Dmitri Slepovitch


Activities of the Jewish Music Institute in Vilna
as part of Post-Haskalah and Yiddishist movement

 Published in: Proceedings of the Ninth Annual International Interdisciplinary Conference on Jewish Studies. Part 2. Moscow: Probel-2000, 2003, p. 263Ц270.


The town of Vilna at the period of 1920s and 30s was considered to be a major center of Jewish intellectual activities in Eastern Europe. The main reason for that was a political change that followed the signing of the Brest Peace. The vast majority of the Jewish population in Vilna at that time were Russian-speaking, and switching over to Polish as a new official language was quite painful for them. It is obvious that the most context-sensitive group among them was the Jewish intelligentsia who had come to existence due to democratic processes in the Russian Empire in late 19th century. Being isolated from the mainstream of their native environment, Jewish intellectual circles in Vilna needed to form a new environment for themselves to keep their social status.

Another factor of this trend is a gradual decline of the Haskalah movement in Russia in early 1900s. Finally, a point was reached where the assimilation process began its rollback to the Jewish roots. There are many evidences of such processes in the Russian Empire of that time. Below are just a few of them.

Over a dozen Jewish cultural and scholar societies, with a broad range of media, were established in St.Petersburg, Moscow, Vilna and other cities and towns. In 1908, the famous conference in Chernovtsy was organized. The most salient result of the conference was the recognition of Yiddish (called then a jargon, or colloquial Jewish) as an official language of the Jewish nation in Europe.

The above factors became solid prerequisites for establishing Yiddish as a language of the Jewish community in Vilna, and were undoubtedly of a great importance in forming of the Yiddishist movement in Eastern Europe. In this context it seems appropriate to introduce the term УPost-HaskalahФ which adequately reflects the social and historical realities of the period in question.

Yiddishism was reaching its goals and objectives in two basic ways which helped resolve the problem of Jewish national identity. The first one, which could be termed as ethnographic, was about collecting Jewish lore, studying Jewish history, Hebrew and Yiddish literature. All this heritage was meant to be restored in the professional activities of the new Yiddish writers, poets, composers, and performers. This was the way chosen by the Jewish elite circles in St. Petersburg. It is noteworthy that as early as in late 19th century in the northern capital of Russia there were numerous Jewish societies, such as the Society for Dissemination of Enlightenment among Jews in Russia and the Jewish Literary Society. A few years later, in 1900s, there were established the Jewish Ethnographic Society and the Society for Jewish Folk Music. All those societies published their own periodicals Ц journals, bulletins, and newsletters, the major of which were УYevreyskaya starinaФ, УVestnik Obshchestva rasprostraneniya prosveshcheniya mezhdu yevreyami v Rossiyskoy ImperiiФ, УVoskhodФ, УNovyi VoskhodФ, УRassvetФ. Most of the eminent Jewish authors and scholars actively participated in those societies. It is hard to overestimate the merits of Zinoviy Kisselgof who was the first to travel across the Ukraine and Russia, recording Jewish songs, klezmer tunes, and Purimshpils on the wax cylinders placed on the phonograph recently invented by Thomas Edison.

Unlike the vast majority of the higher educational institutions in the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg conservatory had no percentage limit for the Jews to be admitted. This was another favorable factor for the formation of the Jewish musical environment. It was N.A.Rimsky-KorsakovТs pedagogical work that played a crucial role in developing this process. It is widely known that many of his students were Jews, and their numerous testimonials make us aware that he constantly convinced them to compose their national music.

The other basic way of promoting Jewish national ideas was chosen by the Russian-speaking Jewish intelligentsia of Vilna. It can be called adapted Haskalah. In other words, it was the translation of the European cultural values into Yiddish as a banner of the Jewish identity in 1920s. All the Jewish periodicals (the first among them was УYIVO BleterФ), text-books and fiction were then published in Yiddish.

There was also a way of rediscovery of the Jewish roots that was in-between those two major ways. It was chosen by the residents of St.Petersburg who in late 1910s moved to the Baltic states. Among them were Solomon Rozovsky and Yefrem Shkliar.

Jewish music school was also developing in the two mainstreams featured above. The first one became a basis for the scholar activities of M.Beregovski and A.Z.Idelsohn. The second one was followed by the Jewish art-music performers, mainly in the framework of the Jewish Music Institute (יידישער מוזיקאַלישער אינסטיטוט) in Vilna. JMI was established in 1924 by the Jewish Society for the Arts Support in Vilna. During its 16-year existence, 1924Ц1940, JMI was successfully pursuing the objectives set in its Statute as priorities:

1.     to give the Jewish youth an opportunity to study musical arts in vernacular;

2.     to disseminate music culture among the wide masses of the Jewish population by means of symphonic concerts, matinees, and operatic performances given by the JMI students[1];

Aiming at maintaining high professional standards, the Institute, according to numerous critical reports, year by year increased the level of education. Within a short period of time, JMI became a musical center of Vilna. It was the only conservatory in Europe with Yiddish as a teaching language. Due to its performances, JMI very soon acquired recognition all over Eastern Europe. The Vilna periodicals of that time (Czas, Kurjer Wileński, Słowo) wrote that JMI had managed to employ the most outstanding pedagogical and artistic figures in the town, which made it possible to create a unique teaching team. Its utmost creative potential can be explained by the fact that many of the JMI teachers were united by their alma mater. An evidence to this is found in one of the Vilna newspapers:

УЕat that concert one could feel the spirit of the former St. Petersburg Conservatory, whose graduates are most of the Jewish Music Institute instructorsФ.

Wileńska Gazeta Poranna [2]

Strange though it may seem, but for a long time there was no serious musical center in Lithuania, with the exception of Vilna University where music was presented to some extent. Not only Jewish Vilna, Yerusholaim deТLite, is meant here, but the Vilna area as a whole. Hence, JMI by the very fact of its existence Уfilled a huge cultural nicheФ in the area (Gazeta Poranna). Below quoted are just a few of the numerous reviews published in the newspapers of Vilna:

УThe rate of development of the Jewish Music Institute canТt but amaze everyone. Established just last year, the Institute within this short time period has acquired a reputation of a serious music school which gives its graduates a solid educationФ.

Wileńska Gazeta Poranna

УThe annual concert given by the students of the Jewish Music Institute testifies the hard and conscientious work done by the teaching staff, and the success achieved during this academic year. The program was compiled with regard to the performerТs abilities and in accordance with sensible requirements of the music science, which positively resulted in the level of the concertФ.


JMI was headed by Rafał Rubinsztein, a talented pianist who was also a graduate of the St.Petersburg conservatory. He was often mentioned in critical reviews in the press:

УЕ the Institute headed by the highly educated R. Rubinsztein attracted the best artistic forces of the cityФ.

Gazeta Poranna

To give a better idea of this manТs role in the 16-year-long history of JMI, it is necessary to highlight the directorТs duties included, among others,

Ч           signing job contracts with instructors and taking control over the contracts fulfillment;

Ч           providing the normal course of teaching at JMI;

Ч           participating in the JMI Artistic Council;

Ч           participating in all examination commissions of the Institute;

Ч           listing the instructorsТ names and qualification range for the Ministry of religion and public education;

Ч           public relations of JMI.[3]

Bearing a burden of administrative duties, Rubinsztein never left his teaching work as a piano instructor. He also organized numerous thematic concerts dedicated to certain composers.

Due to the special nature of the JMI teaching staff, among most successful classes were piano and vocals. This fact was repeatedly admitted by the critics over the years of JMI existence. Among the piano instructors, most often mentioned were T. Hirszowicz, F. Krewer, (?) Plotnik[4], H. Dugowska, A. Rosenkranz-Fejgus, O. Wizun-Gołynska, and (?) Totenberger-Macowa; among the vocalists such were E. Igdal and J. Krużanka. To have an idea of an educational level in these instructorsТ classes, here two random lists of pieces performed at examinations at JMI are given.

Program of the P. KacТs final exam (class of Professor J. Krużanka), which took place on 25 February, 1930.[5]


Gluck. Air from УAlcestaФ.

Beethoven. УIn a Dark GraveФ.

Schubert. Barcarola.

Milner. УDer FodimФ.

Moniuszko. Air from УHalkaУ.

Wagner. Air from УLohengrinФ.

Rimsky-Korsakov. Air from УTsarТs BrideФ.

Rimsky-Korsakov. ФWhen a Slav LovesФ.

Mozart. Lullaby.

Verdi. Air from ФAidaФ.

Rużycki. ФJasna LednicaФ.

Tchaikovsky. ФOn a Sunny DayФ.

Gelbart. УSheФ.

Gelbart. УNightФ.

Puccini. Air from УMadama ButterflyФ.


Program of the S. RechtdikТs final exam (class of Professor T. Hirszowicz), which took place on 4 June, 1930.[6]


BachЦBusoni. Chaconne.

Mozart. Variations in F Major.

Beethoven. Sonata in f minor УPathetiqueФ, 1st movement.

Schumann. Études symphoniques.

Chopin. Sonata in b minor, 3rd and 4th movements.

Albeniz. Navarra.

WagnerЦLiszt. Overture from УTannheuserФ.


To be able to perform the above programs, one should have a corresponding training experience, adequate technical and artistic mastery level. In addition to perfectly conducted individual classes, JMI maintained an operatic studio where most significant classic and romantic operas were staged. There was also a symphony orchestra conducted by A. Zimbler which skillfully performed masterpieces of the European classical music.

Cultural outreach was another very important field of JMI activities. It was directed both at the Institute with the aim of educating musically gifted youth and beyond with the aim of promoting classical music among the Jewish population and meeting the aesthetical needs of the Jewish music amateurs. During the years of the InstituteТs existence, a number of concerts dedicated to the heritage of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Arthur Rubinstein were presented to broad audiences. It is noteworthy that such performances were preceeded with short lectures delivered by A. Zimbler. This is reflected in press:

УRecurring concerts of the InstituteТs students have a dual objective Ц to show the InstituteТs activities and to accustom the students to the stage. It is easy to notice that the concerts conducted under the supervision of the instructors also provide a good assistance to the sphere of musical education of youthФ.


Despite obvious results achieved by JMI, its life was full of financial difficulties which as a mirror reflected a deteriorating downward situation of the Jewry and a rise of anti-Semitism in Lithuania during the twenty years of the Polish rule. By the mid-30s, the situation of the Institute became so hard that the leading body of the Jewish Society for the Arts Support had to apply to the American Jewish Joint Distributive Commitee for financial assistance. Unfortunately, the appeal was declined. Although financing in the form of private donations was stipulated in JMIТs Statute, leaflets with an additional request for public donations were distributed in 1934, when the Institute marked its 10th anniversary.

And yet JMI kept on functioning. Public concerts were constantly given, students graduated from JMI every academic year. Among them there were a lot of exceptionally talented musicians. One of them was Abram Slep who played an important role in the public musical life of the pre-war Vilna. Having graduated from JMI at the beginning of its existence, Slep gained recognition as a conductor of the VilBIG Chorus which functioned under the auspices of the above mentioned Jewish Society for the Arts Support.[7] Repertory of this group founded in 1932 by I. Gerstein comprised dozens of pieces by West European, Polish and Russian composers, Jewish folk songs, and liturgical chants. The chorus had 68 singers with different social backgrounds. The chorus accompanist Rachel Silin also graduated from JMI. For eight years of its existence, the VilBIG Chorus gave hundreds of concerts in Vilna, Kovna, Lida, and many other towns in the area. By its very essence, this chorus was harmoniously weaved into Post-Haskalah context, bringing to the Jewish audience excerpts from oratorios and operas by Haendel, Monuiszko, Meyerbeer, Bizet, and Verdi, with texts translated into Yiddish.[8]

Among other musical groups, in which graduates of JMI were involved, are the symphony orchestra of УKultur-LigaФ Union[9] and Jewish Folk Theater in Vilna.

The education in JMI became so prestigious among the Jewish youth areawide that the in the last year of JMIТs functioning there were 747 graduates listed. Surely, this is a huge amount for a small pre-war town. The Nazi regime that took over in Lithuania in 1941, exterminated almost all of the InstituteТs graduates. Together with all the Jewish population, the musicians were put to the Vilna ghetto. Before its liquidation in the fall of 1941, the symphony orchestra organized behind the barbed wire managed to give 38 concerts which became an evidence of the musiciansТ tremendous strength of mind.

*  *  *

The activities of the Jewish Music Institute turned to be a concluding and the most important stage both in the Yiddishist movement spread virtually all over Eastern Europe. They promoted education with Yiddish as a teaching language, and Post-Haskalah in Vilna. Studying the activities of JMI and those of other Jewish scholar, educational, and artistic groups in Vilna in the first third of the 20th century makes it possible to form an objective opinion on the ways of national self-indentification of the Lithuanian Jewry, as well as on the intellectual and creative course of live in Vilna. On the other hand, JMI along with other similar institutions (such as Jewish Folk Conservatory in Riga and 169 Jewish Yiddishist schools that had been opened before 1936 in Poland[10]) played an important role in future fate of the Jewish education. Such schools by right can be considered as prototypes for the later established Jewish higher educational institutions. Thus, Jewish education of the Yiddishist era filled the term Haskalah with a nationally definite meaning, driving the East European Jewry out of the dangerous process of assimilation.

ƒмитрий —лепович


ƒе¤тельность ≈врейского музыкального института в ¬ильно в контексте пост-√аскалы и движени¤ идишизма

¬ статье рассматриваетс¤ де¤тельность ≈врейского музыкального института в ¬ильно (1924Ц1940) Ц как в контексте еврейской культуры ¬ильно 1920х Ц 30х гг., так и в св¤зи с созданием и развитием еврейской музыкальной школы в –оссии в начале ’’ в.  “ем самым предпринимаетс¤ попытка восстановить одно из важных звеньев процесса возрождени¤ еврейского национального самосознани¤ в первой трети ’’ в. Ќа основании документов, хран¤щихс¤ в јрихве литературы и искусства Ћитовской –еспублики, представилось возможным воссоздать картину 16-летней де¤тельности »нститута и представить его роль в еврейском идишском и, в частности, музыкальном образовании.



[1] Podanie Żydowskiego Stowarzyszenia popierania sztuki w Wilnie do Ministerstwa wyznań religijnych i oświecenia publicznego. Wilno, dnia [Е] 1934 roku. Lithuanian State Archive of Literature and Arts (LSALA). Stock 272, list 1, vol.7, p.3.

[2] Quotations from the Vilna periodicals of 1920s Ц 30s are given according to the JMI press-release (translated from the Polish by the author), LSALA, St. 272, list 1, vol. 2, pp.1Ц4.

[3] Statute of the JMI. ІІ 5,7,10. LSALA. St. 272, list 1, vol.16, p.3 rev.

[4] The initials are unknown.

[5] LSALA. St. 272, list 1, vol.3, p. 23 rev.

[6] LSALA. St. 272, list 1, vol.3, p. 24 rev.

[7] Numerous documents regarding the chorusТs acitivites are now preserved in the Central State Archives of Lithuanian Republic (CSALR).

[8] Amazingly, УMaccabeesФ was nearly the one and only of HaendelТs numerous oratorios repeatedly presented in the chorusТs repertory. At the same time, we donТt find a notion about performing any excerpt from УMessiahФ which is HaendelТs most popular oratorio in the Christian world.

[9] CSALR, YIVO Archive. Materials returned to CSA, Vilnius. Box 6, List 19, Folders 5, 14.

[10] Fishman, David E. Judaizm świeckich jidyszystów // УDuchowość żydowska w PolsceФ. Materiały z międzynarodowej konferencji dedykowanej pamięci profesora Chone Shmeruka. Kraków, 26Ц28 kwietnia 1999. Pod red. M.Galasa. Kraków: Uniwersytet Jagielloński, Katedra Judaistyki, 2000. S. 369Ц382.


  списку статей - Back to the list of articles

Hosted by uCoz