Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin (1883-1957)


Operas "Maccabeans" and "The Youth of Abraham" earned to Mikhail Gnesin the nickname the "Jewish Glinka"

... one of the leading Jewish musical voices to emerge in early twentieth-century Russia and went on to occupy a prominent place among the first generation of Soviet modernist composers. He played an important role in the musical culture of Russia and was influential as a music theoretician and teacher in the first half of the twentieth century. A founding member of the Petersburg ‘Society for Jewish Folk Music, Gnesin composed many significant works inspired by Jewish musical traditions. During the Stalin regime his music was unjustly forgotten and could only be performed much later. "The music of Gnesin will be one of the discoveries of the twenty-first century" A.G. Yusfin

Biography (click to view...)

Gnessin was born in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, the son of Rabbi Fabian Osipovich Gnessin and Bella Isaevna Fletzinger. Each of the Gnessin children appears to have possessed musical talent, and Gnessin's three elder sisters, Evgenia, Elena and Maria, all graduated with distinction from the Moscow Conservatory. His sisters went on to found the Gnessin State Musical College (now the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music), an elite music school in Moscow in 1895.

Gnessin studied from 1892 to 1899 at the Rostov Technical Institute. In 1901, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov and Anatoly Lyadov. In 1905 he was expelled for taking part in a student strike during the Revolution of 1905. He was reinstated the following year. In 1908 his early work Vrubel won the Glinka Prize. That same year he helped found, along with Lazare Saminsky and others, the Society for Jewish Folk Music. During this period Gnessin continued to take part in Socialist activities, teaching music to factory workers at workmen's clubs.

Among Gnessin's other early works was a 'symphonic fragment' (his Op. 4), based on Shelley's poem Prometheus Unbound. But much of his work at this time, and in the future, was associated with Jewish traditional musical styles which had become increasingly popular in Russia prior to 1914.

Just prior to the Revolution, Jewish music and musicians in Russia were experiencing a nationalist boom. Figures such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Stasov were actively encouraging the establishment of such a school...both Tsarist and Soviet authorities were not too happy about this development, and gave grudging permission for the folk side of Jewish culture to be established, rather than an openly Jewish nationalist compositional movement. Paradoxically, the number of Jewish performers within Russian culture was huge, and included many world-famous names.

In 1911, Gnessin traveled abroad, studying in Berlin and Paris. He then spent a year (1912-1913) studying at Vsevolod Meyerhold's studio in St. Petersburg. In 1913, Meyerhold opened a small theatrical school known as Dr. Dapertutto's Studio. In return for a nominal fee students were provided classes in theatre history, commedia dell'arte, Scenic Movement, and practical music and speech. The latter class was taught by Gnessin.

Actors in Dr Dapertutto's Studio in St Petersburg learned 'musicality', and the voice and speech work was incorporated into a course called 'The Musical Interpretation of Drama', taught by the composer Mikhail Gnessin. Gnessin included in his classes simple and complex forms of choral speech and plenty of singing, and indeed he analysed speech as song, so that actors often sang longer speeches for an exercise.

Later that year Gnessin returned to Rostov, where he continued to teach. He remained there until 1923.

Igor Stravinsky, who knew Gnessin prior to the Revolution of 1917, described him years later:

Gnessin himself was a striking character. He dressed as an Orthodox Hebrew, but at the same time was identified with radically anti-sectarian political and social views. I once sent him a note, after we had dined together, saying that I was delighted by our "sympathetic understanding." He answered me in a surprised and slightly shocked tone saying that he was sorry but I had been mistaken; he had felt no such sympathy. That was typical of Gnessin and, I suppose, it explains why I remember him.

After the Revolution, Gnessin and his music, initially, fared quite well. Traditional Jewish art, including music, flourished during this period, and a Jewish nationalist school of music was encouraged by the new Soviet government. Gnessin produced several works during this period, among them: Songs from the Old Country ( 1919); The Maccabees (1921); The Youth of Abraham (1922); Song of Songs (1922); The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of the Town Bailiff (1926); Red-Headed Motele (1926-1929); Ten Jewish Songs (1927).

Pursuing his interest in traditional Jewish music, Gnessin traveled to Palestine in 1914, and again, in 1921. During the latter visit he "secluded himself for a few months in the wild mountain scenery of Bab al Wad," where he composed the first act of his opera The Youth of Abraham. He briefly considered emigrating to Palestine, but became "disenchanted" and returned to the Soviet Union.

Author and music critic David Ewen wrote, in Composers Today:

There is fire and madness in this music; the rhythms rush in every direction, like winds in a hurricane. But there is a shimmering background to all this chaos; a poignant voice in all this outburst. One hears in this music the strange pathos of the Hebrews. The same pathos with which Isiah warned his beloved race of a pending and inevitable doom, the same pathos with which Israel thinks about its long exile in unfriendly countries - that same pathos is to be found in Gnessin's operas. His teaching career also flourished. From 1923 to 1935 Gnessin taught at the Gnessin Institute; he was simultaneously employed as Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory from 1925 to 1936. In 1945 Gnessin became head of the Gnessin Institute.

The position of Jews in the Soviet Union has always been a difficult one in that, unlike other ethnic minorities, Jewish culture has never received official backing, except in the 1920s...For example, the five volume History of Music of the Peoples of the USSR gives information on very small ethnic minorities, while the Jews, number around three million, are ignored. After the late 1930s, mention of Jewish music disappears from Soviet reference books altogether. It is significant that the 1932 edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia devoted eight-two pages to Jews; the 1952 edition has one page (devoted to Jews)! In the bibliography to that meager article is a classic anti-Semitic text from Germany.

Gnessin was forced to abandon both his "progressive tendencies" and his interest in music with "an overtly Jewish theme". His teaching career also suffered. While he would retain his position as titular head of the Gnessin Institute until his death, in the late 1940s, Gnessin's sister, Elena, was compelled by Communist Party stalwarts to dismiss him from his teaching duties.

Apart from the Conservatoire, other educational institutions incurred repressions; as a consequence of the anti-cosmopolitanism campaign, the Gnessin Music Institute received commands and notices from higher bodies to fire various members of staff, the most distinguished being the composer and teacher Mikhail Gnessin. Yelena Fabianovna Gnessina felt how differently her relations changed with the Committee of Arts. She discovered the intimidating reports and slanderous letters given against her and Mikhail Fabianovich. Sadly, there was no other course but to release her brother from his teaching duties so as to avoid a worse fate.

For the last ten years of his life, Gnesin almost no longer writes music - the time has come to fight "cosmopolitanism". Critics switched to a dismissive tone, insulting lectures, stopped mentioning many of his wonderful works. His student, composer AS Lehman recalls a meeting in the Central Committee in 1948, when some betrayed their teachers: “I do not blame many people who turned out to be weak at that moment. The time was cruel. And here M.F. Gnesin, an outstanding Russian. In Russia there were several, and perhaps many, surnames that did not bore the names of the indigenous population, but which were Russians, loyal and surprisingly deep. "Gnesin said, as always, quietly but firmly:" I personally am not a supporter in the form of compulsory repentance. " To utter such simple words, it took special courage, courage and wisdom. "

In response to the persecution that began, Gnesin wrote to Stalin: “The musical community has been set on a campaign against me. In this regard, for two months now, I have not been able to concentrate to continue my creative work ... And now I dare to appeal to you, but not with a request to help end the persecution at my address. I would not be satisfied with such orders ... I am nevertheless giving you for your consideration a list of issues that are acute in musical life, but at the moment require authoritative resolution. For raising these questions and trying to understand them - I am now declared a "class enemy." If I am wrong, then let them continue to "persecute" me; so I deserve it. But if at least in some of the questions the truth is on my side, it means that the musical leadership needs significant changes. And if my thoughts are taken into account ... it will be my greatest satisfaction. An explanatory note (inevitably detailed) is attached to the list of questions. "

Nevertheless, denunciations continued and, in the end, Gnesin, an honored art worker, laureate of the Stalin Prize, twice laureate of the Glinka Prize, a teacher with 45 years of experience, had to leave the institute he created (GMPI). As part of the fight against cosmopolitanism, seventeen more people were dismissed ... Not satisfied with what has been achieved, the "group of employees" of the institute writes to Beria: “Dear Lavrenty Pavlovich! We, the communists working at the Gnesins State Music and Pedagogical Institute, appeal to you, Lavrenty Pavlovich, on the following question. We are deeply alarmed by the situation in the Institute with the selection and placement of personnel. We believe that the director of the institute, Professor Gnesina, has been selecting cadres for many years not on the basis of business and political criteria specified by the party, but on the basis of concentration of cadres of Jewish nationality, and, moreover, not deserving of political trust. Our efforts and work to improve the selection and placement of personnel are facing strong opposition. We believe that the main inspirer of this vicious, essentially bourgeois-nationalist line is Professor M.F. Gnesin, although he is not formally at work at the institute, but exerts a very great influence on him through his sister. A number of factors concerning the Gnessins raise our grave suspicions. And we have no doubts that his ideology is Zionist, Jewish-nationalist. At the same time, we do not have enough large and proven material to complete the picture for us. We ask you, Lavrenty Pavlovich, to instruct who should study this issue and the activities of Professor Gnesin in particular. February 10, 1953. Members of the CPSU: Deputy Director for Science and Education (A. Aksenov) Secretary of the Party Bureau (V. Krasnoshchekov) Deputy. Party bureau secretary (K.K. Rosenschild) "

Three weeks remained until March 5, the day of Stalin's death. Mikhail Gnesin died in May 1957. Gnesin was a prolific composer in his own right, making use of Jewish folk melodies as the thematic base for his works. Gnesin commented on his use of Jewish musical idioms, “Elements of Jewish music captured my musical feelings and imagination to such an extent that even when I did not have the mission to look for a Jewish style, those elements appeared in my works.” Some of the most distinguished work from his “Jewish” period includes: the operas, The Youth of Abraham (1921-23) and The Maccabees (1921); the symphonic works, Songs from the Old Country (1919) and The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of the Town Bailiff (1926); and the song cycles, Red Headed Motele (1926-29) and Song of Songs (1922). In the 1930’s Gnesin slowly shifted his focus away from Jewish thematic material and began incorporating other folk music idioms. This change in compositional style was accompanied by a drastic decrease in his production. In addition to his teaching and compositional career, Gnesin published several books on composition, and a study of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life and work.