 1930s. Hebrew was cherished for its ancient Biblical origins, whereas Yiddish was associated with diasporic assimilation. Like the musical repertoire embraced by Engel, Yiddish combines Hebrew, Aramaic, German, and other languages. What Loeffler does not highlight is that the ideological and methodological divide in Russia might also be likened to the one constructed by American critics reviewing the Jewish-American composers Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Copland’s concert hall pieces were often related to “Hebraic” seriousness, while Gershwin’s show tunes and jazz-inspired Rhapsody in Blue emblematized “Yiddish” commercialism. (In a chapter on “Hebrew American Composers” in his 1934 survey Music of the Ghetto and the Bible, Saminsky cruelly dismissed the music of both as abounding in “ghetto raffinement or regeneration.”) The point is germane because Saminsky emigrated to the United States in 1920, becoming a noted critic as well as a conductor and composer.

The emphasis shifts away from Engel in the second half of the book toward several lesser-known figures involved in the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Loeffler also provides hitherto unknown biographical details about several eminent musicians, including Serge Koussevitzky, best known as the conductor of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949; the information about him here, as about Saminsky, should be of interest to scholars of American music. Loeffler also offers a crucial new perspective on the career of Mikhail Gnesin, whose early works showed the overbearing influence of Wagner, but who tackled the issue of musical anti-Semitism in a 1916 article. His career did not turn out the way he had imagined. In the early 1930s he came under harsh ideological attack from a proletarian music organization. Frightened, he converted to the proletarian cause. His final works are dull adaptations of “the folk music of other Soviet minorities: Azerbaijani, Armenian, Circassian, Chuvash, and others” (p. 205).

Loeffler takes a pass on these pieces, focusing instead on Gnesin’s 1943 piano trio, “In Memory of Our Murdered Children.” Elsewhere he discusses Mark Warshavsky’s tear-inducing song “The Alphabet” (also known as “Oyfn Pripitchek”), which has been recorded by countless vocalists. (Esther Ofarim’s version is my personal favorite.) Loeffler also notes the inclusion of an adaptation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in a 1913 Songbook for the Jewish School and Family. Apparently the editors were striving for “universal” appeal (166), but the choice still seems bizarre.

The speculative conclusion of The Most Musical Nation, focusing on the friendship between the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Moisei Weinberg, tries to find something positive in dreadful circumstances. Two of their works, Loeffler proposes, erase the distinction between ethnic categories. The first movement of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony (1962) “symbolically invokes Jewishness to emphasize its own Russianness” (217); and Weinberg’s Sixth Symphony (1963) “celebrates Russian culture” as well as “quietly but unmistakably assert[ing] the Jewish presence within it” (218). Perhaps. But whatever the sentiments of the two scores, Shostakovich occupied a much more privileged position in Soviet society than Weinberg. So too did all of those musicians whose passports listed their nationality as Russian rather than Jewish. That injustice, which lies outside the historical framework of Loeffler’s fine book, awaits a reckoning.

Simon Morrison, Princeton University