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From the history of the New Jewish School

Issachar Ryback: Shtetl (Chassidic dance)
Issachar Ryback: Shtetl (Chassidic dance)

St.Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century
St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century

Susman Kiselgof, a famous collector of Jewish folk music
Susman Kiselgof, a famous collector of Jewish folk music

Moisej Maimon: 
cover page of the editions of the Society for Jewish folk music, 
St.Petersburg 1913
Moisej Maimon: cover page of the editions of the Society for Jewish folk music, St.Petersburg 1913

Emblem of the music publishing house
Emblem of the music publishing house "Jibneh", Berlin 1922

Michail Gnesin, the last chairman 
of the Society for Jewish music in Moscow
Michail Gnesin, the last chairman of the Society for Jewish music in Moscow
The New Jewish School can be compared to other national currents, forming the European musical landscape since the middle of the 19th century. While Russian, Czech, Spanish or Norwegian national music was able to unfold and establish itself in the cultural conscience, the development of the Jewish school was violently terminated by the Stalinist and national-socialist policy after only three decades.

The history of the New Jewish School started in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908 the Society for Jewish folk music was founded in St. Petersburg - the first Jewish musical institution in Russia. Important composers, such as Joseph Achron, Michail Gnesin, Alexander Krejn , Moshe Milner, Solomon Rosowsky, Lazare Saminsky and others joined it. In contrast to Jewish composers from Western Europe these young artists did not lose their connection to the Jewish community. The more than five million Jews in Russia (at that time about half of the Jews in the world) lived in old traditions, which remained a nurturing soil and a source of inspiration for musicians.

Initially, the activities of the Society concentrated on the collection, processing, publication and presentation of Jewish folklore. At the same time more and more original compositions were created, which were published in its own publishing company. Additionally, concerts, lectures and ethnologic expeditions were organized.

By 1913, the Society already had more than one thousand members; subsidiaries were opened in seven cities. For young composers (about twenty five of them) the Society was a union of kindred spirits, where discussions could be held and a familiar atmosphere prevailed.

As a result of the political and economic collapse in the years 1918 to 1921, the Petersburg Society and its subsidiaries in other cities had to discontinue their work. Most of the leading members from Petersburg emigrated during this time, while the members in Moscow had smaller losses. This is why the center o f Jewish music re-located from Petersburg to Moscow in the 1920s. In Moscow the Society could be revived.

David Schor, the first president of the newly formed Society for Jewish music, stressed in a lecture, that in contrast to the previous Society for Jewish folk music, performances, expenses and spreading of Jewish art music would be the center of attention.

It was clear from the beginning that the activity of the Society would not attain the same dimensions as its predecessor. Its activities concentrated predominantly on concerts. These concerts played a crucial role for the new Jewish music, as they offered the composers a platform which they normally would not have had. This was especially an important incentive for young composers to devote themselves to Jewish music. In the years 1923 to 1929 hundreds of works (for the most part chamber music), some of which were exclusively composed for the concerts of the Society, were created in this way. The programs were worked out by a music commission, which included, among others, the composers Michail Gnesin, the brothers Grigori and Alexander Krein and Alexander Weprik.

One can judge the high standard of the Society by looking at the names of the performers. First-class Jewish and Russian artists, like the pianist Maria Judina or the members of the famous Beethoven quartet remained linked with the Society throughout the entire time of its existence.

Starting in 1925 the Society for Jewish music was attacked by music officials for its repertoire. Serious signs of a crisis became evident at the end of 1927. The Society was increasingly steered by communists. They demanded a complete re-orientation, especially a repertoire that met the requirements of Jewish working people. The days of most Jewish cultural institutions were already numbered - the last event of the society is dated December 22nd, 1929. Jewish artists had to adapt to the reigning cultural doctrine of socialist realism and had to deny their Judaism.

But at that time the New Jewish School was no longer confined to Russia. It also had a considerable influence on international Jewish musical life. Just as its activities in Russia had almost come to a standstill, this music spread throughout Europe, with Vienna as the most outstanding center. In 1928 a Society for the Promotion of Jewish Music was founded in Vienna. Its most important composers were Israel Brandmann, Joachim Stutschewsky and Juliusz Wolfsohn.

Not only was the New Jewish School a victim of Stalinist antisemitic politics in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, but in other countries too its development was thwarted more and more by antisemitism. The final end came with NS-domination over West- and Central Europe, leading to the expulsion and murder of Jewish musicians.

© 24.12.2008 by Jascha Nemtsov. e-mail: