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

Nelly KRAVETZ Translated by Simon MORRISON



The Zimro Ensemble took its name from the Hebrew word for “singing,” and likewise amalgamates letters from “klezmer” (klei zemer). It was organized by the Society for Jewish Folk Music in January 1918 and existed for three years. It featured Simon (Semion) Bellison, the clarinetist leader of the ensemble; Yakov Mestechkin (first violin), Grigoriy Bezrodnīy (second violin), Kapel Moldavan (viola), Iosif Chernyavsky (cello), and Lev Berdichevsky (piano).(13) The ensemble comprised exclusively Jewish musicians and had a profound Zionist orientation directed toward the aid of Palestine. For this reason Zimro altered its identity upon arrival in America, referring to itself not as a Petrograd chamber ensemble but a Palestinian one. Its goals, as indicated in its English and Yiddish promotional booklet, were the following:

1. Disseminate and collect Jewish folk music in Russia as well as other countries.

2. Reserve all income from concerts to fund the building of a “Cathedral of Art” in Palestine.

3. Bring together those Jewish visual artists, actors, poets, and musicians scattered around the globe towards the single goal of “Omanut” [this being the translation of the Yiddish word for art] for the development of Palestinian national art.

4. To establish a fund for the building of a Palestinian conservatoire, which will become a national memorial to the Jewish soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.(14)

Zimro was active for three years, which can be broadly divided into a Petrograd period (January-February 1918) and an American period (September 1919 to October 1920).

On March 11, 1918, two months before Prokofiev’s departure from Russia, Zimro, under the aegis of the Russian Zionist Organization, exited Petrograd. On route to the United States, the ensemble performed dozens of concerts in Western Russia (such cities as Vologda, Arkhangelsk, Yaroslavl, Vyatka, and Novonikolaevsk), Siberia (Omsk, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok), China (Harbin and Shanghai), the Royal Dutch East Indies (Surabaya, Jakarta, Semarang, and Weltevreden), Hong Kong, Singapore, Nagasaki, Yokohama, and Vancouver. Fighting in the Urals and Siberia made parts of the tour treacherous; often the musicians, instruments in hand, journeyed across enormous distances in the Russian interior in teplushki, heated cattle cars. (15)

The ensemble first performed in the United States in Chicago on September 17, 1919, for the closing of a Zionist convention. A month and a half later, on November 1, Zimro appeared in the most prestigious concert hall in the nation, Carnegie Hall. The Jerusalem archives reveal that Prokofiev attended this concert. He was now working on the Overture on Hebrew Themes and, to be sure, recognized the importance of familiarizing himself with klezmer music. According to one of the reviews, “Prokofiev, visiting America for the first time, was in the audience. The playing of the ‘Zimro,’ their success and the enthusiasm of the crowd for the Jewish melodies impressed him greatly.” (16)

It is not altogether clear why Zimro ceased performing in 1921. Perhaps the strict Zionist mission of the ensemble had a deleterious effect, insofar as it limited the choice of repertoire, the size of audiences, and, crucially, income from ticket sales.

Prokofiev’s piece for the ensemble was listed on the promotional materials for the premiere without the designation “Hebrew Themes.” This was intentional. The organizers of the performance were concerned that New York concertgoers, unaccustomed to Middle Eastern folklore, would find the title too exotic. I hasten to add that the billboards for subsequent performances of the overture also varied the title. It was listed as a “Fantasy-Overture,” “Sextet, op. 34,” “Hebrew Rhapsody,” and “Sketch on Hebrew Themes.” (17) Irrespective of its designation, its popularity exceeded the composer’s and the ensemble’s expectations. Zimro included it on all of its American concert programs. Prokofiev’s work was the centerpiece—the show-stopper—and, judging from the reviews, the ensemble’s most effective score.


The Overture on Hebrew Themes is essentially structured around two melodies, taken, according to Prokofiev himself, from the Zimro notebook. Dogged efforts to find this notebook proved unsuccessful; unfortunately, it does not seem to have been preserved either in Russia or the West. The contents of the notebook are a mystery—and so too the melodies that stimulated the composer’s imagination and those he considered to be trite, unsuitable for development. That this source is missing leaves unclear whether the melodies purported to be authentic (transcribed from folk performances) or not. The Jerusalem archive reveals, however, that in 1907 Zimro clarinetist Simon Bellison began to collect Jewish melodies, arranging them for different combinations and commissioning composers to secularize them for the concert-going public.(18) He subsequently assembled a large library of Jewish music, including both published and unpublished materials.

The first theme in Prokofiev’s work is a ritual group dance, similar in its structure, rhythm, and design to the popular up-tempo freilekhs (the Yiddish word for “joyful”) number performed by klezmers at Jewish weddings.

PICT1PsmEx. 1 Jewish folk tune in M. Beregovskiy, Yevreyskaya narodnaya instrumental’naya muzїka, ed. M. Goldin (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1987), 219

But what specifically did Prokofiev borrow and what did he compose himself? The distinctions between quoting, paraphrasing, and neo-nationalist stylization are rather complicated in this instance. The distinguished ethnomusicologist and expert on Jewish music Moshe Beregovsky asserts that Prokofiev adapted only the first phrase of the Jewish-Moldavian wedding tune in question, that is, just the first four measures, extending them to five. (19)

PICT1aPsmEx. 1a Prokofiev, element “a”, mm. 16—20

There is no evidence, however, to support this assumption, for it is unclear how the original tune played out. Since it is not found in any of the better-known anthologies of Jewish folk music, one assumes that it did not exist in the repertoire of klezmers at the time and should not be considered authentic. It is at best folk-like. It might have been composed in klezmer spirit by Bellison, the leader of Zimro, or by someone else in the ensemble. Examples 1b and 1c contain two freilekhs melodies, neither approximating Prokofiev’s theme.

PICT1bPsmEx. 1b Freilekhs, as transcribed in Beregovskiy, op. cit., №111

PICT1cPsmEx. 1с Freilekhs, as transcribed in Beregovskiy, op. cit., №141

Doubtless the extension of the tune was devised by Prokofiev, in a manner that precisely accords with characteristic Jewish intonations. The resemblance is self-evident; it does not need to be proven through an elaborate taxonomy. Examples 2, 2a, and 2b find Prokofiev adopting element “b,” namely the favorite klezmer motif of a perfect fourth in dotted rhythms, imported directly from folk practice.

PICT2PsmEx. 2 Prokofiev, element “b”, mm.12—16

PICT2aPsmEx. 2a J. Engel, Tetrad’ notnikh zapisey (Kiev: Institut rukopisi natsional’noy biblioteki Ukrainї imeni V. I. Vernadskogo), f. 190, 139

PICT1cPsm1Ex. 2b Skocne, as transcribed in M. Beregovskiy, Yevreyskiye narodnїye pesni (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1962), №78, transposed.

Additional likenesses are evident in Prokofiev’s adoption of element “c” (examples 3, 3a, 3b, and 3c).

PICT3PsmEx. 3 Prokofiev, element “c”, mm. 25—28

PICT3aPsmEx. 3a Freilekher nigun, as transcribed in Beregovskiy, Yevreyskaya narodnaya instrumental’naya muzїka, 238

PICT3bPsmEx. 3b Jewish folk tune, as transcribed in Beregovskiy, op. cit., 274

PICT3cPsmEx. 3c Jewish folk tune, as transcribed in J. Engel, Hebrew Melodies, Semion Bellison Archive, A-II: 28, 25







13 Such was the roster for the New York premiere of the Overture on Hebrew Themes. It was not, however, the original roster. Its debut concert in St. Petersburg on January 21, 1918, featured Michael Rozenker on second violin and B. Nakhutin on piano. In Shanghai on January 18, 22, 25, 1919, and on the island of Java the second violinist was Elfrida Boss.

14 Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, Semion Bellison Archive, С-III, 23.










15 More detail information about Zimro, including chronicles of the tours and repertoire lists, can be found in Nelli Kravets, “Muzīkal’naya deyatel’nost’ kamernogo ansamblya ‘Zimro’ i ‘Uvertyura na yevreyskiye temī’ S. Prokof’yeva,” in Iz istorii yevreyskoy muzīki, ed. G. V. Kopītova and A. S. Frenkel’ (St Petersburg: Yevreyskiy obshinnīy tsentr Sankt-Peterburga i Rossiyskiy institute istorii iskusstv, 2003), 265-82.

16 Semion Bellison Archive, C-II, 16.





17 Semion Bellison Archive, D-I, 1, pp. 1-486 (programs and press clippings).










18 Semion Bellison Archive, C-II, 15.








19 M. Beregovskiy, Yevreyskaya narodnaya instrumental’naya muzīka, ed. M. Gol’din (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1987), 219.