I must be the only Jewish composer!
Prokofiev and Jewish Music* 1 2 3

Nelly KRAVETZ Translated by Simon MORRISON



The Zimro Ensemble in Java in 1918, from the Semion Bellison Archive in Jerusalem.

Shoshana Avivit (1901-81)


Léon Bakst's 1911 drawing of Ida Rubinstein in the role of Saint Sebastian.






The Zimro ensemble as caricatured in the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Groyser Kundes.


The somewhat paradoxical title of this article comes from Prokofiev himself, a phrase that he repeated in variation in different times and circumstances. The first occasion was after he met with the eminent dancer and fabulously well-to-do impresario Ida Rubinstein (1883-1960) in January 1924 in Paris. She proposed, ultimately fruitlessly, that Prokofiev compose music for the play Juditha, to be staged by the Belgian playwright Paul Demasy (1884-1974) with costumes by Léon Bakst (1866-1924). As Prokofiev wrote in his diaries:

On the subject of Demasy she said that he possessed a quality of suffering only a Jew can know rather than a Frenchman: about Bakst that he had long dreamt of Juditha as a subject; about me, that I alone would be capable of composing sufficiently profound music. Conclusion—I must be the only Jewish composer! (2)

The second time he invoked this same sentiment followed his encounter with the famous Jewish reciter, tragic actress, and writer Shoshana Avivit in May 1926 in Paris. She endeavored to commission a score from Prokofiev for an excerpt from the Bible, either a psalm text or a recitation from the prophet Isaiah that she had read in performance in the ancient (Aramaic) Jewish language. Prokofiev recalled her saying that:

Among the composers writing for her are [Arthur] Honegger and someone else, but I am “the only composer capable of writing a biblical work.” Well, nothing new about that: after all I am the only true Jewish composer! (3)

To be sure, Prokofiev was speaking here with characteristic sardonicism. He was also referring to his Overture on Hebrew Themes, op. 34, which was heard for the first time on February 2, 1920, in New York at the Bohemian Club. The members-only audience gave him and the work a warm ovation, with some in attendance later admitting to the composer that he “was not at all the person I had been painted to be.”

How often in my life I have had to meet people who are genuinely shocked by the music I write, and do everything in their power to block my career, only later, having done me all kinds of harm, to discover that after all I am a good composer. They come up to me, look me straight in the eye, and ingenuously apologize for having formerly tried to shoot me dead! (4)

All of this caprice aside, the subject of Prokofiev and Jewish music, Prokofiev and the Jews, has not yet been assessed, either by Russian or non-Russian musicologists. To my mind, it merits serious attention.


Despite, or because of, the fact that Prokofiev was born in the Ukraine and lived there until he was 13, he was not exposed to Jewish folk musicians (klezmers). His birthplace of Sontsovka (now the village of Krasnoye, near the city of Donetsk and the Prokofiev International Airport) was not included in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were usually located before the Russian Revolution. In this sense, Prokofiev’s experience contrasts with that of Igor Stravinsky, who was likely exposed to this music before the First World War. Stravinsky spent much of this period at his family’s estate in Ustilug, Ukraine, where most of the inhabitants were Jewish. The influence is manifest in the klezmerish instrumentation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (1918). (5)

It is noteworthy, however, that the very first song Prokofiev composed during his childhood, a song that remains regrettably unperformed and unpublished, bears the title Vetka Palestinï (The Palm Branch of Palestine). It dates from 1903, and sets a text by the Russian Romantic poem Mikhaíl Lermontov. (6) The subject is biblical, and tells of the people making palm branches before meeting Jesus at the entrance to Jerusalem. The poem is clearly based much more on Christian than Judaic symbolism. But is it not from childhood that Prokofiev’s interest in exotic images of Palestine and scripture originates?

Entering the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Prokofiev was in frequent contact with Jews, since a large part of the student body was, to use the phraseology of the Soviet period, representative of this nationality. The reasons for this are clear. In September 1908 the Russian Imperial Council of Ministers adopted a resolution (affirmed by Nicholas II) to the effect that no more than five percent of the enrol­lments in public higher education institutions could comprise people of the Jewish faith. The lone exception to this draconian law was the conservatoire. Though they were shut out elsewhere, Jews could enter the conservatoire trouble- and tuition-free. Prokofiev’s classmates included Solomon Rozovsky, Lazarus Saminskiy, Mikhaíl Gnesin, and Joseph Achron. In his diary he fails to mention their names in connection with the establishment, in 1908, of the Society for Jewish Folk Music—a significant cultural event at the time. Even more surprising is the fact that all of these composers, including Prokofiev himself, trained with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the mastermind of the project. (7) There is no doubt that Prokofiev knew about the project, but the Society for Jewish Folk Music bore no relation to him at the time and was thus of no particular interest.

From the diary we learn that Prokofiev was first recorded his exposure to Jewish religious traditions on March 30, 1914. His friend Josef Gessen (8) invited him to the Passover Seder, featuring a reading of the story (Hagada) of the exile of Jews from Egypt. “[T]oday is apparently the Jewish Easter,” Prokofiev recalled, “and I enjoyed tasting various national dishes and things to drink.” (9) There remains another salient detail from Prokofiev’s diary. Within ten days of his arrival in New York, on September 6, 1918, Prokofiev visited a synagogue:

Today is the Jewish Day of Judgment. I went to the synagogue, hoping to hear an aspect of singing new to me, some Jewish mumbling that would make an interesting impression. But there were only some clean-shaved bankers there in gleaming top hats listening to the monotonous reading of the rabbi. I grew bored and left, being reprimanded as I went out for having got up at the wrong moment. (10)

He might have either learned about Yom Kippur from his recent New York acquaintances (for example, the conductor Modest Altschuler and the artist Boris Anisfeld), or from print media. He did not choose this particular day to visit the synagogue by chance. In his diary Prokofiev intimates that the aim of his visit was a desire to be exposed to new musical material. At the time, even non-Jewish composers frequented the synagogue on Yom Kippur to hear the Kol Nidre, a traditional liturgical prayer, in its “authentic” form, thereafter incorporating it into their works. It is completely possible that Prokofiev wanted to hear this prayer in situ as well.


The Overture on Hebrew Themes was the first work to witness Prokofiev’s unexpected interest in Jewish music. It was also the first independent work (excluding arrangements) written by him in the United States. And Prokofiev was the first known Russian composer to base a Jewish score not on Jewish liturgical chants, but on klezmer tunes.(11) The history of this work is described in detail in his autobiography:

In the fall of 1919 the Jewish “Zimro” ensemble came to America. It consisted of a string quartet, clarinet, and piano, all of them fellow students of mine at the Petersburg conservatoire. The official purpose of their concert tour was to raise funds for a conservatoire in Jerusalem. But this was merely to impress the Jewish population of America. Actually they barely made enough to keep themselves alive. They had a repertoire of rather interesting Jewish music for diverse combinations of instruments: for two violins, trio, etc. They asked me to write an overture for a sextet, and gave me a notebook of Jewish themes. I refused at first on the grounds that I used only my own musical material. The notebook, however, remained with me, and glancing through it one evening I chose a few pleasant themes and began to improvise at the piano. I soon noticed that several well-knit passages were emerging. I spent the next day working on the themes and by evening had the overture ready. (12)

But why in fact did Prokofiev, who was neither Jewish in faith nor heritage, take on this project? There were several reasons.

Prokofiev’s first few months in the United States proved disenchanting. The Chicago production of his opera Love for Three Oranges hung in the air, and would not receive its premiere until 1921—three years after the commission. The public success that he had experienced with his recitals was mediated by withering reviews, and did not convince him that America had been worth the trip. He sought new opportunities, and the commission from Zimro (however modest) came just in time. Plus Prokofiev unexpectedly found himself with three weeks of spare time in October 1919, following the completion of the orchestration of Love for three Oranges, and used it assemble the Overture on Hebrew Themes.

In agreeing to the project, Prokofiev might have suspected that a successful premiere would open musical doors, and likewise the wallets of American busi­ness magnates, many of them Jewish. Whether he took this into account upon accepting the commission is difficult to say. But after the great success of the Overture on Hebrew Themes at the Bohemian Club on February 2, 1920, and of its more prestigious performance at Carnegie Hall on April 24, 1919, Prokofiev established crucial ties to influential and rich benefactors of the arts, including those who had weight at the Chicago Opera and could decide the fate of Love for Three Oranges. These individuals included Mrs. Julius Rosenwald, whose brother-in-law was one of the bankrollers of the Chicago Opera. Prokofiev also met Harold Rosenthal, a powerful Chicago lawyer and acquaintance of Harold McCormick, the principal financier and chairman of the board of the Chicago Opera. Also in the social mix was Frank Leavitt, a professor at the University of Chicago and opera devotee. NEXT


* This essay was presented in abbreviated guise at the international conference “After the End of Music History,” held at Princeton University in honor of Richard Taruskin February 9-12, 2012.



2 Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries 1924-1933: Prodigal Son, trans. and annotated by Anthony Phillips (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), 7; entry dated January 10, 1924.




3 Ibid., 308; entry dated May 11, 1926.






4 Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries 1915-1923: Behind the Mask, trans. and annotated by Anthony Phillips (London: Faber & Faber, 2008), 474; entry dated February 8, 1920.







5 Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions. A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, 2 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 1: 1306.

6 The manuscript is preserved in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (henceforth RGALI), f.1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 266.

7 Rimsky-Korsakov famously commented to his distinguished pupil Efraim Shklyar (1871-1943?), among others: “Why do you imitate European and Russian composers? The Jews possess tremendous folk treasures. I myself have heard your religious songs, and they have made a deep impression on me. Think about it. Yes, Jewish music awaits her Jewish Glinka.” As quoted in Klára Móricz, Jewish Identities: Nationalism, Racism, and Utopianism in Twentieth-Century Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 51.

8 Iosif Vladimirovich Gessen (1866-1943) was a legal official, writer, and publisher of the newspaper Rech’ and journal Pravo in St. Petersburg. Prokofiev credited Gessen with helping him to launch his career.

9 Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth, trans. and annotated by Anthony Phillips (London: Faber & Faber, 2006), 634.



10 Ibid., 334









11 Mikhaíl Glinka, Anton Rubinstein, Modest Musorgsky, Miliy Balakirev, and Rimsky-Korsakov preceded Prokofiev in composing works based on Jewish liturgical themes.





12 Sergei Prokofiev, Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences, ed. S. Shlifshtein, trans. Rose Prokofieva (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2000), 54.