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Gil Smolinski
Entrepreneur, diver, reader, mensch

Music, The Russian Empire, and Flourishing Jewish National Identity

Jerusalem: Old City by Steve Evans (Flickr, free for editorial use))

An exploration of Jewish music during the waning years of the Russian Empire reveals the fascinating interplay of the cultural, religious, and nationalistic forces and ideologies that shaped Jewish music and its composers.

On the eve of World War I and the final collapse of the Russian Empire, 50 percent of the student body at the prestigious St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music was Jewish.

One out of three Jewish, university-level students in the Russian Empire were enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. This remarkable statistical anomaly begs exploration and reveals a fascinating phenomenon where antisemitism, philosemitism, and ultimately allosemitism shaped the expression of Jewish identity through music.

While Jews experienced antisemitic quotas and were denied advanced study throughout the Russian Empire, they found welcome in the world of music. The reasons for Jewish acceptance were varied and complex, a strange combination of antisemitism and philosemitism that encouraged Jewish musical composition on the one hand, while on the other, limited expression and participation in Imperial Russian culture.

Jewish students were regarded as highly musically talented and were welcomed by the Russian musicians in St. Petersburg.

Jewish students were encouraged by their Russian mentors who held them in high regard. The St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music leadership invested in their Jewish students and shaped their musical expression. Composers, like Russian-Jewish composer, Gnesin, found a welcome in St. Petersburg.

Gnesin considered himself a Russian artist and found himself confronted by conflicting attitudes towards his Jewish minority status. Through interactions with his professors, who clearly saw him as Jewish first and a composer second, Gnesin found a musical identity that existed in the intersection of all facets of his identity; Jewish, Russian, artist, and musical composer.

Jewish musicians respond to antisemitism

Like many of his fellow students, Gnesin found a way to respond to the Wagnerian antisemitic argument that Jews had no national culture of their own. By creating beautiful modern interpretations of Jewish folk melodies and finding new ways to express familiar Jewish music, the Russian-Jewish composers found ways to explore and share their Jewish identity with their Russian contemporaries.

Russian-Jewish musicians learned that the way to becoming a successful Russian composer lay within their own Jewish heritage.

While this positive embrace realized success, it also limited the Jewish composers who were constrained by allosemitism, the idea that their national minority status forever rendered them “the other.”

Through antisemitism and philosemitism, Jewish composers were able to forge their own identity without abdicating their Russian cultural identities. Following the fracture of the Russian Empire and the establishment of communist rule, these musicians were forced to abandon an identity that flourished in imperial Russia but could not be sustained under the constraints of communism.

After the fall of the Russian Empire, many of the gifted Jewish-Russian composers left Russia to re-establish themselves in America and Israel. Ironically, they were welcomed as Russian composers in the USA with little emphasis on their Jewish identity. In Israel, these composers played a significant role in the development of Hebrew music and, in doing so, disappeared into the fabric of a new national music.

Russian music in the Russian Empire cannot be separated from Jewish Folk music.

For anyone interested in the music of Russian composers at the turn of the century, one must explore the rich contribution made by Jewish composers and the echo of Jewish Folk music in the resulting modern compositions.

About the Author
Gil Smolinski is a business developer, entrepreneur, and advisor to startups. He is a loving husband and father of two, who enjoys the depths of books and the sea and tends to dive into both.
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