Emil Leyvand’s A Poem About the Holocaust: Performing Unvoiced Trauma

In 1943, a young Jewish violinist in the Red Army spent the end of every day practicing his violin, hoping to return to his conservatory studies after the war. His commanding officer, either worried about attracting fire with the noise or genuinely impressed by the violinist's skill, sent him back to Moscow to entertain the troops and play in Aleksandr Tsfasman's jazz band until the end of the war. This violinist, Emil Leyvand, graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1947 as a student of Mostras and went on to an illustrious career in the USSR, playing first violin in the Russian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra and in ensembles with such great musicians as David Oistrakh, Igor Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Boris Goldstain and Mstislav Rostropovich. Leyvand immigrated to the United States in 1990, where he subsequently made a small donation to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, consisting of a score, a cassette of this single piece, and a short biography. Leyvand's son, Alexander, is also a violinist and accomplished luthier. Emil died in 2010 and his wife in 2017 in Indianapolis, where they were active members of the Jewish community but made little or no mention of the Holocaust or their Jewish experiences in the USSR.

Archival research shows that of all the family members of that name in the Odesa region, only Emil was drafted, and another member of the family seems to have been evacuated - all the others were killed in the Holocaust. Leyvand's son knew that his father had donated a piece to the museum, but he had never heard the work before and did not know its contents. Perhaps more tellingly, he repeatedly stressed that his father referred to the war as a veteran rather than a survivor, emphasising his military service rather than his fortuitous conscription and military removal from the genocide. What can Leyvand's one composition, a poem about the Holocaust, tell us about Soviet memory and the impact of the Holocaust within families? Knowing that Leyvand was an excellent violinist, how do we take this composition out of academic discourse and what are the implications for its performance and introduction to classical audiences today?

As an ego-document, Leyvand's piece has three revealing components. The first is its reception, promotion and performance, or lack thereof. According to the composer's son, the piece was written in the 1970s. It is more likely that the piece was at least titled near or after immigration, given the Western or international use of 'Holocaust' versus 'Katastrofa'. Leyvand donated the work to the US Holocaust Museum in 1999 with his own recording, not that of another violinist. Working with the piece, Dr Alexandra Birch suggested that Leyvand may have performed it at home, perhaps using the music to discuss the war or his family's losses with his own children and family. However, the work was never performed by the composer on the concert stage, and certainly not used in a commemorative way with his family or in public. This, combined with the title, suggests a 'working through' of the trauma of the Holocaust, larger trends in Soviet (self-)censorship, and even the complex identification of oneself as a Jew or survivor. This is an excellent work for the violin, and also suggests something of Leyvand's skill as a player. His calculations about writing or performing a memorial work would also have included practical concerns about career advancement as a Jew, limited by quotas in Soviet institutions. Taken together, it is also highly possible that Leyvand wrote the work after emigration, based on themes he began to recall in the last two decades of his life, as he became more involved with the Jewish community in the USA.

Performed by Dr Alexandra Birch. Permission courtesy of Alex Leyvand.

The piece is distinctly Jewish in both content and title, and such dedications were not common or encouraged in the early post-war period. This mirrors other unsanctioned Soviet commemorations, where families erected more personal memorials or visited sites of mass executions outside of official Soviet commemorations. This inside/outside distinction in knowledge production is not limited to Jewish music or Holocaust commemoration, but rather, as Yurchak suggests, a state of "vnye": of outside-ness while still working or creating art within the Soviet system. This inside/outside can be applied to a variety of Soviet creative conditions, but it is also applicable to understanding Holocaust commemorative art. The articulation of war losses was certainly permitted - the Soviet monuments to concentration camps and the restitution claims contained in the files of the Soviet Extraordinary Commission certainly demonstrate a structural Soviet intention to codify the losses of war, including the Holocaust. However, artistic flashpoints such as the original ethnic targeting of Muradeli under Zhdanovshchina and the contemporary assassination of Mikhoels in 1948, the troubled premiere of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony "Babi Yar" in 1962, the ethnically disproportionate sanctions of Khrennikov's denunciations in 1979, and the long-delayed premiere of Weinberg's The Passenger all point to ethnic motivation for political repression in the arts, including the suppression of works related to the Holocaust. A thorough discussion of the nuanced periodisation of Soviet Holocaust awareness and commemoration would be extensive, and certainly had different implications for different art forms. However, it is worth considering where Leyvand's work fits into this larger discussion, and to see it as a piece of private memory that was kept in a drawer for many years until immigration.

Of second interest in Leyvand's piece is the processing and documentation of the Holocaust in sound. Personal documentation of the Holocaust typically includes diaries, memoirs and letters. But pieces like Leyvand's also include documentation of life before the war - music as he heard and remembered it, and in this case, of the violence itself. Leyvand's piece begins with what he describes as a "cantorial theme", a song attributed to rabbis from Balta, Ukraine, near Odesa, where he was born. The piece begins with a dramatic introduction and a slightly unsettling transition to the first statement of this 'cantorial theme', which Leyvand weaves throughout, building to a dramatic and technically demanding climax in the middle of the piece, where the theme is completely distorted beyond recognition. The theme returns plaintively, marked 'piano' or very softly: a gentle and calm statement after the dramatic dissonance of the distorted and unsettled middle section. However, this theme is then violently and brutally interrupted several times by 'musical shots' before a true return to the opening statements of the piece.

These musical gunshots are brutal gestures that effectively use the lower range of the violin to violently interrupt the theme, and are a unique example of musical memorialisation. The performance requires the player to make abrupt transitions between characters. This also suggests a longer compositional 'working-through', as Leyvand would have originally noted the cantorial theme, then developed it in various permutations before linking them into a cohesive work. This 'sonic violence' recreated on the violin seems to be an outpouring of expression and a desire to document the people and community 'interrupted' by violence in the same way that the theme is interrupted. The piece brings back a full version of the opening - for those musically inclined, the work is an ABA structure with an extended transition back to A where the 'musical gunshots' occur. To create a sense of closure and optimism for the audience, Leyvand brings back the same introductory theme from the very beginning, but closes the entire work on one of the most resonant chords for the instrument, creating a sense of triumph and resolve.

Finally, and most abstractly, Leyvand's work is a literal rearticulation of voiceless trauma. Of course, there was Soviet repression and anti-Semitism in the post-war period. But the primary focus of Leyvand's work is the specific destruction of the Holocaust. While post-war anti-Semitism has influenced the reception and promotion of this work, it is not the thematic focus of the piece. The Holocaust was not only a physical but also an epistemic and cultural extermination of the Jews of Europe. There are many examples of the use of music as a weapon, musical sadism, forced performance and then the silencing of voice, speech, prayer, music before murder, both in the camps and by the mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen).  Leyvand has not only written a Jewish or 'cantorial' melody, he has preserved it. His use of such a theme in a work for violin preserves, transforms and elevates a fragment of his Jewish life - a Jewish world in which the rabbi who sings this melody, the synagogue in which it resounds, and the congregation that hears it are all destroyed. Maria Cizmic has suggested that we can hear the difficulty in the music, going beyond "difficult music to hear means difficult themes are contained in it" and showing the relationship between the physicality of performance and the pain of new techniques to the pain of voicing difficult themes. However, a piece like Leyvand's counters this argument - yes, there are difficult things to hear and perform, but nothing painful, the work is highly idiomatic for the violin. Rather, the pain comes from the most beautiful and poignant statement in Leyvand's piece: the beautiful singing melody is broken, twisted, distorted and then violently interrupted - the musical pain we hear is a poetic representation of an impossible grief.

Leyvand used his most powerful voice to speak about the Holocaust: his skill as a violinist, which saved him from both genocide and war. He wrote a relatively private memorial, which he bequeathed to a museum, never imagining what was most transcendent - the fragment of Jewish culture in an overwhelmingly German canon of classical music. Leyvand wrote a concerto for violin that is significant both in the classical music world in which he found refuge and in the Yiddish culture of his youth. The reintroduction of his piece into the classical programme today is more than a memorial work; it is a fuller picture of the classical music that might have been, and that which was deliberately suppressed and destroyed.

Dr. Alexandra Birch, June 2024


Leyvand collection at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1999.A.0011