Moshe Milner (1886-1953)

The «Jewish Mussorgsky»


"It was to the musical idiom of the East European folk masses that Moshe Milner brought an innate understanding and empathy; unlike many of his fellow composer members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, he was a folksmentch. His close identification with the authentic emotional outpouring of Yiddish character and its nuance, coupled with the creativity and polish of a master composer caused him to be known throughout Russia as «the Jewish Mussorgsky» "Albert Weisser

Biography (click to view...)

Moshe (Moses, Mikhail, Michael) Milner (Melnikoff) was born in 1886 in a small Ukrainian village Rokitno (Kiev Governorate). Milner’s family typified life in the Russian “Pale of Settlement”: they were very poor, very religious, and they loved music. His father was an amateur violinist and his mother dreamed of her eldest son becoming a famous cantor, “just like her brother in America.” Milner was eight years old when his parents died in the course of a cholera epidemic.

Little Moshe had a beautiful alto voice and was, according to certain rumors, “stolen” (or, as he claims in his autobiographical sketches, “fought over”7) by various music directors to sing with their synagogue choirs. Milner became a chorister to Jacob Samuel Morogowsky (Zeidel Rovner), the outstanding cantor to emerge from the world of Hassidism. From Zeidel he first learned solfeggio.

After several years of touring across the Ukraine, Moshe became a singer in the Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev. He sang with famous cantors, including Nissan Belzer und Jakov Morogowski, later with Abram Dzimitrowski, a former classmate of Arnold Schoenberg, who was later to become Russian editor of Universal Edition in Vienna. Under his tutelage the choir of forty boys and ten men rehearsed daily. Milner must have acquired a deep familiarity with Jewish sacred music at this time. The boys were also the official child choristers of the Kiev Civic Opera House and as such appeared in such operas as Carmen, Boris Godonoff, Queen of Spades, Werther and Mephistopholes. Milner sang Mozart’s Requiem, and he knew by memory all of the choral parts to the Rex Tremendae and Lachrymosa movements.

Following the loss of his alto voice, Moshe took up a two-month apprenticeship with an engraver, but soon decided to begin piano lessons with Dzimitrowsky and later with Olga Vecher. In 1902, with the sponsorship of Jewish-Russian industrialist and philanthropist Alexander Brodsky, Moshe was brought to Professor Vladimir Puchalski's (who later taught Vladimir Horowitz) class in the Kiev Conservatory. Milner's earliest compositions date from his period of study with Puchalski. While in Kiev Milner began to compose Yiddish songs, which stands out through his vocal recitatives based on typical intonations of the Yiddish language.

He remained in Kiev until 1907, but then gravitated to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Russia's most prestigious school. He studied piano with Miklashevsky, counterpoint with Liadov, instrumentation under Steinberg and composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, until his graduation in 1914. During his early days in St. Petersburg he served as conductor of the Great Synagogue Choir (1912- 1919), succeeding S. Gurevich, serving with such cantors as David Rollman and P.S. Pinchik.

In 1911, Milner under the influence of Susman Kiselgoff became affiliated with the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Milner composed many works based on Jewish themes, as well as Jewish liturgical works. Both In Kheyder, and the setting of Bialik's text, Unter di Grininke Beymelekh were first published by the Society in 1914. Though “In Kheyder” was initially criticized on first reading by members of the Society, subsequent critical as well as popular opinion has proclaimed the work a masterpiece or Jewish song. In the words of Engel "one page of In Kheyder is enough to establish the existence of Jewish music."

Following the Revolution in 1917, a musical section of the Yiddish Culture League was organized in Kiev, headed by Dzimilrowsky. This association published in 1921 the Children's Suite, settings of the ten poems by Perets. As the effects of the Revolution became more pronounced, the Culture League was forced to relocate activities. Its chief editor, Nakhman Meisel brought to Warsaw a collection of Milner manuscripts. Those works were transcribed by Moshe Rudinow, a well known singer and later Cantor of Temple Emanu-El of New York City.

During the post Revolutionary period Milner was active in Russian musical circles. All Milner programs were given in the Conservatory on 0ctober 6, 1917 and November 12, 1921. On June 6, 1922 an orchestral program of Milner works was presented by the Leningrad Philharmonic, with joseph Achron as the featured soloist in Milner's violin sonata. On May 6, 1923, Milner conducted the première of his opera "Die Himlen brenen", the first Yiddish opera in post-revolution Russia ("The Heavens Aflame) on his own libretto, revised by Mordkhe Rivesman. After two performances the opera was denounced as reactionary and forbidden. Official Soviet critics accused Milner of Jewish nationalism and ignoring modern themes.

In the 1920s Milner subsequently wrote incidental music for different Jewish theaters: for production of Richard Beer-Hoffman's Jacob's Dream in the Hebrew theater "Habima" (Moscow), Leivick's The Golem for the State Jewish Theaters (GOSET) in Moscow, Charkov and Birobidzhan. He directed the Jewish Voice Ensemble (Evokans) of Leningrad (1931-41) and served as coach of the Leningrad Bolshoi Theatre (1941- 53) In the 1931-41. He also continued to write for what remained of the Soviet Yiddish Theatre.

Milner remained active as a composer in his later years. Apart from Jewish music, Milner wrote choral and orchestral works, operas, piano pieces, songs and incidental theater music. Among his more recent works are operas Der Nayer Veg (1933) and Josephus Flavius (1935), Symphony (1937) and a symphonic poem, the Partisans (1944). Both as a composer and pedagogue Milner came into contact with numerous distinguished artists, among whom was the late Sidor Belarsky, a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory. II was for Belarsky that the setting of Bialik's text Vigleid was composed. Among Milner’s last works were several folk song arrangements written for the well-known singer Misha Alexandrovitch.

Removed from the limelight by the official state musical establishment Milner died in poverty in 1953. Little of the scope of his talents is heard in Soviet Russia. Even in the West, his reputation endures on the strength of In Kheyder, his setting of Psalm Thirteen (Ad Ana) and his liturgical chorus, Unesoneh Tokef (1913). Most of Milner's creative output has remained in manuscript form and has never been performed.