Cantor Pinḥas Minkowski (back row, sixth from right) and the boys’ choir in the Brody synagogue, Odessa, ca. 1910. (YIVO)

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Musical Education and Musical Societies

Historically, most Jewish musicians in Eastern Europe came from families involved with music, and received their musical education through individual apprenticeships and other informal channels. The traditional Jewish professions of klezmer, badkhn (wedding jester), and ḥazan (cantor) were usually passed from father to son or father to son-in-law, creating dynasties of musicians that persisted into the modern period. Guilds of Jewish musicians with more formal apprenticeships could be found in some towns in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, but after the partitions of Poland, they were largely restricted to towns within Austrian and Ottoman territories. Cantors also passed on their skills to their assistants and accompanists, either to solo zingers (singers) or to ensembles of meshorerim (choristers). More formal cantorial associations were established in the late nineteenth century under German influence in parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in Poland in the interwar period. Hasidic melodies were also orally transmitted through Hasidic courts.

Yudishe kinder-lider far kinder-heymen, shuln, un familye (Jewish Children’s Songs for Children’s Homes, Schools, and Family), by Yo’el Engel (Moscow: Gezelshaft far Idishe Muzik, ca. 1915). Graphic design by Leonid Pasternak. (Gross Family Collection)

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, few Jewish musicians were trained to read musical notation. By the middle of the century, though, many of the more established professional musicians had acquired rudimentary skills in reading music. The few Jewish musicians who pursued additional formal training in Western musical traditions did so in the conservatories of Central Europe or by joining military bands.

The rise of professionalism in the nineteenth century led to the formalization of musical education in Eastern Europe. The leading figure in establishing this field in the Russian Empire was Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894). Born to Jewish parents, Rubinstein was baptized along with the rest of his family at the age of two. In 1859, with patronage from Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, he founded the Russian Musical Society, and in 1862 he opened Russia’s first conservatory, in Saint Petersburg, modeled on European archetypes. Many of its instructors were culled from Western and Central Europe. Rubinstein served as conductor of the Russian Musical Society’s orchestra and director of the conservatory until 1867; he resumed directorship of the conservatory again in 1887 and held this position until his death.

The two institutions revolutionized the performance and teaching of music within the Russian Empire. The Russian Musical Society established more than 50 branches throughout the country. Its Moscow branch was founded in 1859 by Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolai (1835–1881), who also founded the Moscow Conservatory in 1864. Many prominent Russian musicians, however, opposed the establishment of formal academies for the study of music, arguing that formal musical instruction would corrupt innate talent and genius. The debate over the conservatories became tainted with anti-Jewish animus; its opponents accused the conservatories of trying to import foreign models of culture into Russia.

Throughout their existence, the conservatories attracted large numbers of Jewish students. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Saint Petersburg conservatory’s student body was nearly 50 percent Jewish; Jews also constituted about one-quarter of all students in the more than 20 music schools founded by the Russian Musical Society throughout the empire. In cities with large Jewish populations, such as Odessa, two-thirds of the nearly 200 students enrolled in the music school were Jewish. Schools with a large Jewish presence tended to specialize in orchestral music rather than vocal, reflecting a traditional Jewish preference.

The substantial Jewish enrollment in the music schools and conservatories can be attributed both to the high level of Jewish participation within musical life in Eastern Europe and to the tangible legal, economic, and social benefits that accrued to Jews enrolled in these institutions. A musical career required talent, not capital or distinguished lineage. As private institutions, the conservatories were not subject to the (quotas) that hindered Jewish access to public institutions of higher learning in the Russian Empire. Graduates were granted the status of “free artists,” releasing them from many of the legal restrictions imposed upon the Jewish populace, including residency restrictions relating to the Pale of Settlement. And whereas many upper-class Christians did not regard music as a respectable profession, a conservatory education provided tangible benefits for upwardly mobile Jews. Indeed, Jewish musicians often pursued their profession with the support of their families, who viewed music both as a viable way to make a living and as a path to higher cultural status and embourgeoisement.

Mandolin orchestra at a high school in Stanislau (now Ivano-Frankivs’k, Ukr.), 1910. (YIVO)

Music played an important role not only for professional Jewish musicians, but also for amateurs. In the small towns of late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, there were always dozens of young people interested in learning to play a musical instrument. They usually studied the fiddle, clarinet, or flute with local musicians. In emulation of German bourgeois society, wealthy families—predominantly in the larger cities—could afford trained musical tutors for their children. Boys were usually taught violin; girls were taught piano. Upwardly mobile Jewish families saw in the musical training of their children a path to respectability within educated society.

Professional East European Jewish musicians also excelled as musical instructors, particularly in violin and piano. The first professor of violin at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory was the Lublin-born prodigy Henri Wieniawski (1835–1880), who taught at the conservatory until 1868. He was succeeded by the Hungarian prodigy Leopold Auer (1845–1930), who remained there until 1917. Among Auer’s more famous Jewish students were Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987), Mischa Elman (1891–1967), Nathan Milstein (1903–1992), Efrem Zimbalist (1889–1985), and Joseph Achron (1886–1943). At the Odessa State Conservatory, the violin virtuoso and teacher Petr Stoliarskii (1871–1944) taught such famed artists as David Oistrakh (1908–1974); Oistrakh himself went on to teach at the Moscow Conservatory, training, among others, his son Igor’ (1931– ). Alexander Goldenweiser (1875–1961) trained some of the most famous pianists at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught from 1906 until his death and served two terms as rector. Samuel Feinberg (1890–1962), a former Goldenweiser student, served as professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1920s.

Estimates suggest that nearly half of all new teachers appointed to the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories in the 1920s were Jewish—and the situation was similar throughout Eastern Europe. In Hungary, for example, Leó Weiner (1885–1960), professor of composition (1912–1922) and chamber music (1920–1957) at the Buda Academy, emerged as one of the most influential teachers of performance in Hungary. Many of the most talented Jewish teachers went on to establish their own schools. The prestigious Gnesin Musical College of Moscow, for instance, was founded in 1895 by three Jewish sisters (Evgeniia, Elena, and Maria) who were graduates of the Moscow Conservatory and daughters of a professional badkhn. Their brother, the renowned composer Mikhail Gnesin, also taught there. Stoliarskii established a private violin school in Odessa in 1911, whose curriculum and approach were emulated at other violin specialty schools. Alexander Goldenweiser helped found the Moscow Central Music School in 1932, which became the archetype for the Central Music School system in the Soviet Union. In Warsaw, Ludwik Grossman (1835–1915) was a founder of the Warsaw Musical Society and established one of the leading musical salons in that city.

The formalization of musical education in conservatories began to have a direct impact on Jewish liturgical music toward the end of the nineteenth century. The establishment of so-called “choral synagogues” necessitated the formal training of choirs. Graduates of the conservatories, such as the cantors Eli‘ezer Gerowitsch (1844–1914) in Rostov-on-Don, Borukh Leib Rosowsky (1841–1919) in Riga, and David Eisenstadt (1890–1942) in Warsaw, utilized their formal musical training to combine Western counterpoint and harmonization with traditional East European cantorial modal improvisation and embellishments. Other cantors acquired their knowledge of Western musical theory outside of conservatories, but used this knowledge to reform the choral singing in their synagogues by instituting more formal instruction. Among these was Avrom Ber Birnboym (1865–1922) of Częstochowa, Poland, who published textbooks on cantorial music, founded a cantorial school in 1907, and worked toward organizing a cantorial association in Poland. Similarly, Nissan Blumenthal (1805–1903) and David Nowakowsky (1848–1921) established a choir school at the Brody Synagogue of Odessa, where they served as cantors. 

Yo’el Engel leading a choir at a children’s colony, Malakhovka, near Moscow, ca. 1920, where he taught, composed, and lectured. Photograph by Sh. Koldavsky. (YIVO)

For the most part, though, Jews in the conservatories were not interested in Jewish music until the early twentieth century. Influenced by romantic nationalism, which championed folk traditions as the authentic voice of the nation and as a basis for national revival, a group of Jewish musicians began to collect and arrange Jewish folk songs. In 1900, Yo’el Engel (1868–1927), a Moscow Conservatory graduate and music critic, began delivering lectures on Jewish folk traditions. The same year, the historians and publicists Peysekh Marek (1862–1920) and Sha’ul Ginsburg (1866–1940) published notices in leading newspapers soliciting transcripts of Jewish folk songs. Their work resulted in the 1901 publication of Evreiskiia narodnyia piesni v Rossii (Jewish Folk Songs in Russia), a collection of 376 folk songs divided into thematic categories. Although it was published without musical notation, the volume stimulated an interest in collecting and preserving additional examples.

In 1908, a group of Jewish students at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory founded the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Its members came to include numerous students and graduates of the Conservatory, including Solomon Rosowsky (1878–1962), Lazare Saminsky (1882–1959), Efraim Shkliar (1871–1942), Mikhail Gnesin (1883–1957), Moses Milner (1886–1953), and Joseph Achron. Zisman Kiselgof (Sussmann Kisselhof; 1878–1939), a voracious collector of Jewish folk music who had received his musical training from a private instructor, also joined them. The society later expanded to include 25 branches in other cities. It sponsored expeditions to Jewish population centers with the goal of collecting and transcribing folk melodies, to be used as a basis for the composition of art music. Between 1910 and 1914 the Society published three series of sheet music, and in 1912 it published the Lieder-Sammelbuch für die jüdische Schule und Familie (Song Collection for the Jewish School and Family), consisting of folk songs, art songs, Hasidic melodies, and tropes. 

Cover of Menakhem Kipnis, 60 folks lieder mit notn (60 Folk Songs with Notes; Warsaw: E. Gitlin, 1918). RG 112, Music Collection, F80. (YIVO)

The Society for Jewish Folk Music inspired others to collect examples of Jewish folk music as well. Engel and Saminsky both collaborated with S. An-ski (Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport) on his famed expeditions to Volhynia and Podolia between 1912 and 1914, which collected some 1,500 examples of Jewish folk songs. At the same time in Poland, Menakhem Kipnis and Noah Pryłucki (Noyekh Prilutski) began collecting and publishing examples of Jewish folk music. In 1921, a Jewish Music Institute was established in Vilna; and beginning in 1925, YIVO’s Ethnographic Commission became a leading center of folk music collection when it launched a campaign to document all aspects of Jewish folklore. The Ethnographic Commission called upon amateur collectors (Yid., zamlers) to help by sending examples to YIVO. 

In the Soviet Union, Moisei Beregovskii (1892–1961), as head of the Musical Folklore Department of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences from 1929 to 1949 (the Institute became the Cabinet of the Study of Jewish Language, Literature, and Folklore in 1936), collected recordings and made transcriptions of many Jewish folk songs. He also conducted interviews with Jewish musicians and wrote numerous works on the lives of Jewish musicians and the ethnomusicology of East European Jewish secular music. 

With the intensification of official antisemitism in Eastern Europe, formal instruction in Jewish musical styles and publication of Jewish music were restricted. Jews continued to play prominent roles in musical instruction in conservatories and schools, but rarely within a Jewish idiom. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Jewish musical institutes and societies once again began to proliferate throughout Eastern Europe. Among the most prominent of these are KlezFest, which in the late 1990s began offering annual seminars of klezmer instruction in Kiev and Saint Petersburg, and the annual Jewish Festival in Kraków. Academic interest in the formal study of Jewish music has also been revived, and several conferences on East European Jewish music have taken place throughout the region since the late 1990s.

Suggested Reading

Joachim Braun, “Jews in Soviet Music,” in Jews in Soviet Culture, ed. Jack Miller, pp. 65–106 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1984); Judit Frigyesi, “Jews and Hungarians in Modern Hungarian Musical Culture,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 9 (1993): 40–60; Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York, 1992); Israel Rabinovitch, Of Jewish Music Ancient and Modern, trans. A. M. Klein (Montreal, 1952); Aron Marko Rothmüller, The Music of the Jews, trans. H. S. Stevens, rev. ed. (Cranbury, N.J., 1975); Mark Slobin, ed. and trans., Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Mark Slobin, Robert A. Rothstein, and Michael Alpert, eds. and trans., Jewish Instrumental Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, 2001); Gershon Swet, “Russian Jews in Music” in Russian Jewry, 1860–1917, ed. Jacob Frumkin, Gregor Aronson, and Alexis Goldenweiser, pp. 300–321 (New York, 1966); Gershon Swet, “Jews in Musical Life in Soviet Russia” in Russian Jewry, 1917–1967, ed. Jacob Frumkin, Gregor Aronson, Alexis Goldenweiser, and Joseph Lewitan, pp. 259–282 (New York, 1969); Albert Weisser, The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music: Events and Figures, Eastern Europe, and America (New York, 1983).