Commentary Magazine


Jewish Music

To The Editor:

It is not my habit to jump at mistakes, but there were several errors in Albert Weisser’s review of my Anthology of Jewish Music (January issue) which I feel are too important to ignore.

Nissye Belzer-Spivak, whom Mr. Weisser cites as representative of composers who “played down Hasidic influence” was in fact the personification of the Hasidic hozan. (He bore the name “Nissye Belzer” because he was a Belzer Hasid.) I left him out of the book along with other equally important figures whom I still hope to include in future volumes. As for Mr. Weisser’s objection to the Schoenberg piece as being out of place in the Anthology, I should like to say that if the piece possesses any of the qualities which he himself attributes to it (a relation to the Biblical cantillation and an echo of the congregation at prayer), it most certainly belongs in the book. What is more, if I could convince a man like Schoenberg, whose musical thinking has left its mark on every modern composer, to write a piece which he himself referred to as “approximately a similar expression” of the original liturgical motif that I sent him, I felt it was important enough to be included in an Anthology of Jewish Music. Schoenberg felt that his piece conveyed the approximate mood of the original motif. Mr. Weisser thinks the Schoenberg piece is “as far from Eastern European Jewry as expressionist Vienna was from Hasidic Vitebsk.” But Vitebsk was never Hasidic. . . .

Chemjo Vinaver
New York City

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Mr. Weisser writes:

Nowhere did I say that the great Nissye Belzer was not a Hasidic cantor. I was speaking of Belzer, and some other composers not found in Mr. Vinaver’s anthology, who “either played down Hasidic influence or strove to empnasize . . . the older and perhaps more universal sacred chants of the synagogue.” This is certainly somewhat different from what Mr. Vinaver implies that I said. Beizer may very well have been, in. doctrine, a Hasidic cantor, but I think it equally demonstrable that in portions of his best works he broke out of the Hasidic mold and summoned up a tonal art much more analogous to the older traditions.

Nor does Mr. Vinaver quote me accurately on Schoenberg’s piece. I wrote that “in certain motives and their subsequent development a kind of vague relation to the melodic organization of Biblical cantillation may be recognized and one may even hear if one tries hard enough a kind of idealized representation of a congregation at prayer. . . .” No one is questioning Schoenberg’s position in modern music. That seems quite plain. We are concerned here with his setting of the 130th Psalm: we must applaud Schoenberg’s endeavor, but cannot be blind to the fact that his was a wholly personal and private idiom totally foreign to the musical temper of Eastern European Jewry. To put his piece in a volume whose subtitle reads “The Sacred Chant and Religious Folk Song of the Eastern European Jews” still strikes me as somewhat capricious.

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