Jacob Weinberg (1879-1956)

Virtuoso pianist, composer, author of the first Zionist opera in history


...Jacob Weinberg came to compose The Pioneers (Hechalutz), the first opera to spring from the soil of modern Palestine. It was a colossal labor of love; the pen flew in his hand. The libretto was written in two weeks; the musical score was composed in three months. It was Jacob Weinberg tribute to a race of young men and woman who knew true self-abnegation and heroism, and his gesture of respect to a sublime ideal. The score was completed in Jerusalem on July, 1924, and was dedicated to “the rebuilders of Palestine, the Chalutzim and Chaluzoth. Their work has inspired this work”

Biography (click to view...)

Jacob Weinberg «a student of Jewish sacred music and Hebrew song, a talented and prolific composer and teacher of music with contemporary Jewish themes». Weinberg, "an influential voice in the promotion of American Jewish music" authored over 135 both religious and Jewish non-religious compositions. For a long while Weinberg was best known for his patriotic American works. He set Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to music for a chorus and in three other non-singing versions. Aaron Copland attended one of the Lincoln concerts prior to composing his own Lincoln Portrait. Weinberg also sett of part of one of President Roosevelt’s addresses; and I See a New America, on words from a presidential campaign address by Governor Adlai Stevenson.

Early years. Russia

Jacob Weinberg was born on 7 July 1879 in Odessa (modern Ukraine) to an intellectually sympathetic and cultured but thoroughly assimilated affluent family, with little if any Judaic observance. His family traveled in the sophisticated musical and literary circles of the intelligentsia. His uncle, Peter Weinberg, a respected poet and professor, was known for his translations of Shakespeare and Heine into Russian; and another uncle was a brother-in-law of the world-famous pianist, composer, and head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein.

Weinberg’s pianistic gifts were evident at an early age, but his middle-class family insisted that he prepare for business or the professions, and he was sent to the local government-sponsored commercial school. Upon his graduation at the age of seventeen, he assumed a position as a bank clerk in Rostov-on-Don (home city of Michael Gesin), but he resigned shortly thereafter and went to Moscow.

He enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory of Music for piano studies and for a year studied counterpoint—as had Rachmaninoff and Scriabin—with Sergey Taneyev, under Sergei Taneyev a disciple of Tchaikovsky. Typical of the practical middle-class path followed by a number of Jewish youth as well as Russian composers in Russia then (including Tchaikovsky in the 1850s), and still under pressure from his family, he also studied law at Moscow University. He graduated in 1908, but never practiced, preferring his music studies.


In 1905 Weinberg went to Paris to compete in the Anton Rubinstein Competition, the most prestigious competition of the time for pianists and composers. Although he was unsuccessful in that competition (as was Bela Bartók), losing to the German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, the event helped to bring his gifts to public attention and to launch a career as a virtuoso pianist. In 1910 Weinberg studied for a year in Vienna with the legendary piano pedagogue and author of piano methodology Theodor Leschetizky.

After years in Paris and Vienna, Weinberg return to Moscow and started to tour Russia as a pianist (also toured with Emil Rosenoff in their two-piano concerts from 1912-1916). During that same time frame Weinberg also began to compose, and his early works include his Elegy for Violoncello (his first piece, dedicated to Tchaikovsky), his Sonata in F-Sharp Minor for violin and piano, and his first piano concerto, in E-flat minor, which he played in concerts in St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa. He adapted Rachmaninoff's works to create a two-piano piece he called Rachmaniana.

Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik

In Moscow Weinberg became profoundly influenced by Joel Engel, a prominent music critic and editor at Moscow’s leading liberal newspaper, Russkiye Vedomosti, and became his close associate. When the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music (Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik) was founded in 1908, Jacob Weinberg and his Moscow-based peers formed the Moscow branch of the society, where. Engel played a prominent role, serving as the leader and chief organizer of the musical component of S. An-ski’s Ethnographic Expedition (1912–1914). He was very involved in music publishing, issuing several folk-song collections and roughly 150 original compositions. A few of Weinberg’s early works were published by the Moscow branch, independent of the better-known publication series of its parent organization in St. Petersburg. “There began my interest in things Jewish,” Weinberg later remarked. “I became very much absorbed in Jewish music, and I began to collect and study Jewish folksongs. A new, great, and practically unexplored vista was opening before me.”

In 1916 Weinberg returned to Odessa to taught at the Imperial Conservatory of Music. With the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution, Weinberg spent two months in prison. Apparently, “out of step personally and spiritually with the new Bolshevik order and the fallout of the civil war” he eventually fled with his wife Theresa (née Bernstein) and his son, Walter in March 1923 to Palestine.

Palestine

Here Weinberg resumed his influential association with Joel Engel. Was he “imbued with the Zionist cultural incentives he acquired from the Gesellschaft affiliation”, mentioned by Neil Lewin, is a question. According to David Ewen, Weinberg had come here not because he was imbued with any particular nationalistic enthusiasms or guided by any driving Zionistic ideals (contrary to some of his friends at the Society). According to Jehoash Hirshberg the immigrant composers to Palestine were all far more motivated by the “push” than the “pull” factor, that is, they left Europe having lost their positions and any chance of a musical career after the ascent of Nazism and Fascism. Their decision to try Palestine first was principally motivated by practical considerations, above all the chance to secure an entry certificate (especially in view of the severe limitations on immigration into the United States); the Zionist motivation played only a minor role in their considerations. Only a few of Gesellschaft affiliates considered themselves as a Zionists, while majority viewed their connection rather in Leonid Saboneev’s terms of "The National Jewish School in Music". Even Engel who moved to Palestine in 1924 to teach at the Shulamit conservatory (as is clear from his correspondence with Moshe Hopenko), wasn’t considering himself as a “Zionist”, thought after arrival he focused his energy on compositions, in part driven by the his ideas of building new Zionist musical culture, departing from the Pale experiences. Even Stasov by "national" meant an art that would not only portray people's lives but also be meaningful to them, and certainly not in any Zionist sense. In Ewen’s words, Weinberg came to Palestine rather, as an émigré from Russia, just as another Jew seeking a temporary home.

Pioneers

The first few months in Palestine, however, were -- as he tells us now - a soul stirring experiences. “Each day he came into contact with the impassioned spirit of a nation of men who, with their own hands, were building a home for their race. He saw men, buried in mud and mire toiling with incessant and indefatigable energy, but with laughter and song on lips, because they were working to bring a sublime dream to realization. He personally came into contact with young men and women who had come from the four corners of the world – some of whom had renounced wealth and the softness of life -- and who now consecrated their lives to the shovel and axe. And he heard a nation singing as it toiled. Men, women, children – each at his own little task, combining in the monumental labor of building a country -- raising their voices exultantly in song as the honest sweat of labor poured from their brows. Such a spirit which made America - the healthy, busy, building America of the middle nineteenth century – so precious to Walt Whitman, inspired Jacob Weinberg in Palestine. This superb heroism which could smilingly accept the most dire of deprivations stirred Weinberg profoundly. He realized immediately what a great drama was being unfolded before his very eyes; somewhere within him he felt a restlessness growing to give this vital drama artistic expression.

As a composer Weinberg came into contact with Palestine's autochthonous music, not merely of Hebraic origin, but also those Yemenite and Arabian folk songs to be heard everywhere in Palestine. The exotic charm and sensuous color of this music had a strong appeal for him, and Weinberg felt that with the strands of this rich indigenous music a composer could weave a musical pattern of enormous fascination. It was then that his mission became emphatically clear to him: He would compose a large work which would not only be dedicated to these noble pioneers of modern Palestine, but which-- in giving expression to them-- would appropriately utilize native musical material. Weinberg was also very interested in preserving the unique melodies and music scales of Jewish religious and secular folk tunes. He absorbed much of the Near Eastern Melos—Arabic as well as oriental Jewish modes, melodies, and flavors that had been largely unknown in Europe—and soon added these to his pool of musical resources for compositions.

"Thus Jacob Weinberg came to compose The Pioneers (Hechalutz), the first opera to spring from the soil of modern Palestine. It was a colossal labor of love; the pen flew in his hand. The libretto was written in two weeks; the musical score was composed in three months. It was Jacob Weinberg tribute to a race of young men and woman who knew true self-abnegation and heroism, and his gesture of respect to a sublime ideal. The score was completed in Jerusalem on July, 1924, and was dedicated to “the rebuilders of Palestine, the Chalutzim and Chaluzoth. Their work has inspired this work”.

After premiere in Jerusalem in April, 1925, Hechalutz won the First Prize in an international composition contest, sponsored by the Sesquicentennial Association in Philadelphia in 1926. With the prize money of $1500, Weinberg took his wife and son to USA, where he soon became actively involved in New York’s intellectual Jewish music circles, delivering scholarly papers and lectures at various learned societies, directing concert programs, performing, teaching, and composing. He became a prominent member of a coterie of established Jewish composers and other leading Jewish music exponents on the New York scene, including some of his former colleagues from the Gesellschaft in Russia, such as Lazare Saminsky and Joseph Achron (and later, Solomon Rosowsky), as well as Abraham Wolf Binder, Gershon Ephros, Moshe Rudinow, and Frederick Jacobi. In 1929 Weinberg joined the piano and theory faculty of the New York College of Music, where he taught for many years, and later he taught at Hunter College’s extension division.

USA

In the 1930s Weinberg produced concert versions of his opera at the Mecca Temple (now New York City Center). However, the most poignant performance of Jacob Weinberg's opera occurred in Berlin, before an audience of over 3000 people in the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagogue, in the 1938 (!). The first European performance - just a couple of weeks before the November 1938 pogrom - was truly ambitious undertaking. The common notion that it was performed in a synagogue since the Nazis, banned Jewish works from being performed in non-Jewish public venues, is not quite accurate. Chemjo Vinaver who directed Jacob Weinberg's opera with soprano Mascha Benyakonsky as a Lea on 4 September, was a committed Zionist who believed that the Jews could only find moral and spiritual comfort through the demonstration of racial solidarity. Accordingly, he regarded the synagogue, rather than the concert hall or opera house, as the only place in which such experiences could be realized. Vinawer's musical vision extended far beyond the simple revival of traditional Hebrew chant towards performing works which contained an unequivocally Zionist message.

In the early 1940s Weinberg organized a series of annual Jewish arts festivals (music and dance) in New York, which occurred at major concert venues and proved extremely successful; and he spearheaded Jewish music festivals in other cities, sometimes involving major orchestras. Those events are credited with being the impetus behind the formation of the National Jewish Music Council of the Jewish Welfare Board, which until recently initiated and coordinated annual Jewish Music Month celebrations throughout the United States, for a long time an acknowledged and important part of America’s Jewish cultural landscape. In addition to individual liturgical settings and two biblical cantatas, Isaiah and The Life of Moses, he wrote three complete Sabbath services, which are still performed at Temple Emanuel, a prominent Reform synagogue in Manhattan. Among Weinberg’s secular works are a piano trio on Hebrew themes; Concerto #2 in C Major String Quartet, Carnival in Israel; Berceuse Palestinenne for cello or violin; incidental concert encore pieces for virtuoso klezmer clarinet and orchestra; various piano pieces, including twelve-movement piano album, From Jewish Life, The Dead Sea Scrolls, numerous Hebrew art songs; and other chamber music, and finally Heḥalutz (known in English as The Pioneers), the earliest operas in Hebrew, set to his own libretto. In USA Hehalutz was performed twice at Carnegie Hall in 1946 and finally on 19 February 1949, in honor of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, elected president of newborn State of Israel, in a few days after his first address to the first Knesset.

Weinberg died in the New York of lung disease at the age of 77 on November 2, 1956.

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