Nigunim Laad
Jewish Tunes Forever



Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930)

Lev (Leib) Zeitlin, a violinist, violist, conductor and impresario, within a generation after his death, was being confused with prominent Soviet violinist Lev Moiseevich Tseitlin. Now, after decades of neglect, Leo Zeitlin recognized as one of the most important Russian Jewish composer, a leading figure in the history of twentieth-century Jewish Art Music movement. Leo Zeitlin, of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, is best known -when his name is recognized at all -- as the composer of "Eli Zion" [O Zion], his chef d'oeuvre for violoncello and piano. When he died in New York, on July 8, 1930, newspaper obituaries the following day reported that he had been a member of the orchestra at the Capitol Theatre, one of the huge "picture palaces." But he was more than that: he was one of the theatre's musical arrangers and the composer of a monumental overture on Jewish themes that was played at the Capitol the week before Selichot in 1929.

Born in Pinsk (Belarus) in 1884, he attended music school in Odessa and then in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. St. Petersburg, where he also began his professional career, and subsequently conducted and taught in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine) and Vilna. In St. Petersburg he became active in the Society for Jewish Folk Music. This early-20th-century group was the catalyst for a brief but golden age of art music on Jewish themes drawn from trop, nusach, and folk song, and between 1909 and 1917 it published at least 80 original compositions and arrangements by its member composers, four of them by Zeitlin. His best-known work, ‘Eli Zion’, a paraphrase for piano and cello "on a folk theme and trope of 'Song of Songs” was published by the Society. Zeitlin had had an extensive career, performing on both viola and violin, composing and conducting, and teaching in St. Petersburg, Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipr, Ukraine) and Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania).

Zeitlin’s life in the 1910-1920s coincided with the revolutionary turmoil. In 1923, the year before the United States Congress passed the National Origins (or Reed-Johnson) Act, which further restricted emigration from Eastern Europe, 49,306 Jewish immigrants entered the United States. Two of them, Leo Zeitlin and his wife, Esther, arrived on the S. S. Lituania of the Baltic-American Line, sailing to New York from the free port of Danzig (Gdansk) on July 18, 1923. Beginning in 1920, United States policy required a twelve-day quarantine period for emigrants arriving from Danzig, and Leo's inscription on the back of a photograph of the couple gives the exact dates of their stay: "Zappat bei Dancig 23/VI-18/VII 1923 g." Danzig was the last stop in Zeitlin's peripatetic European existence.

In New York City Zeitlin joined the orchestra at the Capitol Theatre (Broadway at 50th St.), one of New York’s huge “picture palaces” where music – both classical and popular – was a major element of the show. The Capitol seated more than 5,000, and its orchestra was considered the equivalent of a major symphony. At its largest, the ensemble numbered almost 100 and was known for “high-class musical selections,” routinely playing works of Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikowsky and Beethoven. Some of this music was drawn from the standard Western repertory, but much of it was composed and/or arranged each week, as needed. Among the few extant examples of this ad hoc music are works -- some of them on Jewish themes -- by Zeitlin. In 1925 Zeitlin began to receive arranging assignments. Initially, these were of light classical and popular works, which were played on the theatre’s Sunday evening radio program, “Major Bowes Capitol Theatre Family” on the predecessor station to NBC. In 1929, his assignments began to be more substantial: two overtures incorporating arrangements of popular songs were followed by at least five other overtures, including “Palestina (Rhapsody on Hebrew Themes)” in honor of the Jewish holidays, which introduced every show during the week of Sept. 20, 1929.

Less than a year later, in June 1930, at the age of forty-five, Leo Zeitlin suddenly developed encephalitis lethargica (sleeping sickness). He died on 8 July 1930 in a hospital on Long Island and was buried the following day in Old Montefiore Cemetery. Probably Zeitlin's most important contribution to the society -- and to music on Jewish themes -- was his orchestral and chamber arrangements of works by fellow members of the society, which represent the majority of his extant compositions.

(c) Paula Eisenstein Baker

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