Zinoviy (Zussman) Kiselgof (1884-1939)


Etnograph, educator, popularizer of Jewish music heritage

Zinoviy (Zussman) Aronovitsh Kiselgof is one of the most important figures in the Jewish music revival in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. A collection of Jewish folklore materials he gathered during several decades of his life (in total - about 2000 music items) is extremely significant both in quantity and quality. This collection had a strong influence on the formation of a Jewish national music school in the Russian Empire. Composers and performers considered Kiselgof ’s collection a main source for better comprehension of Jewish national melos. Materials of his collection were held in the Soviet archives and libraries under the status of special holdings for several decades and were completely unavailable for researchers. The real scope of Kiselgof ’s activity in the area of Jewish folklore studies has been not evaluated on the proper level until now.

Biography (click to view...)

Kiselgof had a strong desire to prepare his folklore materials for publication but, unfortunately, was unable to accomplish his project. He wrote about it in two versions of his autobiography in 1935 and 1936. He wrote in 1935: “I collected more than 2000 folksongs for the period 1907-1915. Some of them were published in 1912. A full version of the collection is supposed to be published soon”2 . Official letters from Moscow publishing house “International Book” dated 1932 and preserved among his personal documents also provided us with information about a planned discussion concerning this project

Zinoviy Kiselgof ’s personal archive was given to the Cabinet for Jewish Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 1940. The inventory list dated May 29 1940 affirmed the fact of transfer4 . But even Moyshe Beregovsky, the only researcher, who had an unlimited access to this collection and partly used its materials in his project “Anthology of Jewish music folklore”, didn’t provide any general review of Kiselgof ’s collection except an obviously ideological critical analysis of Kiselgof ’s two pre-revolutionary editions, issued in 1912 and 19155. We have every reason to suppose that Kiselgof ’s collection together with materials of Shlomo Ans-ky’s expeditions of 1912-1914, where Kiselgof also actively participated, composed a fundamental base of Jewish music folklore studies in the Russian Empire. Kiselgof ’s personal archives are currently stored at the Institute of Manuscripts of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine.

Zinoviy (Zussman) Aronovitsh Kiselgof was born in 1878 in Velizh, Vitebsk province, in the family of a teacher. He received a typical Jewish education: went to kheder (traditional Jewish elementary school), and then was a student at Velizh Jewish College. He became a scholarship student at Vilna Jewish teachers’ College in 1894. Zinoviy Kiselgof didn’t have any systematic musical education, other than violin lessons that he took for a very short time. He wrote about that in his autobiography: “Finally, when I was 11, I began to take violin lessons. My teacher was a Velizh musician (klezmer) Meir Berson, or Meir the Red (Meir Rizhiy), as everyone called him. Actually, he was the only musician who taught me something. The rest of the necessary knowledge I acquired myself. I had a perfect pitch and as a child could easily transcribe melodies by ear. No doubt, if I had learnt music systematically, I would have become a professional.»

After graduation from teachers’ training college Kiselgof worked in different educational institutions in Vitebsk. He moved to St. PeterSburg in 1906, where he became a teacher at OPE (Society for the development of education among Russian Jews) and a conductor of children’s choruses. He also continued his personal education - at the Lesgaft’s Open University, and then - at the Petersburg University (physics and mathematics faculty). From 1920 until his death Kiselgof was a Director of National Jewish School # 11 and Children’s home #79 in Petersburg-Leningrad.

In 1909, the researcher took part in the special concert organized with a goal to raise money for the creation of A Jewish Theater in St. Petersburg. Since 1919 (when the Jewish theater “GOSET” was organized) he had been working as a permanent musical consultant at the theater and actively participated in musical staging of performances. He wrote about that in his autobiography: “Jewish section of the Council of national minorities invited me to take part in the organization of the first Jewish state theater with Granovsky as a head of it. I accepted this offer as a singing teacher and a teacher of music theory at the theatrical studio as well as a lecturer on Jewish folk music, a performer of songs and a choirmaster of the theater” . Kiselgof was very close to many prominent theater leaders and artists - rare valuable autographs of Solomon Mikhoels and Binyamin Zuskin, which preserved among the personal Kiselgof ’s documents can testify that .

In 1938 Kiselgof was arrested and put into jail. Next year he was discharged owing to his illness and shortly after that, in 1939, he died. Materials of his collection were held in the Soviet archives and libraries under the status of special holdings for several decades and were completely unavailable for researchers. And even when the wind of social change in the former Soviet Union touched them, they didn’t gain popularity at once. There was a very slow process of recognition and evaluation of those hidden treasures, which required of researchers a good knowledge of the Yiddish language, Jewish musical tradition, Jewish liturgy and understanding of the ways of development of the Jewish national music school in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

The most important part of Kiselgof ’s collection highlights his activity as a collector and active popularizer of Jewish music heritage (especially at the Petersburg Society for Jewish folk music). He was one of the organizers of this society and a member of its board from 1908 until 1921. References to Zinoviy Kiselgof as the excellent expert in the area of Jewish musical tradition often could be found in the official reports of the society and on the pages of Russian-Jewish periodicals (for example, in “The Russian Music Newspaper). Jewish composers very often used his folklore materials as a thematic base for their theater music. For example, Yosif Akhron introduced Kiselgof ’s melodies into his music for plays “The sorceress” and “Mazltov”; Pulver collaborated with Kiselgof when he was working on the music arrangement for performances “Two Hundred Thousand” and “Night at the rebe’s house”; Alexander Krein used his melodies in the music for theater performance “At Night at the old marketplace”. In the most of cases Kiselgof himself helped all the actors to learn new music compositions.

Kiselgof ’s paper “On the Jewish folk songs”, which was read in 1911, a year later was published lithographically and distributed in the branches of Society for Jewish folk music in Kiev, Moscow, Kharkov and Riga. It was also published in A German version. The paper represents Kiselgof ’s attempt to analyze of “what Jewish music is”. In those years the definition of Jewish music was a subject for extensive discussion between two leaders of Jewish musical revival in Russia - Joel Engel and Lazar Saminsky. As we know, they used all their intellect and erudition, trying to work out this definition. Kiselgof, on the contrary, demonstrated a completely different approach. He avoided any complicated theoretical reflections in order to find the only comprehensive answer for this question - he just talked about Jewish song - old and contemporary, religious and secular. “The main task of this paper is to demonstrate that Jewish folk genius created enormous music treasures, which are still waiting for research. Our mission is to uncover them…”

“Jewish secular song is always a song of ghetto. It never has typical features of village nature, such a space of fields, the fragrance of flowers and the purl of a brook… Jewish song is an urban song, associated only with narrow streets and small houses. The stony walls are squeezing the song and making it very concentrated on a limited circle of images and figures. Even a humorous song is no more than a sad smile, which is even bitterer than tears”.

Kiselgof ’s paper is divided on the small chapters under the following sub-titles:

1 A revival of Jewish national and cultural life. 2 Music as a part of national art. 3 Origins of music and ancient Jewish music. 4 Synagogue songs and “nusakh”. 5 General features of Jewish folksong. 6 The Jewish folksongs of the present-days: general style, forms, features and ethnography. Evaluation. 7 Classification of secular songs. 8 Analysis of different song genres: religious songs, lullabies, children’s, love songs, wedding and family songs, songs of soldiers and cantonists, humorous songs etc. 9 Hassidic songs. 10 Wedding songs (Klezmer music - L. Sh.). 11 Scholarly works. Conclusion.

Kiselgof avoided specifically musical analysis of songs. He was not a professional music historian and that’s why he concentrated mostly on the poetical values of folksongs15 . His comments are always very simple; he never erected any intricate philosophic conceptions onuncomplicated folk texts and talked only about the nature of folk poetry. In this way he always gained a great advantage in comparison with other researchers, because his knowledge of religious traditions and Jewish languages was based on the strong traditional life style customary in his environment since his childhood. Kiselhof proposed a very simple primary classification of folklore materials. He divided all folksongs onto two main categories: Songs with words (mostly in Yiddish) and Songs without words: hassidic nigunim and traditional wedding music (Klezmer music). For Hassidic music he invented a special additional definition: “vocal music without words”. He did so because of a special mystical sense of hassidic nigunim. Kiselgof mentioned Itskhok Leybush Perets’s novel “Mekubolim” as a quintessence of the Hassidic music philosophy.

In Kiselgof ’s opinion, religious song is very close to traditional prayer. Kilselgof ’s survey of ancient Jewish music and its influence on the traditional synagogue music is based on the works of E. Naumann and F. Fetis, notable music historians of 19th century. He also discussed several points of L. Sakkety’s researches, which could be found in his “History of music”. He couldn’t agree with Sakkety’s opinion that Jews lost their songs during the historical development of the nation. Kiselgof ’s statement about the deep relationship between synagogue music and church music is based on the survey of the famous Russian music historian Vladimir Stasov.