The Arty Semite

Lenin, Stalin, and Jewish Musicians

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

On October 12, Paris’s Cité de la Musique opened a new exhibit, “Lenin, Stalin, and Music” which includes much fascinating material about the fate, and often the plight, of Russian Jewish musicians.

Courtesy Archive Estate of Emil Gilels, Moscow

With the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to see why any Jews stayed in Soviet Russia. However, a brilliantly concise and well-illustrated exhibition catalog published by Les éditions Fayard accompanies the show, explaining why some gifted Jewish composers such as Maximilian Steinberg and the pianist/composer Samuil Feinberg, at first embraced the opportunities afforded them to create new music in post-Revolutionary Russia.

Other composers like Mikhail Gnesin and Alexander Weprik evolved coherent and still-fascinating syntheses of Russian modernism and Jewish musical tradition. Veniamin Fleishman, a younger musician who studied with Shostakovich, would likely have done the same had he not been killed fighting on the front lines in 1941 at age 28. Less innovative popular Jewish composers like Isaak Dunaevsky and Matvei Blanter created hymns in praise of the Soviet regime, spiffily celebrating themes like the “power, energy, and joy of the Soviet people.”

Sometimes belief in Marxism outweighed talent, as in the case of the sometimes heavy-handed composer Arthur Lourié (born Naum Izrailevich Luria), who in 1919 created a musical stage work, “Upmann: Smoking Sketch,” about how an unfortunate Chinese man is oppressed by bourgeois Europeans — those “malicious little folk in tailcoats,” as Lourié’s piece, with characteristic lack of nuance, termed the villains.

To document the era the exhibition displays a famous painting by Dmitri Nalbandian which immortalizes Lenin’s 1920 visit to Maxim Gorky’s apartment to hear the Russian Jewish pianist/conductor Issay Dobrowen play Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata.

During World War II, Russian musicians like violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels bravely ignored the siege of Leningrad to inspire audiences, much as UK pianists Myra Hess and Solomon did at their own morale-building National Gallery recitals during the Blitz. Yet the Soviets flaunted their performing virtuosos as if they were unique in their heroism, as a 1940s propaganda poster on display at the Cité de la Musique shows, illustrating a stalwart Soviet violinist performing proudly in a concert hall, juxtaposed with a homeless beggar holding a fiddle in an unspecified “Capitalist country.”

Yet despite such expressions of pride in native musical talent, soon after World War II ended, Stalinist’s lethal antisemitic policies came into effect, fighting so-called “cosmopolitanism” of Jewish composers, actors, and other creative and performing artists. “Lenin, Stalin, and Music” proves that Jewish musicians made the most of the brief window of opportunity allowed them before Stalinist Terror struck home.

“Lenin, Stalin, and Music” runs at Cité de la Musique in Paris until January 16, 2011.

Listen to Samuil Feinberg perform his own Suite opus 11 for piano:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Mikhail Gnesin, Maximilian Steinberg, Matvei Blanter, Lenin, Josef Stalin, Isaak Dunaevsky, Exhibits, Emil Gilels, Dmitri Nalbandian, David Oistrakh, Cité de la Musique, Arthur Lourié, Alexander Weprik, Music, Myra Hess, Paris, Samuil Feinberg, Shostakovich, Veniamin Fleishman

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.