On Jewish Themes in Russian / Soviet Clarinet Music


The clarinet traditionally plays a central role in Klezmer music, the folk music of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. The Klezmer clarinet can express various outspoken emotions, such as singing, crying, dancing, sobbing, whining, celebrating…  In classical art music, clarinet compositions with Jewish themes form an exceptional aspect of the repertoire. In Russian/Soviet music, a noteworthy repertoire with Jewish themes was composed for the clarinet. These works are especially interesting from the point of view of clarinet performance, as they feature idiomatic Klezmer playing techniques in a through-composed, classical music context. All works were written according to classical composition techniques and thoroughly notated, including characteristic ornamentations. These works form a specific mixture of classical composition styles, traceable influences from various classical composers, in combination with elements from Jewish traditional music. 

Historical Context
First, a concise view on a few of the most significant historical circumstances. The Jewish population in Eastern Europe had to live within strictly outlined Pale of Settlement areas until 1856, when the reform-oriented Tsar Alexander II decreed that Jews could settle more freely. The Jewish population was, however, still subjected to various restrictions in professional life as well as in education (Nemtsov 2004, 15).  The Abolition of Serfdom in 1861 and a growing Russian national self-esteem was also having a strong influence on the Jewish population in the Russian Empire. It was a turning point in the middle of the 19th century, when Jewish-Russian musicians and composers were allowed to attend the newly founded conservatories in Moscow and St Petersburg (Loeffler 2010, 10).

The “New Jewish School”
In the beginning of the 20th century then, Jewish culture saw a new upswing in Russia. Jewish artists, writers and musicians turned their interest back to their roots. Following this spirit, also in classical music a new movement started to develop: Jewish Art Music. A group of Jewish-Russian composers founded in 1908 in St Petersburg the very first 'Society for Jewish Folk Music' (Nemtsov 2004, 45-47). The members of the society first started to notate Jewish folk melodies, something that not had been done systematically before. Gradually, these composers began to make own arrangements of Jewish folk music for classical instrumentations, which was an entirely new practice in the field of Jewish music. Many students with Jewish roots of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg conservatory were part of this movement. The development went further: the most talented composers of the society, such as the brothers Aleksandr and Grigory Krein, Aleksander Veprik or Mikhail Gnessin, succeeded in creating an own, independent composition style. The society developed far-reaching concert activity. Primarily intended for the Jewish public, the society concerts gradually reached a broader, non-Jewish public as well. The society developed a vast music publishing activity, too. The movement is called “the New Jewish School in Art music” (Die Neue Jüdische Schule in der Musik). The term was coined by Jasha Nemtsov, who has done extensive research on this topic (Nemtsov 2008, 10).


Simeon Bellison and “Zimro”
Concerning clarinet music from this field, the most influential clarinetist was Simeon Bellison (Семён Андреевич Бейлизон; 1883, Moscow–1953, New York). During his long and outstanding career, Bellison actively advocated clarinet music with Jewish themes, first in Russia and, after his emigration, in the US. Bellison premiered many clarinet compositions with Jewish themes, such as works by Achron, Rozowsky, A. Krein, Prokofiev, Stillman and J. Vainberg. Bellison was admitted to the Moscow conservatory at the early age of twelve and graduated in 1902. He worked in various symphonic and opera orchestras in Moscow, and from 1915 until his emigration 1918  in the Imperial Marinsky opera in St Petersburg (Weston 1977, 46). Bellison showed a special affinity for chamber music throughout his life. From 1902 on he played in the Moscow woodwind quintet (Maistrenko 2017, 108).

In 1917/1918, during the turmoil of the Revolution, Bellison founded in St Petersburg, then named Petrograd, the ensemble Zimro (Hebrew for “singing”) in the instrumentation of clarinet, piano and string quartet. The members were Simeon Bellison, Iakov Mestechkin and Grigory Bezrodnyi (violins), Nikolay (Kalman/Karel) Moldavan (viola), Iosif Chernavsky (cello), Lev Berdichevsky (piano). Under the patronage of the Zionist organistaion, Zimro went on an extensive concert tour in 1918. Heading east from Moscow, the ensemble travelled through Siberia to China and Indonesia, all the way to the US (Kravets 2006, 281-282). Bellison and the other ensemble members never returned to Russia. In 1919, Zimro commissioned a work from Sergey Prokofiev in New York, the Overture on Hebrew themes op. 34

Furthermore, Mitya Stillman composed his Fantasy on a Chassidish Theme for Bellison and his ensemble in the same sextet instrumentation in 1932. It is particularly interesting to see the two sextets of Prokofiev and Stillman in a direct comparison, especially from the point of view of Jewish themes and ways of  playing the clarinet (see 4.2 and 4.3). Zimro was disbanded in 1920, but Bellison continued forming various chamber music ensembles and also established a clarinet choir (Weston 1977, 46). Bellison was clarinet soloist in the New York Philharmonic from 1921 to 1948 and remained an active promotor of Jewish clarinet music. He even arranged Jewish music for the clarinet in various instrumentations, especially remarkable are the works in Zimro-instrumentation for clarinet, string quartet and piano.


Clarinet Music with Jewish Themes under Stalin
After the Russian Revolution, the situation for the Jewish population in Russia became increasingly complicated. After the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922 and especially after 1928/29 under the rule of Josef Stalin, anti-Semitism grew rapidly in Russia All societies for Jewish music, Jewish theatres and other Jewish cultural institutions were shut down by the late 1920s (Nemtsov 2000, 37). Very few Jewish cultural activities practiced overtly in the 1930s’ Soviet Union.

One remarkable change took place in the first half of the 1940s in the Soviet Union, however. While in Western Europe fascism was raging, and especially during World War 2, Stalin was temporarily changing his attitude towards the Jewish population in a positive way – at least vis-à-vis the outside world, and probably for propaganda reasons only. It is no coincidence that at this time, the 1940s, even Dmitri Shostakovich composed his most famous works with Jewish themes, for example the vocal song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry in 1948. Unfortunately, Shostakovich did not endow the clarinet repertoire with any solo or chamber music work. But the Clarinet Sonata op.28 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg from 1945 is especially important for the clarinet repertoire. Weinberg, born into a Jewish family in Poland, had to flee from the Nazi Pogroms in Poland to Russia, where he settled in Moscow in 1943 with the help of Dmitri Shostakovich (Fanning 2010, 40-41). Shostakovich and Weinberg became close friends, and we can even trace mutual musical influences between these two composers. The Clarinet Sonata op.28 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg is one of the last classical clarinet compositions composed in the Soviet Union with the use of Jewish themes for many decades. By the end of the 1940s, shortly after this clarinet sonata had been composed, it became too dangerous for composers in the Soviet Union to continue writing openly in a Jewish style. Both Aleksandr Veprik and Mieczyslaw Weinberg were imprisoned in Gulag prison camps, accused of Jewish Nationalism, though not directly for their compositions. Both composers were released only after Stalin´s death in 1953. Weinberg was released due to a letter from Shostakovich to the officials – one more sign of a deep friendship between these two composers.


After Stalin
In the Soviet Union after Stalin, very few compositions with Jewish themes were composed (Dorfman 2000, 22-23). None of these works was composed for the clarinet in particular. Even composers with Jewish roots no longer used Jewish elements in their clarinet works. Mieczyslaw Weinberg did not feature any Jewish elements in his Clarinet Concerto from 1970. He used them again in the Chamber Symphony No.4 with obbligato clarinet in 1992. Grigory Frid composed three Clarinet Sonatas (1966, 1971,1982) without any Jewish elements, though his opera Diary of Anne Frank (1969) thematically focusses on the Holocaust.

The contrast within the clarinet repertoire is enormous between the vivid development in the first half of the 20th century and the absence of Jewish themes in the second half of the Soviet Union. Clarinet music with Jewish themes from Russian-born composers continued to be composed, to a certain extent, in emigration. One such example is Joseph Dorfman, who emigrated in the 1970s from Odessa to Israel. His trio for clarinet, cello and piano Five Images after Marc Chagall bears a strong, almost programmatic content related to Jewish culture and traditional music. 


Some Clarinet Compositions with Jewish Themes 
As mentioned in Chapter three, Aleksandr Krein composed the first clarinet works of the “New Jewish school” (see below), the Esquisses Hébraïques No.1 and No.2 (1909–1910). Many composers of the “New Jewish School” composed for the clarinet, especially in a chamber music context. Some of the compositions listed here were composed outside Russia or the Soviet Union and therefore beyond the limits of my research project. Detailed biographies of the composers and further work lists can be found in the exhaustive book on the “New Jewish School” by Jasha Nemtsov (Nemtsov 2008).

The woodwind quintet Mosche der Schuster op.8 (published 1917) by Solomon Rozowsky (1878–1962) is one of the early works for clarinet. Joseph Achron (1886–1943) composed the Children´s Suite op.57 (1925) for clarinet, string quartet and piano. Sher op.42 (1917) was originally composed for violin and piano, but arranged for clarinet, string quartet and piano by Bellison. The Sextet op. 73 (1938) was written for woodwind quintet and trumpet. Israel Brandmann (1901–1992) composed Variations on a popular theme (Hör nur du schejn meidele) for clarinet and piano, dedicated to Bellison (published 1935). Julius Chajes (1910–1985) dedicated the Israeli (Hebrew / Palestenian) Suite for clarinet, string quartet and piano to Bellison, too. Julius Engel (1868–1927), a main founding member of the New Jewish School, composed the Suite Hadibuk op.35, Aus dem jüdischen Leben (published 1926) for clarinet, string quartet, double bass (ad lib) and percussion. Bellison arranged some parts for clarinet and piano and some for clarinet, string quartet and piano. Jakov Vainberg (1879–1956) composed the Suite Aus jüdischem Leben for clarinet, 3 violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano, and Bellison arranged it for clarinet and piano. Lesser-known and unpublished works with clarinet are Na Volyne (Volakhs) op.56 (1938) for clarinet and string quartet, and the Three Pieces op.60 for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by Mikhail Gnesin (1883–1957).  Lev Zeitlin (1884–1930) composed Scene and Hasidic Dance for clarinet and string quartet.  The clarinet works with Jewish Themes by Veprik, Stillman, Weinberg, Senderey, Dorfman and Grigory Krein are discussed in more detail later in this chapter. The son of Grigory Krein, Julian Krein (1913–1996), composed a Sonata for clarinet and piano and several chamber music works with the clarinet, but with no Jewish themes, they are hence not taken into this chapter.