Program for a concert by the Society for Jewish Folk Music in the hall of the public library, Kharkov, Russia (now Khar’kiv, Ukr.), 1913. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Society for Jewish Folk Music

In its brief existence (1908–ca. 1919) the Society for Jewish Folk Music (Rus., Obshchestvo Evreiskoi Narodnoi Muzyki; Yid., Gezelshaft far Yidisher Folks-Muzik) launched an influential movement among young Russian Jewish composers to create a modern national style of Jewish concert music. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, as part of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia’s growing interest in Jewish nationalism and Yiddish folk culture, musician and music critic Yo’el Engel and historian-folklorists Peysekh Marek and Sha’ul Ginsburg promoted the study of Jewish folk music from the Pale of Settlement through fieldwork, public lectures, and publications. These initial efforts, combined with the encouragement of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, soon inspired a group of young Jewish musicians at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory to organize the Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1908.

The society’s early prominent members included Lazare Saminsky, Efrayim Shkliar, Solomon Rosowsky, Aleksandr Krein, Mikhail Gnesin, and Joseph Achron. Its activity comprised four main areas: research, composition, performance, and publishing. Many individual members conducted ethnographic fieldwork, transcribing Yiddish folk songs, klezmer melodies, Hasidic nigunim, and other forms of traditional Jewish music, which then served as the basis for the creation of modern concert-music pieces. The first compositions generally took the form of short, stylized arrangements for some combination of voice, piano, and strings or chorus. Over time, the works grew in originality and in formal and harmonic complexity, eventually including pieces for large chamber ensembles and orchestral arrangements. Stylistically, these works reflected a mixture of late Russian Romantic style with the emerging European modernist aesthetic.

"Hebrew Melody." Music: Joseph Achron. Performed by Jascha Heifetz with orchestra directed by Josef Pasternack. Victrola 6160 mx. 21268-3, Camden, N.J., 1917. (YIVO)

The society maintained a steady schedule of concerts, divided between small regular lecture-concerts for the Saint Petersburg membership devoted to various aspects of Jewish music and periodic large, public concerts typically held at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. In 1910, the society began its music-publishing efforts with an initial series of 15 compositions. Eventually the society and its various successor organizations would publish several hundred different pieces of music.

The impact of the society extended beyond Saint Petersburg. Requests for membership, sheet music, and other assistance came from places as distant as Zurich, Edinburgh, Baltimore, and Tel Aviv. Within the Russian Empire, local branches were established in many cities, including Moscow (1913), Kiev (1913), and Odessa (1916). Each branch distributed the society’s publications and sponsored lectures and concerts. In spite of its avowed Jewish nationalist orientation, the society did not pursue any one particular political affiliation, but collaborated comfortably with Zionist, Folkspartey, and liberal Jewish groups.

In the years 1912 to 1914, members of the society also organized and participated in S. An-ski’s Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Expedition to the Pale of Settlement, resulting in an invaluable trove of musical transcriptions and early field recordings. Other projects included music classes and community choruses in both Saint Petersburg and Moscow and the Lider-zamelbukh far der Yidisher shul un familie (Sbornik pesen dlia evreiskoi shkoly i sem’i [Anthology of Songs for the Jewish School and Family]; 1st ed., 1912), a large, diverse collection of music that even included the works of non-Jewish composers such as Beethoven and Mozart.

The onset of World War I disrupted but did not halt most of the society’s work. The main branch in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), however, began to encounter various technical difficulties regarding music publishing and maintaining contact with other branches. At the same time, the Moscow chapter, under the active leadership of Engel, grew in scope and importance during the war years. Relations between Petrograd and Moscow deteriorated, owing to communication problems and to the Moscow chapter’s growing sense of independence. In addition, the chaos and destruction of the revolution in 1917–1918 led to a further breakdown in the authority and organizational structure of the organization. It was in this context that the Moscow branch in 1918 formally reorganized itself as the Obshchestvo Evreiskoi Muzyki (Society for Jewish Music), initiating music publishing under its own name. Concerts and meetings did continue to take place in both Moscow and Petrograd through at least 1919, the last year that either of the two groups functioned at full capacity.

The Russian Revolution split the society in three different geographic directions. Activities in Petrograd continued in 1918 and 1919 with the support of the new Bolshevik state through the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. Unsuccessful attempts were also made to relaunch publishing activities in partnership with the Kiev-based Kultur-lige. But by the early 1920s the political and cultural focus of Jewish life had shifted to Moscow. There, a new version of the Society for Jewish Music was formally organized in 1923. In drastically different political, social, and cultural conditions, but with government recognition and support, this society presented concerts, pursued fieldwork, and published music through 1929. In this way, much of the compositional legacy of the organization was continued, as composers such as Krein, Gnesin, Aleksandr Veprik, and Moyshe (Mikhail) Milner produced an impressive range of Jewish concert music, including opera, ballet, symphonies, and Yiddish theater.

Various efforts were made to continue the publishing and performance legacy of the society in Central Europe. Soon this work shifted to Jewish Palestine, where both Yo’el Engel and Solomon Rosowsky immigrated in the 1920s. There the society’s cultural model of Jewish national music influenced many Zionist composers and critics. New York became a third main center of activity, drawing many other former members settled, notably Lazare Saminsky, Leo Zeitlin, and Joseph Achron. Sporadic attempts to restart some version of the society eventually resulted in the founding of the American-Palestine Music Association (Makhon Erets Yisra’eli le-Mada‘e ha-Musikah; Mailamm) in 1932, followed in 1939 by the establishment of the Jewish Music Forum, which continued much of the academic and artistic legacy of the group into the 1960s, eventually emerging as the American Society for Jewish Music. Intellectually and artistically, the society remained an influential model for both academic scholars of Jewish music and composers of Jewish concert music throughout the twentieth century. The end of the Soviet Union and the opening of Soviet archives has led to a noticeable revival of interest in the society’s history and music, as demonstrated by concerts, conferences, publications, and recordings in Russia, Europe, Israel, and the United States.

Suggested Reading

Paula Eisenstein Baker, “Who Was ‘L. Zeitlin’ of the Society for Jewish Folk Music?” YIVO Annual 23 (1996): 233–257; Galina Kopytova, Obshchestvo evreiskoi narodnoi muzyki v Peterburge-Petrograde (St. Petersburg, 1997); James Loeffler, “‘The Most Musical Nation’: Jews, Culture and Nationalism in the Late Russian Empire” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2006); Klára Móricz, “Jewish Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Art Music” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1999); Jascha Nemtsov, Die neue Jüdische Schule in der Musik (Wiesbaden, 2004); Albert Weisser, The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music (New York, 1954).