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Dynamics of the jewish themes approach in Romanian musical creations


Carmen Stoianov


The history of Romanian music owes a lot to the Jewish musicians [1] who assumed, as a duty of honor, the principles of cultural emancipation and promotion of romantic aesthetics proposed by the 1848 generation, and who took direct part in the establishment of our institutions of musical culture, and in the first attempts to set up a repertoire policy in the most fashionable genre: the lyrical-theatrical.

What is special and probably unexpected here is the fact that the Jewish themes were approached not particularly by the Jewish composers but rather by their Romanian fellows.

The pre-requisites of the inter-ethnic cultural dialogue, in which the Jewish themes played a more and more defined role, were established in mid-19th century Romania. As strange as it may seem, they were indirectly influenced by Vasile Alecsandri, whose ”Little Songs” were turned into couplets loved by the audience of the time by a composer whose creation and name were almost confounded with those of the Moldavian poet and playwright.

I am referring to Alexander Flechtenmacher, the man who gave musical life to Alecsandri’s gallery of portrait-figures: Herşcu Boccegiul (Hershcu the Bundler) was musically devised in the same year 1843 as, for instance, Mother Angheluta or Ion the Puppeteer. With this, I wish to underline that the identity of the means available for the creation of a musical portrait and the lack of caricature or humorous and ridiculous accents in the text indicate a balanced attitude on the side of the composer. In fact, this will be the general tone of the approach of Jewish themes in Romanian compositions.

The approach of such themes had an ascending dynamics, from isolated small sized acts, with a musical treatment quite distanced from the text’s significance, to extensive works, with intense ideal background rendered by specific musical means.

From the first compositions of literary inspiration, in which music was meant to be the pendant of a young literature and an expanding national feeling, to those in which the maximum inner feeling, the inner dialogue and the extrapolation of the significant became the logic of the discourse, time could already be measured in qualitative accumulations.

The question, then, is to what extent did the composers envisage over-passing the idea of music adjusted to the text, or not even illustrating it, and to what extent would they turn towards Jewish themes or specific intonations, thus turning to account a cultural thesaurus widely circulated in the regions with a dense Jewish population, such as, for instance, Moldavia, with its representative musical center, Iasi, during the previous century.

The mid-19th century imposed in European consciousness, under the influence of the Haskala movement, Jewish themes in many fields, and music made no exception. Romanian composers, educated in, and inspired by, the City of Lights, Paris, had the opportunity to meet with such works as Jules Massenet’s Herodiade, Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila, or Cesar Franck’s biblical eglogue Ruth and oratory La Tour Babel. At the about same time, Verdi’s Nabucco would become the banner of romantic aesthetics.

And since at that time everyone was choosing examples mainly from biblical themes, as we’ve seen in the previous paragraph, Romanian composers followed the same pattern: George Stephanescu, whose name is linked to the establishment of the singing school by the Bucharest Conservatory as well as to the first stages of Romanian Opera, composed cantata Samson and Delilah and published it – significant coincidence! – in the same year as Saint-Saens. Practically, he was the one who paved the way for the use of Jewish biblical themes in Romanian music. On the other hand, the tradition launched, but not turned to account for more than a quarter of a century, by Flechtenmacher, which, however, was still in circulation being used by the troupes of the time, opened a different line: that of intonations not adjusted to the theme. In other words, there was a counterpoint of states, a parallelism between the text and the music rendering it. The main interest was in the idea, in the word, and not in their vibration. It was still too early… Strikingly, while Flechtenmacher’s compositions circulated, Stephanescu’s works remained only written compositions!

The use of biblical themes continued at large time intervals: Titus Cerne signed, in 1890, cantata Esther, which was first played in Iasi a year later. The last decade of the 19th century abounded in such works of biblical inspiration.

Two of these works focused on Jewish themes were composed by George Enescu in 1895: cantata (initially ”lyrical scene”) La Vision de Saul, with lyrics by Eugene Adenis, and legend Ahasverus, ample score in three acts and a prologue – lyrics by Auge de Lassus – both for soloists, choir and orchestra. Unfinished, a series of sketches for oratory La fille de Jephte (lyrics by an unknown author) waited in vain for the final bar.

Particular about these scores of youth of Enescu remains their romantic touch and their visible Oriental air. An interesting thing worth mentioning here is the fact that on a page of the sketches for the oratory Ahasverus there is a motto extracted from the libretto: ”Tu marcheras toi-meme. Encore plus de mille ans” and the note ”Institut de France. Academie des Beaux Arts. Concours Rossini. Paris”, which may indicate that the score could have been used by Enescu to participate in a composition contest. Unfortunately, the information available on this subject is contradictory.

The same type of themes provided Dimitrie Cuclin, in 1928, with the subject for David and Goliath, monumental oratory for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra, plus organ. The lyrics were written by the composer, also a passionate literate, in both Romanian and English.

A step further, from the biblical area to that of Jewish mysticism, was taken by Nicolae Bretan in 1924, when he composed Revolta omului din lut Golem (Revolt of the clay man, Golem), musical drama in one act on the composer’s own lyrics adapted from Ilie Kaczer’s drama. It was played for the first time in Cluj, in the same year. The new musical feeling, penetrated by inflections specific to Judaic music, would be reconfirmed in another work of the composer: Stranie noapte de Seder (Strange Seder night), ”mystery in one act”, dated 1941, which was focused on the Hagada.

Jewish composers seem to have been more reticent, or anyway more discrete, in the musical reflection of their own spirituality: their works belonged rather to the religious area or to a repertoire designed for the exclusive use of their own community, and they turned to account particularly the Sephardi intonations. This was the case of Mauriciu Cohen-Lanariu, remarkable representative of Romanian composition at a time when it was just emerging, composer, among other things, of the first Romanian works designed for the lyrical theatre. He was also the author of the two volumes of Sephardi Songs, composed in the first two decades of the 20th century and published by his own printing house.

Another Sephardi Jew, Ivela, conductor and organist of the Sephardi Temple in Bucharest for three decades, and at the same time active teacher of music and musicologist with a vivid publishing activity, despite his blindness, he composed two festive cantatas for soloists, mixed choir and strings on liturgical lyrics (both recorded in Perfection Concert Record by remarkable names – George Folescu and Alberto della Pergola), a psalm –150 Hallelujah for choir and orchestra, and a collection of no less than 30 notebooks of religious songs for the Sephardi Temple. The traditional songs, adapted or original, were reunited under the significant title Iuval, as an allusion to the biblical character, patron of musicians.

The same Sephardi sensitiveness, with its evident, subtly filtered, Oriental air, was also expressed in Musique pour Radio (1930), overture for small orchestra by Filip Lazar, top representative of the European musical neo-classicism, claimed by both the Romanian and the French musical culture. He was also responsible, indirectly, due to the amicable charge of his friend Mihail Jora, for another work impregnated with Jewish musical themes: a piano work, significant for the excellent manner in which the Judaic intonations were turned to account, which was orchestrated later: Cortegiu (Cortege), subtitle Marche Juive, which was included in many of the concerts sustained by Filip Lazar as an interpreter.

The area of cameral music was strengthened in 1956 with the apparition of Max Eisikovits’ Old Ardeal Dances for violin and orchestra, significantly subtitled Negunot. Here, too, the old inheritance of instrumental music characteristic to the Jewish spirituality was extremely present, and the allusion to the music of the klezmers more than transparent. Unfortunately, this trend was much too little explored by Romanian composers. On the contrary, many Romanian melodies owed their circulation to the klezmer troupes. This has brought worldwide fame to Romanian music, precisely due to the fact that in it converged two types of interpretative culture, among which the Jewish element played the role of ”first violin”. But this issue deserves a separate analysis…

Several other titles highlight preoccupations for Jewish themes, particularly in the color and atmosphere: Florin Comisel composed Spinoza – scenes from the life of a thinker, lyrics by Paul Sterian, in 1966, and the musical in two acts Take, Ianke and Cadir, inspired by Victor Ion Popa’s famous play, in 1975. More than two decades later, Laurentiu Profeta’s musical Cadir’s Grandchildren, lyrics by Eugen Rotaru, would continue the story…

The symphonic area showed, in its turn, a more or less obvious attraction for Jewish themes. Though not many, such works deserve attention because they provide a reference point: amongst them, Anatol Vieru’s Symphony no.2 (1973), whose second part, a Psalm, can be played autonomously.

In the author’s outlook, the Psalm could be regarded as a palimpsest by superposing the various planes on basis of a choral of strings. According to its very composer, built up as a monody of periodicities, the Psalm gives the sensation of imponderability, of free fall. One can identify here the trend that would lead to the Psalm of 1993 and also to the Hymn of the String Quarter no.5, dated 1981-1982, scores in which Anatol Vieru experimented, once again, the idea of the dilatation of time.

To quote his own words, in the Psalm the composer evokes ”the unity of contraries as well as the coupling of the present with tradition, evidently in a strictly musical sense. The expression remains one of the ecstatic, of the dilatation of the time flow, of the aspiration for the absolute”. And, remaining in the same area, we must also recall that Anatol Vieru was the author, among other things, of Iona, opera based on Marin Sorescu’s homonym play, which was, in fact, another biblical parable!

The vibration transmitted by the master did not remain without an echo in the works of some of his disciples. Vladimir Stolnic, currently living in Israel, is the author of a profound ”dive” in Jewish spirituality, And the Earth Trembled, which renders the tension of the moments following the death of Itzhak Rabin. In works like HaOr, Poem to the Light, or Heteropsalmia, Petru Stoianov rounds the expression of the psalm style by fathoming the musical culture strata of Middle Eastern spirituality and the outcome of its filtration through European re-readings.

The dramatic area is also covered, by vibrant works such as Maya Badian’s Holocaust symphony, and Ludovic Feldman’s Oda Funebra (Funeral Ode) (1954) and In Memoriam (1966), inspired by Anna Franck’s diary. Another work by Ludovic Feldman re-discusses the grounds of the Ashkenazi and Babylonian musical tradition’s vitality: Sonata concertanta pentru violoncel si orchestra camerala, (Concert sonata for cello and cameral orchestra), which is Oriental in orchestration and European in form.

Consequently, the area of Romanian musical creation captures and maintains the expression of a particular dynamics of the approach of Jewish themes, either direct and manifested, or discrete, in veiled forms. But Jewish spirituality has always been present in works, which have circulated and imposed a certain point of view.


English version by Felicia Waldman



Carmen Stoianov holds a B.A. in musicology from the National Music Academy of Bucharest, an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the University of Bucharest and a Ph.D. in musicology from the National Music University of Bucharest. She is currently Dean of the Faculty of Music of the Spiru Haret University of Bucharest and she is teaching Jewish Arts within the M.A. program in Jewish Studies organized by the University of Bucharest.


[1] As a particular note we should recall here that ”Hatikva”, which would later become the anthem of the State of Israel, was composed by Naphtali Hertz Imbar in Iasi in 1878. The fact that this song was created in Romania shows very special cultural links between the two nations.

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