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
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. Read the rest of this entry »