Lazar Weiner (1897-1982)
Lazar Weiner is most widely remembered today as the supreme exemplar and advocate of the Yiddish art song genre. Through his opera of more than two hundred songs, he elevated that medium to unprecedented artistic sophistication.
Even for many ardent devotees of Yiddish language and culture, the very designation “Yiddish song” now most likely connotes confinement to one or another of the popular realms—whether genuine folksong or songs in a folk style, theatrical numbers, songs from operettas, vaudeville or similar stage routines, or other entertainment-oriented and even commercial vehicles. Yet few in the general music world may be aware that the Western canon of art song—as exemplified by the German lieder of Schubert, Schumann, or Brahms; French songs of Debussy or Duparc; Russian songs of Rachmaninoff or Mussorgsky; English songs of Britten or Vaughn Williams; American songs of Barber or Rorem; or songs in other languages by classical composers such as Dvořák, Grieg, or Sibelius—has a legitimate, secular Jewish generic counterpart in both Yiddish and modern Hebrew art songs of the 20th century.
Cultivated Yiddish (as well as modern Hebrew) art song, however, based on serious literary sources and modeled partly on the artistic principles of the 19th- and 20th-century solo song for voice and piano, is a relatively recent development in the course of both Western and Jewish-oriented music. While the solo art song in Western music was initially a creature of the early Romantic era, beginning for the most part in the first quarter of the 19th century and continued thereafter in some fashion in nearly every musical period, the Jewish art song was born only in the first decade of the 20th century. Its genesis was a function of the new Jewish national art music school in Russia that grew out of—and was embodied by—the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg, founded in 1908. Consistent with the goals, aspirations, and influence of the Gesellschaft and its branches in other cities in the Czarist Empire, affiliated composers such as Moses Milner (1886–1953), Joseph Achron (1886–1943), Alexander Krein (1883–1951), Joel Engel (1868–1927), Mikhail Gniessin (1883–1957), and Solomon Rosowsky (1878–1962) not only fashioned quasi-art song expressions out of authentic folk material, but also turned for the first time to modern Yiddish and Hebrew poets as sources for entirely original art songs.
In America, too, a number of Yiddish-speaking immigrant and immigrant-era composers—such as Solomon Golub, Henech Kon, and Paul Lamkoff—wrote original Yiddish songs, sometimes with classical or at least quasi-classical intentions. For the most part, however, these were simple, albeit tasteful and often charming, settings—with harmonically and technically conventional piano accompaniments (or, in the case of some composers such as Michl Gelbart, none) rather than the ideally homologous and artistically complementary piano parts that, in principle, participate equally in the interpretation of the text and qualify art song as a form of chamber music. And these songs were generally aimed at broader segments of the Yiddish-speaking public than those who could digest more highly developed musical vocabulary or more intellectually geared poetry. Ultimately, it was Lazar Weiner under whose pen the American Yiddish art song attained its most profound expression and reached its fullest and richest bloom.
Yet his devotion to Yiddish choral art preceded his focus on the solo song as his primary endeavor, and it is only because of the waning of Yiddish choruses throughout the United States and Canada that Weiner’s significant body of Yiddish cantatas and other choral works may be less known today. During his lifetime, such choral music was also a major side of his musical persona and reputation. In addition, he wrote a significant amount of serious liturgical music, mostly for the American Reform synagogue format, as well as incidental theater music, an opera, orchestral works, and miscellaneous vocal and instrumental pieces—including some for piano that reflect his own brilliant virtuoso pianistic gifts. At the same time, he was recognized throughout his career as an important choral conductor.
Weiner was born in Cherkassy, in the Ukraine, where his musical talent was discovered at a very young age. After his parents rejected the extraordinary invitation (for a Jewish child) to join a local church choir, he was admitted to the choir of the prestigious Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev when he was only nine years old. That was the city’s relatively culturally progressive—yet not nonorthodox—khor shul. Khor shul translates literally as “choral synagogue,” although that formal nomenclature—indicating, among other things, a musically trained cantor and choir, sophisticated repertoire, and an effort to reconcile liturgical tradition and basic orthodoxy with an eastern European brand of modernity and with aspects of Westernization—can be misleading today, since the other principal synagogues in a particular city also always had regular choirs as a centuries-old sine qua non of cantorial art and performance.
The Brodsky choirmaster was the well-known Abram Dzimitrovsky, many of whose choirboys went on to become important cantors and synagogue musicians. Like many eastern European khor shuls, the Brodsky Synagogue had a secular school attached to it, where the young Weiner received a modern Russian elementary education—in addition to exposure to classical liturgical and cantorial repertoire in the choir. By the age of eleven he began singing in the Kiev Opera chorus as well, and then he studied piano with Dzimitrovsky for two years. In 1910 he received a partial scholarship at the State Conservatory in Kiev, where he studied piano and theory. Meanwhile, he supported himself (also covering the balance of his conservatory expenses) as a pianist for silent films. Much of his general music education was furthered by the rich concert and operatic offerings in Kiev, where he had opportunities to hear many of the great artists of the era, and he became familiar on his own with the canon of Western as well as Russian music.
In 1914, in the aftermath of the anti-Semitism that followed the infamous Mendel Beilis blood-libel incident and the 1911 trial (even though Beilis was eventually acquitted of the fabricated charges of ritual child murder), the family emigrated to the United States. By that time Weiner’s musical goals had come to center around his classical pianistic gifts, unrelated yet to any Jewish interests. His intellectual pursuits were also general rather than Judaic, and he evinced less and less interest in Jewish religious practices. The future avid Yiddishist was, during this impressionable period in his life, still oblivious to high Yiddish culture, even its secular content.
As a seventeen-year-old immigrant, Weiner found his first employment as a piano player in a New York silent cinema house, but he was soon engaged as a pianist for the studio of a well-known voice teacher, Lazar Samoiloff. He acquired a reputation as an expert artistic accompanist and, having gained substantial knowledge through his work with Samoiloff about the full range of vocal literature as well as about vocal teaching techniques, he eventually had his own lucrative coaching studio. He also found work as a pianist and librarian for an amateur community orchestra in Brooklyn, the Mendelssohn Symphony Orchestra, where he learned conducting skills and later became its conductor. During that period he also began experimenting with composition, although his primary ambitions still centered around the piano. His first piece was his Elegy for violin and piano.
The symphony position turned out to be fortuitous for Weiner’s ultimate artistic and Jewish paths. One of the violinists in the orchestra, Nahum Baruch Minkoff (1893–1958), was one of the coterie of Yiddish poets who espoused a modernist introspective literary approach based on personal experience and who were known as the In zikh poets—a school, or movement, whose core founders also included Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971) and Aaron Glanz-Leyeles (1889–1966). (Later, some of Weiner’s most admired songs would be settings of poetry by all three, as well as by other In zikh followers.) Weiner became friendly with Minkoff, who introduced him to his own literary circle and to the world of modern Yiddish literature and poetry in general—to which the young Weiner was instantly and powerfully attracted. The seeds were thus irrevocably sown for Weiner’s subsequent devotion to Yiddish language and culture and, eventually, to both the Yiddish choral medium and the Yiddish art song. At the same time, that newfound fascination with an aspect of Jewish culture of which he had not been aware reversed his gravitation toward alienation from even secular Jewish identity—an identity that thereafter intensified throughout his life.
Weiner’s immersion in the American Yiddish literary milieu was not confined to the In zikh poets. Minkoff brought him to literary-intellectual salon evenings of poetry readings and discussions, where he met some of the significant poets of the older European generation, as well as younger adherents of other, divergent orientations and movements—especially Di yunge, an earlier school (founded in America in 1907) of young immigrant writers who had sought to remove Yiddish literature from association with social, political, or moral agendas and ideologies and to free it from restriction to specifically Jewish subject matter. Their focus was more on form than content, with the desiderata of Yiddish literature as pure art for its own value—without the necessity of “greater” purpose or function—and as a potentially universal expression, enhanced and refined by an infusion of elements found in the work of major European and American figures in the world of belles lettres. Di yunge included such poets as Moshe Leib Halpern (1886–1932), Mani Leib (1883–1953), and Moshe Nadir (1885–1943)—and, in its later phases, Aaron Nissenson (1898–1964), Naftoli Gross (1896–1956), and Zishe Weinper (1892–1957). Among the older generation who were sympathetic to Di yunge were such poets as Yehoash (1872–1927), H. Rosenblatt (1878–1956), and Joseph Rolnick (1879–1955). Works of these poets, too, as well as poems by many others not specifically associated with either movement, would, at various periods in Weiner’s creative life, find expression in his songs.
Those salon evenings also provided Weiner’s initiation into the realm of Yiddish folksong—an entire tradition that had eluded him in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kiev. Frequently the host’s wife would perform and lead folksongs and similar folk-type songs. Weiner later acknowledged candidly that he heard nearly all of those folksongs for the first time in his life at those salons. The flavor and sensibilities of those songs would frequently find their way into his original compositions.
An event that ignited Weiner’s Jewish musical interests at the end of the second decade of the century was the North American tour of the Zionist-oriented and inspired Zimro Ensemble, which played at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere in New York, en route from Russia to Palestine. There it had planned to settle and establish a “temple of Jewish arts” (a mission effectively aborted when its director and other members chose to remain permanently in New York).
Zimro’s repertoire was largely devoted to sophisticated and classically constructed music based on Jewish folk or liturgical themes and modes. It had been founded in Petrograd (St. Petersburg, prior to the change of the city’s name when Russia went to war with Germany) by the Russian-Jewish clarinetist Simeon Bellison, who was engaged by the New York Philharmonic following the ensemble’s New York performances and was the Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist for twenty-eight years. After a series of concerts sponsored by Zionist organizations in Jewish communities in Siberia and throughout the Far East, Zimro introduced American and Canadian audiences to recent instrumental works by some of the composers associated with the aforementioned Gesellschaft, as well as to Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, op. 34, which it commissioned and premiered during its American tour in 1919. All of this was a sudden revelation to Weiner. Unlike many Jewish musicians in the cities where the Gesellschaft had branches, he had been unaware of its mission during his youthful Kiev years. Prior to the Zimro tour, American audiences, even in New York, were ignorant of the Gesellschaft and its contributions. Until then, Weiner’s own context and associations of “Jewish music” had been confined to either the synagogue or the theater.
Weiner was instantly fascinated with the new genre and school advocated by the Zimro Ensemble. The very notion that serious, cultivated secular Jewish musical expression could be built melodically and harmonically on elements of genuine Jewish folk melos and tradition—secular or liturgical—and could have universal aesthetic appeal, turned out to coincide with his own artistic instincts. A few of the Gesellschaft composers later immigrated to the United States—notably Lazare Saminsky, Jacob Weinberg, Joseph Achron, and Solomon Rosowsky—and Weiner developed collegial relationships with them.
So impressed was he upon his discovery of the Gesellschaft path that he sent three of his most recently composed Yiddish songs to Joel Engel (who had left Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution and was living in Berlin prior to his immigration to Palestine) for his comments. Engel’s reply criticized what he perceived as the lack of any “Jewish content” or character in the songs. He suggested that Weiner—even without knowledge of the vast body of secular eastern European Jewish musical folklore from the Czarist Empire—could easily and quite naturally have turned for aesthetic inspiration and imprint to his own early synagogue music memories and still have produced secular Yiddish art songs. Engel had done the same thing in a number of his own songs. Those comments, in fact, articulated an important part of the Gesellschaft composers’ modus operandi in their attempts to fashion a Jewish national artistic expression. Weiner thereafter heeded that advice in indirect and subtle ways as he fleshed out his own approach over the years. Still, those three specimens—In feld; Shtile tener; and Volt mayn tate raykh geven, all on texts by In zikh poets—remain to this day among Weiner’s best-known songs.
At various times Weiner studied with Robert Russell Bennett, Frederick Jacobi(the first professor of composition at The Juilliard School and himself the composer of a number of Judaically related works), and the theoretician Joseph Schillinger, who had proposed a new compositional procedure based on a quasi-mathematical system of harmonic and scalar permutations. Weiner’s work with Schillinger, which amounted to a search for technical discipline, helped him go beyond more conventional conceptions by offering experimentation with rational manipulation of the various musical parameters (rhythm, texture, intervals, etc.).
In the 1920s Weiner began his affiliations with Yiddish secular choruses and choral music. In 1923 he was appointed conductor of New York’s nascent Freiheits Gezang Verein (later known also as the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus). This was an unabashedly left-wing workers’ chorus that was subsequently often associated and identified with communist sympathies, even if those sentiments might have been more social, cultural, and emotional (i.e., echoing the “spirit” of the party) rather than practically political for many of its members. The chorus was modeled on a similar one founded earlier in Chicago by Jacob Schaefer, who later directed the New York chorus when Weiner severed his ties with it. Eventually the New York Freiheits Gezang Verein became one of nearly thirty such choruses in as many cities in the northeastern and midwestern states, all loosely federated under the national umbrella of the Jewish Workers Musical Alliance. The occasion for Weiner’s debut with that chorus (and as a choral conductor altogether) was a festival at the Hippodrome in New York, organized by Leo Low (1878–1960), which represented a short-lived attempt to combine many of the New York area’s secular Jewish choruses—of various and sometimes even sharply divergent political leanings—into a United Hebrew Choral Society with more than a thousand choristers.
Like many young Jewish intellectuals in the 1920s, especially among Yiddish cultural circles, Weiner was drawn to some of the avowed social ideals of the Communist Party and its professed utopian spirit. But, also like many of the other Yiddishists in his circle (sometimes dubbed “armchair” or “parlor” communists by detractors who noted their absence of concrete political activity), he was never an actual party member. Naïve as it may seem in retrospect, that type of sympathy often grew out of genuine humanitarian concern for the working class and its frustrations, and it was sometimes confused as well with generic support for the principle of organized labor. Such American Jewish sympathies with communist rhetoric also emanated in part from a heady euphoria over what were believed to be the positive and even humanistic accomplishments occurring in the still new Soviet Union, especially as proclaimed by party-generated propaganda. Of course, at the time, the Communist Party had not yet been branded or outlawed in the United States as a subversive or disloyal organ of an enemy foreign state, or as an advocate of the violent overthrow of the American government; nor was membership illegal. Apparently Weiner did have some sort of flirtation with Yiddishist pro-communist circles that might have extended briefly to the political (or quasi-political dabbling) arena, but its nature and extent are difficult to determine. He later became staunchly opposed to those views and severed whatever connections he had, and thereafter he always avoided discussion of the episode. Nonetheless, as with many of his colleagues, his enthusiastic contributions to the cultural and artistic manifestations of the left are indisputable.
Weiner’s experience with the Freiheits chorus cannot have been artistically rewarding. The repertoire of that small group (about thirty-five singers then, compared with a membership of more than 100 in its peak years) consisted mainly of workers’ and labor movement songs in simple if not trite choral arrangements, other Yiddish folksongs, and occasional Yiddish translations of some standard Western classical choral literature—although the chorus’s ability with regard to the last category was limited. The days of its large-scale Yiddish cantatas and pageants, frequently written expressly for it, were yet to come.
After 1925, Weiner’s serious composing was on hiatus for about four years, with the exception of one cello piece, while he focused his efforts more narrowly on Jewish choral activity. That included not only conducting but also arranging for his choirs and notating tunes for songsters. Over the next several years he directed several choral ensembles, sometimes simultaneously. For two summers he was the music director at one of the Yiddish cultural summer camps of the Sholom Aleichem Yiddish school and camp network, Camp Boiberik (founded by another of the poets whose words Weiner later set to music in his art songs, L. Magister [Leibush Lehrer]). In preparation for his work at Camp Boiberik, he began collecting Yiddish folksongs and other traditional tunes—material he was later to employ on a more artistic level in his choral and voice-and-piano arrangements.
Among the choruses Weiner directed between 1925 and about 1935 were the chorus of the Yidishe Kultur Gezelshaft (Jewish Culture Society), the chorus of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the Central Synagogue choir (where he was also appointed music director), and the Arbeter Ring Khor (Workmen’s Circle Chorus), which developed into his most important, artistically fulfilling, and enduring choral position, lasting until 1966.
In 1927 Weiner made a trip to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to seek repertoire for the Freiheits chorus, and probably out of natural curiosity as well. The reality he witnessed there differed markedly from the idealized perceptions circulating among the American left. Shortly after he returned to New York, he resigned from the Freiheits Gezang Verein and severed all ties to the Jewish Workers Musical Alliance. The reason for that disassociation is not entirely clear. His widow, Naomi, attributed it more to his refusal to submit to “the party’s” attempted interference with his artistic freedom, and his resistance to politically based restrictions. Apparently, for example, there had been an effort to forbid him from serving even as an accompanist for Leo Low’s Jewish National Workers’ Alliance Chorus (to be distinguished from the Jewish Workers Musical Alliance), obviously in some sense a “rival,” but also avowedly noncommunist. What was meant by “the party” in that context is also not certain—whether, formally, the local cell or “branch” of the actual international party, or merely the more naïve sympathizer circles. However, Weiner’s son, composer Yehudi Wyner, remembers clearly his father’s later descriptions of dismay at the secrecy, duplicity, hypocrisy, and fear Weiner had encountered in the Soviet Union, how he felt afraid to converse with anyone except in the park, and how he turned vocally against the Soviet regime. “After that trip,” Wyner has remarked, “my father became an outright anticommunist—ferociously. That’s why he said good-bye to the Freiheits Gezang Verein, and that’s how he broke with them.” Weiner’s humanistically related leftist and socialist leanings remained with him, but those could easily be accommodated by other, fully American and patriotic choruses and their parent organizations—most especially the Arbeter Ring, or Workmen’s Circle. Its New York chorus became Weiner’s principal performance vehicle for thirty-five years.
Organized in 1892 (originally as the Workingmen’s Circle) at a meeting in New York of like-minded eastern European immigrant Jews who were inspired by the potential reforms connected to socialist ideals and by the growth of American labor movements—but also by socialistic and humanistic themes in Jewish history and literature—the Arbeter Ring reached a national membership of 80,000 during its peak years in the 1930s. With branches in many North American cities as well as Los Angeles, it provided a forum for Jews who were either disaffected from or simply disinterested in the religious parameters of Jewish life, but were nonetheless keen to preserve and transmit Jewish heritage through Yiddish—the language of Jewish labor during the immigrant era. Its network of schools and summer camps, together with its rich variety of adult programs, offered secular Jewish education and activities within the framework of Yiddish culture.
In effect, the Workmen’s Circle also served as a secular alternative to the synagogue and to the European-style k’hilla (organized community) by providing for the personal, family, and even spiritual needs of its members (mutual aid, welfare, funeral and burial, visitation and organized companionship) and by fashioning new versions of traditionally grounded holiday celebrations and ceremonies shorn of their religious reference. Its socialist and labor orientation, its commitment to progressive causes, and its advocacy for social justice and a more equitable society were pursued well within the context of American liberal democracy. In fact, the Workmen’s Circle was critical of the Soviet Union as early as the 1920s. Not without its fair share of dissension among its ranks in its formative years, internal struggles for control between procommunist and non- or anticommunist elements ended when, by 1930, the former withdrew altogether to form the International Workers Order.
The Arbeter Ring Khor—Workmen’s Circle Chorus—was founded sometime between 1910 and 1914 (accounts vary according to the perception of “founding”) and was first directed by M. Pirozhnikov. Under Meyer Posner’s direction, from 1916 until 1929, it graduated from simple workers’ songs in Yiddish as well as Russian to attempts at classical repertoire—such as Posner’s Yiddish translation of Mendelssohn’s Elijah [Elias]. To some extent, the formation of the New York Freiheits Gezang Verein in the 1920s, on the original Chicago model, constituted a breakaway from the Arbeter Ring Khor that was generated by an ideological split among the choristers. Meanwhile, the priorities of the Workmen’s Circle Chorus, and its sister choruses across the country, increasingly became more cultural than political.
Weiner’s official appointment as conductor of the Workmen’s Circle Chorus commenced in 1931 and was based on two conditions: that he have a full year of rehearsals without concerts in order to rebuild the group according to his musical standards; and that he be able to unify its Yiddish pronunciation and diction according to “high” or literary Yiddish—eliminating other, regional or colloquial, dialects. Under his direction the chorus was elevated into a first-class performing ensemble, growing from about forty to nearly one hundred members by the time of its first Town Hall appearance under his baton. He retained a good deal of its folk and workers’ repertoire, recasting many of those songs in artistic but appropriately simple arrangements. But with increasing frequency he also programmed works from the classical canon of choral literature by composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, Haydn, and Handel—always in Yiddish translations, for which he pressed into service some of the finest Yiddish poets and dramatists. And of course, his concerts also included many important original works of Jewish content. The chorus came to be considered a part of New York’s general cultural life, and critics from the general press referred to it as one of the city’s best amateur choral ensembles. During the 1930s Weiner also was the consultant to all of the many Workmen’s Circle branch choruses—from New Jersey to Chicago to Los Angeles.
Most of Weiner’s choral music was written expressly for the Workmen’s Circle Chorus. Among his important choral cantatas (two of which have been recorded for the Milken Archive) are Amol in a tzayt—Legend of Toil; The Last Judgement—Bontshe shvayg; Hirsh lekert; In kamf far frayhayt (subtitled a “choral ballet”); Tzu dir, amerike; Mentsh in der velt; and Amos. At the same time, however, he began devoting increasing energies specifically to art songs for voice and piano, continually refining his techniques and expanding his pool of literary sources.
From 1952 until his death, Weiner served on the faculty of the School of Sacred Music, the cantorial school at the New York branch of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. Ironically, the undisputed master of Yiddish art song taught that subject only relatively late in his tenure there. In the early years of that school (which was conceived originally as a nondenominational program but soon became more specifically an organ of the Reform movement after the Conservative-oriented Jewish Theological Seminary opened its own Cantors Institute), Yiddish song would have been considered anachronistic and irrelevant to the education and repertoire of modern American cantors. But by the 1970s, with the emergence of ethnic revival trends that crossed denominational boundaries, Weiner’s classes and seminars on Yiddish song were among the most popular in the curriculum. He also taught Jewish art song at the Cantors Institute and, beginning in 1974, at the 92nd Street YMHA.
After Weiner left the Workmen’s Circle Chorus, in 1966, having determined that its artistic level was no longer sustainable, he curtailed his work with Yiddish choruses and—although art song was by then his priority—became involved with musical activities of the Reform movement beyond his own post as music director of Central Synagogue in New York. Increasingly, he received liturgical music commissions from synagogues and cantorial organizations (he had written his first full service in 1946 for one of the annual services of new music at the Conservative movement’s Park Avenue Synagogue in New York), and he lectured and taught at summer camp programs and institutes.
In secular music, Weiner often rebuked others for simplistic quotations of undeveloped Jewish folk or traditional tunes, and in his own art songs he never included an existing folk melody—even when the poem might have suggested one. “If I need a traditional melody,” he was fond of telling students, “I create my own.” In his liturgical music, however, he sometimes leaned on traditional material when he felt it appropriate, but only as a cue. And he respected the tradition of certain obligatory melodies of the Ashkenazi rite. But he developed that melodic material with the polyphonic and advanced harmonic techniques that he avoided in his Yiddish choral pieces, because his liturgical music was always intended for fully professional choirs.
Despite his artistic concern with synagogue music, Weiner remained disinterested in most of the formal religious and ceremonial practices of Judaism, at least outwardly. “Anticlerical and nonobservant,” is how his son Yehudi describes his father’s general attitude toward doxologies and obligatory rituals, “but at the same time profoundly religious” vis-à-vis spiritual concerns and relationships between God and man. The depth of that spirituality is reflected in many of his Yiddish art songs—especially those that touch upon Judaic sensibilities and even specific ceremonies—and also in his synagogue music, which is among the most sophisticated in the 20th-century American repertoire. But his liturgical music can also be viewed as having derived from what his son has described as a more abstract, purely musical motivation: “The opportunity simply to write good music.”
After his retirement from Central Synagogue, in 1974, Weiner abandoned liturgical music. He had become repulsed by the introduction of pop and other entertainment music in American synagogues since the late 1960s—initially echoing, if unintentionally, some of the lowbrow informal musical parameters that had become fashionable in certain populist churches outside the mainstream denominations and in related broadcast formats, but also imitating Jewish summer camp ambiences. “I want a m’ḥitza (a division—usually referring to the separation between men and women in orthodox synagogues) between the secular and the profane, between the mundane and the spiritual,” proclaimed this Jew who insisted to the world that he was nonreligious, “and I do not want to bring the musical comedy into the synagogue. Each has its place, but …” For the next eight years he dedicated himself almost exclusively to art songs.
In his devotion to Yiddish, Weiner did not necessarily choose sides with the Yiddishists against the Hebraists of the Haskala (the Jewish Enlightenment movement in eastern Europe). Nor did he believe that the modern revival of Hebrew language and literature was any less an authentic Jewish expression than Yiddish culture. It was, more simply, that he had not pursued the secular Hebrew studies—and had not been part of that Hebraic environment—that might have facilitated an equal identification with modern Hebrew poetry. Instead, he had happened by chance upon a Yiddish cultural circle in New York, which instigated his lifelong love affair with that language and its serious modern literature.
Apart from their literary content (which in only some cases involves overt Judaic references), Weiner’s songs are manifestly Jewish first and foremost because of the Yiddish language itself, and because of the way he instinctively understood and interpreted its subtle nuances, inflections, accentuations, internal rhythms, cadences, and turns of phrase. For Weiner, who recognized the profound impact of language in general on musical identity, Yiddish was in and of itself an authentic Jewish expression. Like many of the poets he most admired, he did not treat Yiddish as an ideological or sociopolitical vehicle, as did so many Yiddishists of his generation, but rather as a literary and musical art that took on the passionate character of a mission. Yet he was always conscious of the irony that his devotion to Yiddish—in fact to things Jewish—was an American phenomenon, not a personal carryover from Europe. In an interview only a year before his death, he recalled Engel’s response to his first songs: “That letter marked the beginning of my Jewishness,” he mused. “All my life [prior to 1919] it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert…Here in America I discovered the Yiddish song!"
By: Neil W. Levin