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Mikhail Gnessin (sometimes Gnesin) was a Russian Jewish composer, teacher, and founder member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Gnessin’s compositions link Russian and Jewish musical style, taking inspiration from Russian modernism, French impressionism and Jewish and Yiddish folk music. Although he was not directly persecuted by either regime, Gnessin was at threat from both Nazi and Soviet antisemitism. He was the only Soviet Jewish composer to be singled out and banned by the Nazis. Gnessin’s Piano Trio, op. 63, dedicated ‘In Memory of Our Perished Children’ has been described as the earliest piece of Soviet Holocaust music.
Born in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, to a musical family, Gnessin entered Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition class (along with Igor Stravinsky and Maximilian Steinberg) at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory in 1901, having been denied a place at the Moscow Conservatory because of their Jewish quota. Gnessin took part in socialist activities during his time at the Conservatory, and in 1908 helped to found the Society for Jewish Folk Music, dedicated to developing a Jewish national school of music. From 1914 the composer began consciously to use Jewish and Yiddish traditions in his compositions, and he travelled twice to Palestine (in 1913-14 and 1921-22) to gather inspiration. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 Jewish art and music flourished and Gnessin went through a productive period. Compositions include his string quartet, Variations on a Jewish Folk Theme (1917); Symphonic Fantasia (in Jewish Style), Song of the Ancient Homeland, op. 30 (1918-19); opera The Maccabees (1921); and his Hebrew-language opera, Abraham’s Youth (1921-22), which has been described as an attempt at creating a ‘Jewish Grand Opera’ in the style of an oratorio. Song settings of Russian poets such as Three Jewish Songs to the Words of Russian Poets, op. 32 and Tale of the Red-Headed Mottele, op. 44 (1926-29), a song cycle based on Russian- and Yiddish-language texts, symbolise Gnessin’s commitment to creating Russian Jewish art music.
Gnessin suffered from increased antisemitism during the 1930s and was tempted to leave Russia, fearing for the future of Jewish people in his country. Although he was still largely a respected composer and teacher (he was Professor at the Leningrad Conservatory from 1935-44), he was attacked by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) and accused of reactionary formalism and bourgeois nationalism. His brother was executed in 1937 for anti-Bolshevik political crimes, and two of Gnessin’s friends were also executed in the late 1930s. The composer was forced to cease his promotion of Jewish music and abandon his work on a Yiddish-language opera about the Bar Kokhba revolt. He was evacuated to Yoshkar-Ola and then Tashkent when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Gnessin’s son, Fabi, had gone ahead of his father to Tashkent, but sadly passed away before the composer’s arrival.
The Piano Trio, ‘In Memory of Our Perished Children,’ is a single movement composition for piano, violin and cello. It is romantic in style, and uses no overtly Jewish musical techniques. Gnessin originally wanted to describe the piece as a ‘requiem,’ but was ordered to remove this term; Russians were becoming aware of the Nazi persecution of Jews, particularly following the mass murder of Soviet Jews in the Ukraine, but the acknowledgement of Jewish death was taboo.
The opening theme of the trio, picked out on solo pizzicato violin, is a direct quote from a well-known Yiddish song, ‘Amol iz geven a yidele’ (There Once was a Little Jew), in which the protagonist’s son and wife have died. The composer consciously chose this quotation (Gnessin wrote as such to his sister in 1943), perhaps as a way of alluding to Jewish sacrifice without alerting the Soviet censors. The unspecific dedication to ‘Our Perished Children’ allowed the authorities to view the piece as a memorial to Soviet (not Jewish) death. For Gnessin himself, it is likely that his trio mourned the collective loss of both Soviet and Jewish children, and also the personal loss of his son, Fabi. The second motif of the piece, described by Gnessin in a footnote to the score, is based on a melody composed by Fabi when he was eight years old, and the development of this motif, as described by the composer, ‘receives a new interpretation as if in mourning for itself.’ A note was distributed at performances of the trio, bearing the following words from the composer:
The author strove not only to express our shared pain about our children, students, and young friends who perished in battles for our fatherland or were tortured by the enemy in occupied cities; he sought to stir up in the memory of listeners the image of these living young people, of their youth – from childhood dreams and play, from youthful unrequited love and aspirations, to the very first real adult achievements and sudden deaths. The sections of the trio linked to the poetry of children’s sufferings are built on the theme… composed at age eight by the son of the composer, Fabi, now deceased.
The Piano Trio received the Stalin Prize in 1946, but is unpublished and absent from concert repertoire, despite recent scholarship arguing that it is the first significant Soviet wartime composition about the Holocaust. The ambiguity of its subject may have prevented the trio from being considered as Holocaust musical scholarship until recently.
In 1948 and 1949, composers including Aleksandr Veprik and ethnomusicologist Moyshe Beregovskii were arrested and sent to the gulags on charges of anticosmopolitanism, antiformalism and anti-Soviet Jewish bourgeois nationalism. Gnessin, despite being at risk of arrest having discussed the formation of a Jewish republic during the war, spoke out against the repression of composers and confronted Zhdanov regarding these charges. The composer managed to escape persecution, but authorities threatened to shut down the composition department of the Gnessin State Musical College (now the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music) which had been founded by the composer’s sisters in 1895, and at which Gnessin was employed. The composer was forced to retire and handed over his position to his pupil, Aram Khachaturian. Gnessin was formally denounced in 1953, but again managed to escape repression, this time possibly because of Stalin’s death in the same year. The composer died in Moscow in 1957.
By Abaigh McKee
Loeffler, J. (2014) ‘In Memory of Our Murdered (Jewish) Children”: Hearing the Holocaust in Soviet Jewish Culture’ Slavic Review, 73 (3), 585-611
Sitsky, L. (1994) Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-garde, 1900-1929 (Connecticut: Greenwood Press)
Sabaneev, L. and Pring, S. W. (1929) ‘The Jewish National School in Music’ The Musical Quarterly, 15 (3), 448-468