Tchaikovsky in Yiddish: What Do We Gain and Lose by Calling This "Jewish Music?"

In 1937 and 1939, a Yiddish choir in Vilna published sheet music anthologies of works from its repertoire. These included Yiddish translations of classical music by Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Handel, and Borodin, as well as Yiddish versions of non-Jewish folk songs. Meanwhile, the same choir performed Yiddish translations of operas and oratorios by Bizet, Verdi, and Meyerbeer, among others. Are these translations "Jewish music?" Or rather, what could we – scholars of Polish- Jewish culture – gain and lose from applying this genre label to this music?

The musicologist Dmitri Slepovich has noted a fascinating difference in the approaches to Jewish cultural nationalism in pre-Holocaust Vilna and St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, Jewish musicians took an "ethnographic" approach, creating and performing works based on "authentic" Jewish folkloric material. In Vilna, by contrast, Jewish musicians took what Slepovich has called an "adapted Haskalah" approach, by translating non-Jewish culture into Yiddish. To a certain extent, as Slepovich himself has acknowledged, this is an overly-simplistic binary; reality was more complex. But it raises an important question of genre: when utilizing pre-existing materials to create new compositions, does it matter the origin of those materials? Composers associated with the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music (1908-1919) often debated, even fiercely, the authenticity of Jewish folk music. Nationalist identity was at stake: if a given folk tune is not authentically Jewish, they reasoned, then how could any musical arrangement of it be Jewish? And yet, musicians in Vilna performed Yiddish translations of non-Jewish classical works as a form of Jewish musical nationalism, implying that these translations – in some way – embodied and expressed Jewish identity.

This paper offers a goal-oriented approach to Jewish genre labels, using the Vilna translations of classical music into Yiddish as a case study. Rather than arguing for essential "Jewishness" or "non- Jewishness," I ask what we, today, can gain and lose by retroactively applying such labels. On one hand, it is important to recognize the non-Jewish origins of this music, because one of the choir's nationalistic goals was to popularize classical music among Jews in Poland. It was, in a crude sense, non-Jewish music used as a tool for enlightening the Jewish masses. On the other hand, it was music sung in Yiddish, by Jewish singers in a Jewish choir, for Jewish audiences, at concerts organized by Jewish institutions, towards Jewish nationalist ends. Clearly, these translations played a significant role in Jewish cultural life, which the original Russian and German versions did not. I also discuss more philosophical approaches to the identification of musical "works" and "genres", asking if this music could be considered simultaneously "Jewish" and "non-Jewish," or if the act and performance of translation transfers the "work" from one genre to another, or if "Tchaikovsky in Russian" and "Tchaikovsky in Yiddish" are two fundamentally different "works," each with its own distinct genre, even if the notes are all the same. In short, my approach to musical genre is anti-essentialist, encouraging us to think less in terms of "is this Jewish" and more in terms of "what could it mean for this to be Jewish" and "why do we care if it is Jewish."

5th Annual International
Polish Jewish Studies Workshop

“Centering the Periphery: Polish Jewish Cultural Production Beyond the Capital”

Rutgers University
the State University of New Jersey

March 5-6, 2018
Rutgers University Inn
178 Ryders Lane
New Brunswick, NJ  08901