November 1, 2019

Composing Identity: A History of Yiddish Folksong in Classical Music

Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, 11/01/2019

This year, a Yiddish sewing song graced the stage of David Geffen Hall at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Above the New York Philharmonic’s churning strings, pulsating winds, and rattling percussion rang the voices of a women’s chorus singing “mit a nodl, on a nodl”—“With a Needle, Without a Needle.” The rich, old melody was called upon by composer Julia Wolfe for her composition “Fire in my mouth,” bringing to life the sounds of a historic scene of work in a doomed Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and proving again the importance of Yiddish folksong to the world of Western classical music.

Zimro Ensemble Carnegie Hall Program, November 1, 1919

This was not the first time that such a thing was heard on a major American stage. In fact, one hundred years ago, a chamber music sextet from Russia called the Zimro Ensemble made its Carnegie Hall debut on November 1, 1919. Zimro was dedicated to performing and promoting classical compositions built upon traditional Jewish songs.

Accounts of the concert make it seem bustling with as much energy as Wolfe’s sweatshop scene. The group, consisting of clarinet, piano, and string quartet, enjoyed a packed house, rave reviews, and a star-studded audience, including the likes of celebrity cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.

Unlike Wolfe’s use of folksong to conjure up a lost world, the Zimro Ensemble and the composers whose music they played sought out Yiddish folksongs to create new musical worlds. As nationalist composers throughout Europe were inspired to write music that reflected and celebrated their heritage, these Jewish composers turned to Yiddish dances, lullabies, work songs, and ballads to craft music with a distinctly Jewish underpinning.

An oral tradition going back to the 1300s, Yiddish folksongs shed light on many aspects of Yiddish speaking Jewry’s historical experience. From religious traditions to secular practices, from initimate family matters to public historical events and issues, the vast body of Yiddish folksong reflects lyrically on a variety topics. There are lullabies which extol the virtue of Torah learning, songs which lament the experiences of a conscripted soldier, sabbath and holiday songs, wedding and love songs, satiric songs—in short, songs that describe the breadth of personal and community experience.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jews had become increasingly interested in studying Yiddish culture. This was in part to celebrate their own traditional knowledge, but also to show that, contrary to prevalent antisemitic beliefs, Jews too had a rich, varied, and unique folk culture to be proud of. The first major inquiry into Yiddish folk music came in 1901 when amateur folklorists Shaul Ginzburg and Peysakh Marek, both based in Russia, made a landmark attempt at a scholarly anthology of Yiddish folksongs. Their collection of 376 songs included folksong texts that they collected through a public appeal in the Russian Jewish Press in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Unfortunately their book, Evreiskiia narodnyia piesni v Rossii (“Yiddish Folksongs of Russia”), included only the texts of the folksongs—no melodies.  

Joel Engel’s Jewish Folksongs
Joel Engel’s Jewish Folksongs

Composer Joel Engel, also working in Russia, helped fill the gap. In 1909, he published Jewish Folksongs, a set of ten arrangements from Ginzburg and Marek’s book. However, Engel did not present these folk melodies with the neutral precision an academic might demand. Instead, Engel wrote accompaniments for each of the unchanged original melodies, including new harmonizations and counterpoint for voice with piano. Far from being simple extensions of the melodies, his compositions employ a late Romantic style which, though contemporary in classical music at that time, was foreign to folk music.

Engel’s short collection was so popular with classical music enthusiasts that he followed it with a second set of songs in 1912. As modernity ushered in profound changes to traditional Jewish life, Jews throughout Eastern Europe sought new ways of defining their identity. The better parts of Cultural Nationalism with its roots in language and folk culture proved a powerful draw. Engel’s approach struck a nerve, and he was dubbed “the father of Jewish music.” His work inspired a whole cadre of composers who found themselves at similar crossroads.

In 1908, organizers in St. Petersburg, Russia, founded the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Its mission was to support Jewish ethnographic and compositional work through fieldwork, publishing, concerts, and lectures. Following Engel’s example, composers affiliated with the society—such as Lazare Saminsky, Solomon Rosovsky, Moses Milner, Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnesin, and Alexander Krein—composed dozens of works built upon Yiddish folksong. These pieces range from simple, short arrangements for voice and piano to elaborate compositions for string quartet and other chamber music configurations. The Zimro Ensemble, founded in 1918, was an offshoot of the society.

Lazare Saminsky’s Under Little Sarah’s Cradle sheet music
Lazare Saminsky’s Under Little Sarah’s Cradle sheet music

Interestingly, one of the most famous compositions based on Yiddish folksong was composed by a non-Jew. Among those in attendance for Zimro’s historic debut at Carnegie Hall was the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev had been classmates with the Jewish musicians of Zimro while attending the St. Petersburg conservatory and was much impressed by their performance. After the concert he offered to write a new piece for the ensemble for which he selected two melodies from a collection of Jewish folksongs belonging to Simeon Bellison, Zimro’s clarinetist and founder.

Prokofiev based his iconic “Overture on Hebrew Themes” on two folk melodies, a joyous freylekhs dance tune and a bittersweet wedding song, “zayt gezunterheyt” (“Be Well”) which was featured in Engel’s original set.Prokofiev joined the ensemble at the piano in February 1920 for the New York City premiere at theBohemian Club. The Zimro Ensemble then played it at Carnegie Hall—three times over the next two years—and Prokofiev’s composition became the most famous piece of its repertoire. For Prokofiev, the use of Yiddish folksong was not due to any personal connection to Jewish music, or to the mission of Jewish cultural renewal, just a simple interest in the folksong as musical material.

Similarly, in 1910, French Basque composer Maurice Ravel—also a non-Jew—was given a tune that Engel had collected. He was invited to submit an entry in a folksong harmonization contest sponsored by the Moscow organization Dom Pesni, for which he wrote his first Yiddish folksong setting: “Mayerke, mon fils (meyerke mayn zun / Meyerke my son).” A few years later, in 1914, he published “L’enigme eternelle (di alte kashe / the old question),” a gorgeous, enigmatic work for which he harmonized a Yiddish folksong that offers a bit of folk wisdom on life’s unanswerable questions. Ravel found this tune in a book published by the Society for Jewish Folk Music, their lider-zamelbukh far der yidisher shul un familye (“Song Collection Book for the Jewish School and Family”), edited by Susman Kisselgoff.

The Society for Jewish Folk Music began to dissipate in 1919, but in the decades following the Yiddish folk melodies they championed became more and more available to composers. Folklorists followed their example and made not just the texts but also the melodies of Yiddish folksongs widely available for inspiration.

In Russia, during the early years of the Soviet Union, composers such as Krein and Gnessin continued in the spirit of the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Alexander Veprik, a composer of a slightly younger generation, followed suit as well with his own haunting take on “zayt gezunterheyt” in 1926.

These trends traveled to Western Europe as well. In exploring his Jewish identity against the backdrop of rising antisemitism, the German-born composer Stefan Wolpe found himself drawn to Yiddish melodies. He wrote arrangements for six songs in 1925, including wildly imaginative settings of some of the same songs presented by Society for Jewish Folk Music composers. The folksongs ring out as raw, perhaps more distantly connected to the Jewish masses as they are refracted through the lens of an otherwise avant garde musical language.

In British-ruled Palestine, and later Israel, there was a general trend toward Middle Eastern Jewish folk music, as composers sought to foster a national rebirth, leaving behind the Eastern European life from which they had fled. Nevertheless, many Israeli composers did feature Yiddish folksongs in their music as they grappled with this heritage, with a particular renaissance of interest in Yiddish in the 1970s and beyond.

Meanwhile, the Zimro Ensemble’s success at Carnegie Hall in 1919 was only the beginning of Yiddish folksong’s appearance in classical music in America. Many of the composers of the Society for Jewish Folk Music later moved to the United States and continued writing. Even without an organization like the society to organize their efforts, their influence has continued to bear fruit.

Lazare Saminsky’s Under Little Sarah’s Cradle sheet music

In 1967, the Cantor’s Assembly, an American association of cantors affiliated with Conservative Judaism, commissioned eight composers—including Herbert Fromm, Yiddish theater composer Sholem Secunda (otherwise known for his crossover hit “bay mir bistu sheyn”  or “To Me, You Are Beautiful”), and father-and-son composers Lazar Weiner and Yehudi Wyner—to write new settings of Yiddish folksongs. In 1980, Hugo Weisgall, a composer from a family with several generations of cantors who immigrated to the United States at the age of eight, published his richly chromatic take on a series of seven well-known Yiddish songs in The Golden Peacock.

In 1989, American-born Jewish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Rzewski completed his fifteen-minute, polystylistic set of piano variations on the song “mayn yingele” (“My Little Boy”), which he wrote for pianist Ursula Oppens as a reflection on the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

This year—one hundred years after the Zimro Ensemble’s Carnegie Hall performance—Julia Wolfe showed that Yiddish folksong remains as powerful, evocative, and relevant to contemporary Jewish culture as did the work of Engel and others in their time.

The meaning of Yiddish folksong for composers, however, has shifted. With a waning pool of native Yiddish speakers following the Holocaust and assimilation into English, Russian, and Hebrew language culture, turning to Yiddish has become a way of exploring the past. Yiddish culture continues to be an avenue for grappling with Jewish identity and creating Jewish culture.