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

Nelly KRAVETZ Translated by Simon MORRISON





















































Ida Rubinstein, in an undated photograph.




Stella Adler, early 1920s.


The second theme, in contrast, appears in its original form. It is borrowed intact from a lyrical Yiddish wedding song about a bride leaving her parent’s home (Zayt gezunterheyt mayne libe eltern; example 4).

PICT4PsmEx. 4 Prokofiev, second theme, mm. 102—115

Numerous confirm this theme as part of the klezmer repertoire. The song was performed in instrumental adaptations (as music for dancing or listening) at the conclusion of the nuptial. (20) In its original guise the tune exists in three variations (examples 4a, 4b, and 4c).

PICT4aPsmEx. 4a Jewish folk tune, as transcribed in Engel, Tetrad’ notnikh zapesei, op. cit., № 61

PICT4bPsmEx. 4b Jewish folk tune

PICT4cPsmEx. 4c Jewish folk tune, as transcribed in Abraham M. Bernstein, Muzikalisher pinkes: Nigunim-zamlung fun Yidishn folks-oytser (Vilnius: Aroysgegeben Fun Der Vilner Yidisher Historish-Etnografisher Gezelshaft Oyf Dem Nomen Fun S. An-Ski, 927), № 243

There likewise exist three versions of the text, none of which is part of the wedding ritual. It is hard to discern from the gestures of farewell whether the narrator is joining the army, or emigrating somewhere, or travelling without destination. (21)

Ethnomusicologists argue to this day over what specifically constitutes Jewish folk music. It is often defined through the use of a mode containing two augmented seconds (the so-called “steyger” mode), which lies at the basis of Jewish as well as Ukrainian, Roma, and Moldavian music. The question of origins is by definition complex, and it proves impossible to determine which tradition influenced which other. Examples 5 and 5a show the second theme, which recalls the Ukrainian song of parting, “Oy, ziyshlo, ziyshlo.” (22) Prokofiev might well have heard some­thing similar during his childhood, affecting his choice for the Zimro ensemble.

PICT5PsmEx. 5 Yiddish folk tune, as transcribed in Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovskiy, ed. and trans. Mark Slobin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 516


Prokofiev translated the specifics of the klezmer style with considerable care, bearing in mind that changes in the scores risked depriving the Overture on Hebrew Themes of authenticity, whether real or imagined. But the scoring was changed in the spring and fall of 1922 in Berlin. There Herbert Sandberg conducted it with doubled and tripled strings. (23) The conductor-less ensemble Persimfans performed it with strings only in Moscow on December 13, 1925. Prokofiev’s close friend, the composer Nikolay Myaskovsky, castigated the performance as a “wild fantasy” on the part of the founder of Persimfans, Lev Tseytlin: “It was complete nonsense—no piano, no clarinet, no second theme, no ending. Nothing sounded properly.” (24)

Here the question (and perhaps the answer) arises: Why did Prokofiev return to the Overture on Hebrew Themes in 1934, fifteen years after the premiere, and make an orchestral version of it? (25) It appears that Prokofiev did not plan to revise the piece until circumstances forced his hand. Someone else had orchestrated it with­out his consent, and had even made a recording of it, leaving the composer with no choice but to “rescue” the work by orchestrating it himself. The following letter from Prokofiev to conductor and music critic Nicholas Slonimsky (1894-1995), dated September 2, 1930, acerbically clarifies the situation:

Of course I haven’t transcribed my Overture on Hebrew Themes, and I don’t understand why certain blockheads found it necessary to re-orchestrate it, given that it was conceived as a sextet in no need of reworking. If you have the gramophone recording at hand, send it to me, but it is not worth making a special purchase.(26)

In the end, Prokofiev did not ascribe much significance to the work. As he put it in 1929 to the Scottish critic Andrew Fraser, “The Overture op. 34 was composed in two days, on given themes; its technique is conventional, its form is bad (4+4+4+4).” (27) He certainly did not expect that the score, which he did not even want to assign an opus number, would gain such traction. He nonetheless expressed an interest in Jewish subjects several times throughout in his career, but he was not destined to realize them.


It is little known that the original title of the second song from Prokofiev’s 1920 vocal cycle “Five Songs Without Words” was “Berceuse Hébraique.” It was composed following the completion of the Overture on Hebrew Themes, at the special request of Prokofiev’s close friend and singer Nina Koshetz, its dedicatee. Koshetz premiered the song under this title in New York on March 21, 1921. (28) One wonders what specific associations Prokofiev might have had in mind with his Jewish lullaby. The Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn’s own Songs Without Words from 1845? Perhaps Koshetz’s Jewish origins? The singer heard “a distant and gentle reminiscence” in the “Berceuse Hébraique,” though the recollection in question excludes anything definably Jewish. Koshetz added that she “loved the sad, A-minor melody, with its Russian [!] coloring.” (29) Without the words, in fact, a Jewish lullaby cannot be distinguished from a Russian or Ukrainian or Belorussian one. All have the same minor mode and rocking accompaniment. The Jewishness of Prokofiev’s song is contextual rather than technical. He himself obviously had doubts about his choice of title, and removed it from the published score.

The Paris project with Ida Rubinstein, with which this essay began, went unre­alized. No contract was signed, though Prokofiev did begin work on a “Biblical Suite.” The proposed collaboration with Shoshana Avivit on a project related to the prophet Isaiah also came to naught. He had been introduced to her at a soiree hosted by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont in the winter of 1925, and took to her ardent, soulful reading of Isaiah’s verses in Aramaic. He was unable to complete her commission, since he was working on the time on the orchestration of his ballet Le Pas d’acier (1925) while also rethinking the libretto of his opera The Fiery Angel (1927) and writing a new version of his op. 5 Sinfonietta. Moreover, at some point he and Avivit clashed concerning the libretto of their project:

What I found curious was the texts she had chosen from the Bible: they were either the vengeance of the Jewish people, or implacable Sabaoth [Jehovah, Lord God of Sabaoth] sallying forth to wreak bloodshed among people. I was appalled, not having realized that such dreadful things were contained within the pages of the Bible! (30)

In 1932 Rubinstein tried once again to interest Prokofiev in the biblical ballet. Despite past misunderstandings, stemming from Rubinstein’s failure to follow up on the financial negotiations for the project, Prokofiev was pleased to hear from her, since he did not have a commission at the time. But now the project fell through for political reasons. Prokofiev did not want to create problems for himself with Soviet Russia, since he was at this point thinking seriously about relocating from Paris to Moscow. The land of godless communism, he knew, would not welcome a ballet based on scripture. As in 1925, when the idea first came up, the work was to concern the building of Solomon’s Temple. Rubinstein found the subject attractive, but Prokofiev saw in Demasy’s libretto a disagreeable element of “jingoistic patriotism.” (31) Prokofiev’s trip to Soviet Russia put the half-revived plan on the back burner. After pouring himself into the composition of a Soviet work of a much more practical character—the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of October—the Rubinstein collaboration ended for good. His 1929 ballet The Prodigal Son, a commission from the Ballets Russes, has perhaps a distant relationship to the Solomon’s Temple project.

A cryptic, almost secretarial letter from Lina Prokofiev to her husband dated July 20, 1933, reveals that Prokofiev had entered into discussions with his former classmate from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Solomon Rozovsky, (32) concerning a proposed visit to Palestine.

Rozovsky called. He can’t come then; after December suits him. He will ask his manager to write to you, since Palestine needs to be combined with Syria and Egypt, which could be potentially quite profitable—he didn’t name a figure.(33)

In distinction from other exotic countries—Morocco, Algiers, and Tunisia in North Africa, where Prokofiev concertized in 1935—his visit to the Middle East was, for unclear reasons, not to be realized.

Digging deeper into the question of who actually initiated and stimulated Prokofiev’s interest in musical Judaica suggests the answer, cherchez la femme (look for the woman). The dancer Ida Rubinstein, the singer Nina Koshetz, the harpist Eleonara Damskaya, the actresses Shoshana Avivit, Polina Podolskaya, Dagmar Godowsky, and especially his first love, Stella Adler. All of these women were of Russian-Jewish origins and, in various ways at different times, played a prominent role in the composer’s life. Excluding Damskaya, all of them emigrated to the United States, where they did not have to hide their “undesirable” Jewishness.

Upon relocating to the Soviet Union in 1936 for good, Prokofiev did not realize that Jewish subject matter, though officially permitted, was not desirable and potentially risky for composers. One assumes that he continued to have his project in mind, as evidenced by the fact, hitherto unknown, that Prokofiev attended a concert of the Jewish vocal ensemble Evokans in the spring of 1937. (Evokans is the abbreviation of Yevreyskiy vokal’nïy ansambl’, or Jewish Vocal Ensemble.) Prokofiev enjoyed himself, sending this note to the members of the group on March 27, 1937:

I spent a very pleasant evening at your concert in the Hall of Columns. There was much of interest, Sheinen’s excellent “instrumentations” and a lot of nice touches in the singing, both in the sense of nuance and color and timbre. I wish you further success. (34)

Just like the Mikhoels State Jewish Theater in Moscow, the Kiev-based Evokans was an important feature of Soviet musical culture in the mid-1930s, receiving, as a “merited” “state” organization, direct financial support from officialdom. Their tour to Moscow in the spring of 1937 was heralded in the state media as a major event.

Nonetheless, connoisseurs could have been interested in such a concert, since the repertoire consisted of folksongs in Yiddish about life in the village (shtetle), as collected and arranged by Yehoshua Sheinen, leader of the ensemble. What would have motivated Prokofiev to attend the concert, were it not for a desire on his part for additional Jewish musical impressions and perhaps to repeat the success of the Overture on Hebrew Themes—this time in the domain of choral music?

That did not happen. In 1939, the All-Union Committee on Arts Affairs banned Evokans and accused Sheinen of Formalism (the catch-all for anti-Soviet musical deviations) in his treatment of Synagogue music.

Stylistic experimentation with folk and non-folk styles is endemic to Prokofiev’s music. He could just as easily be labelled a “Jewish” composer as a Kabardinian (here the reference is to his Second String Quartet) or Ukrainian (Semyon Kotko) or Kazakh (the unfinished opera Khan Buzai). Ultimately, he did not achieve his iconic status through derivation, but amalgamation and assimilation. BACK










20 The klezmer performance of the song “Zajnt gezunt” (Good Health) is described in one classic source as follows: “The matchmakers are forgiven, weeping loudly, and at the end of the ritual the freilekhs is played and everyone joins in a round dance.” Abraham M. Bernstein, Muzikalisher pinkes: Nigunim-zamlung fun Yidishn folks-oytser (Vilnius: Aroysgegeben Fun Der Vilner Yidisher Historish-Etnografisher Gezelshaft Oyf Dem Nomen Fun S. An-Ski, 1927), n. p. (annotation for music example 243).






21 The three versions of the text are reproduced in Yevreyskiye narodnïye pesni v Rossii, ed. S. M. Ginzburg and P. S. Marek (St. Petersburg: Vostok, 1901), 213-14.

22 This example appears in Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski, ed. and trans. Mark Slobin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 516








23 This according to a letter of December 18, 1922, from Prokofiev to Vladimir Derzhanovsky; Sergey Prokof’yev. K 110-letiyu so dnya rozhdeniya. Pis’ma, vospominaniya, stat’i, ed. M. P. Rakhmanova (Moscow: GTsMMK im. Glinki, 2001), 61.

24 S. S. Prokof'yev i N. Ya. Myaskovskiy: Perepiska, ed. D. B. Kabalevskiy (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1977), 228.

25 Prokofiev completed the orchestration of the Overture on Hebrew Themes in May 1934 at the artist Pyotr Konchalovsky’s dacha. From Konchalovsky’s trifling account of the occasion: “Moreover, he [Prokofiev] attended to other projects, including, I recall, his “Jewish melodies,” of which he humorously said, ‘the Jews are keeping me busy’.” S. S. Prokof’yev. Materialï, dokumentï, vospominaniya, ed. S. I. Shlifshteyn (Moscow: Gos. muz. izd-vo, 1961), 49.

26 As quoted in Sergey Prokof’yev—Sergey Kusevitskiy. Perepiska 1910-1953, ed. and annotated by Viktor Yuzefovich (Moscow: Deka-VS, 2011), 343.

27 Prokofiev’s letter, dated June 1, 1929, is reproduced in Three Oranges Journal 1 (2001): 26.


28 See Richard Aldrich, “Music; Mme. Nina Koshetz’s Song Recital,” The New York Times, March 28, 1921, p. 14.

29 See, for this and her other reactions to Prokofiev’s music, Nina Koshits, “Moi vstrechi s Prokof’yevïm,” in Sergey Prokof’yev: Pis’ma, vospominaniya, stat’i, ed. M. P. Rakhmanova (Moscow: GTsMMK im. M. I. Glinki, 2007), 110-47.









30 Prokofiev, Diaries 1924-1933: Prodigal Son, 309; entry of May 11, 1926.

31 Ibid., 188; entry of June 27, 1925.










32 The composer and musicologist Solomon Rozovsky (1878-1962) immigrated to Palestine in 1925. He was one of the leaders of the Society for Jewish Music in Palestine, organizing numerous lectures and concerts, and served as an administrator for Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He immigrated to the United States in 1946.

33 My thanks to Simon Morrison for sharing this letter with me.












34 RGALI f. 1929, op. 2, yed. khr. 334.