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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Ilya Heifetz's Violin Concerto: Revisiting the Issue of Jewish National Identity

Cheremnykh Galina Aleksandrovna

Postgraduate at the Department of the History of Music of Dmitri Hvorostovsky Siberian State Academy of Arts

660049, Russia, Krasnoyarskii krai, g. Krasnoyarsk, ul. Lenina, 22

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Abstract: This article explores the creative instrumental works of the modern Russian-Israeli composer Ilya Heifetz. His life and creative experience have two definite stages: one in Russia before 1991 and the other in Israel, each marked by the challenge of reconsidering his national roots in his personal life and artistic work. One of the examples of addressing this problem in Heifetz’s compositions of the Soviet period is his violin concerto. In this research, the author considers the composer’s combination of academic genre patterns with the intonational and structural peculiarities of Jewish folklore as an effort to comprehend his own national identity. Through the intonation and thematic analysis of the concerto, as well as the composer’s personal letters, it can be concluded that the piece contains a hidden message that addresses the history of the Jewish people and their national character, reflecting the unique peculiarities of Russian Jews as they attempt to understand their own national identity. As the main characteristic of this subethnic group is the Russian language and Russian culture perceived through it, the author of this article focuses on how the peculiarities of the Russian composing schools manifest themselves in this piece of music based on Jewish intonations and genres.  


Jewish folklore, Russian Jews, Jewish national identity, violin concerto, Ilya Kheifets, contemporary composer's work, klezmer, hidden programming, musical quotes, anti-Semitism

The history of the existence of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe is complex and ambiguous, including both positive moments and violent episodes. Art, including music, reflects both this past of the people and its influence on their present.

For centuries, Jews have lived relatively separately in the so-called shtettlach towns. However, tragic events of the twentieth century changed this situation: the Jewish people were dispersed throughout the country, which began to have an increasing impact on their national identity. Every person of Jewish (and even more so half-Jewish) origin at one time or another had to individually decide for themselves the question of their national identity.

The problem of the Russian Jewry's national identity has become the subject of many sociological studies [8, 12, 13] and was raised when studying the work of artists [3, 11] and writers [4]. In the twentieth century, dozens of composers of Jewish origin worked in Russia: Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Mikhail Gnesin, Aleksandr Lokshin, Isaak Dunayevsky, Alexander Tsfasman. This is only a small part of a much larger list. In some of their works, the Jewish national principle is manifested through intonations, genres, and aesthetics in general. In the work of others, it is almost unnoticeable. However, concerning Ilya Markovich Heifets's work, this issue has remained beyond the attention of scientists, which is why this research is so new. In this article, we will turn to Heifets's work, the Russian-Israeli composer, and try to identify the specifics of the manifestation of Jewish national identity in the Soviet period of his work [1] through the example of a violin concerto.

The composer was born in 1949 in Omsk. His family was quite musical. As the composer recalls, music was constantly playing in the house; his father played the piano and sang both classical and folk songs, including in Yiddish [10]. In Omsk, Heifets graduated from high school and the Shebalin Music School in the violin class. He then continued his studies at the Novosibirsk State Conservatory: he entered as a violinist, but he transferred to the composition department and Askold Murov's class in the second year. After completing his studies, Heifets returned to Omsk and taught music and theoretical disciplines at his native music school for 17 years and stood at the origins of the Omsk branch of the Union of Composers of Russia. Among his students were Sergey Kravtsov, Alexey Rosen, Marina Ignatova, Irina Chebotareva, Sergey Shichkin, and more. [6]. Since 1991, the composer has been living in the city of Jaffa in Israel.

During his studies at the conservatory, Heifets had already begun to be interested in the music of his ancestors, the Jews of Eastern Europe, which was reflected in one of his student works, 'Fantasies on Jewish Themes for Trombone.' In the future, direct quotations are not very common in the composer's work, but the Jewish beginning was quite noticeable, for example, in the intonation and rhythmic structure of the 'Sonata for Viola and Piano' (1979), as well as in the 'Triple Concerto for Violin, Viola and Clarinet' (1980). In 1985, the composer wrote a 'Trio Requiem in the memory of the 6,000,000,' addressing the Holocaust. In 1987, he created a suite of Jewish folk themes for organ.

Thus, we can distinguish two main ways the Jewish theme entered into the composer's work at this stage – through an appeal to folk song traditions and an understanding of historical events related to the fate of the Jewish people. Both of these components merged in the 'Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,' created in 1988.

The composition's premiere took place in Omsk, performed by Svetlana Hoffman, a soloist of the Philharmonic, and the Omsk Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nikolai Dyadyura. The Moscow premiere was held at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in 1990, where the violin part was performed by Anna Rabinova accompanied by the Nizhny Novgorod Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Skulsky.

While working on the violin concerto, the composer explains that he wanted to create a "Jewish work from beginning to end, not following the European canons that Russian composers followed" [from the composer's letter to the article's author 11.10.2020]. This is because Heifets refuses the traditional sonata form and turns to a free structure that includes two large sections with a small coda.

The central role in the concerto belongs to the Klezmer tradition [2], which is manifested in a number of signs:

the instrumental composition of the concerto is small and intended to create an extremely "soft" sound: in addition to strings and woodwinds, the composer uses a single composition of brass winds, a harp and refuses percussion instruments;

the leading role in the concerto belongs to the violin, which reigns supreme in the composition. Thanks to its mobility, the violin became a Jewish folk instrument as early as the eighteenth century, forming the basis of any Klezmer collective;

the fret color is distinguished by the predominance of minor color, which is very characteristic of Jewish music [1, p. 42].

But the main thing is the genre basis of the concert parts. In the first part, the composer refers to the tradition of a klezmer violinist playing at a wedding during the ceremony of "seating the bride." The second part is based on the genre of freilechs, a Jewish folk dance that was also danced at weddings.

However, with all the folklore character in this composition, the composer did not just set himself the task of recreating national color. The drama of the concerto allows us to speak about the presence of a hidden program in it. In our opinion, the work reflects on the history of the Jewish people, its national character, the constant search for God, and the self-perception of the Jewish personality in a complex, sometimes hostile world.

We find different figurative facets early on in the first part of the concerto. It is based on crying, which can be interpreted within a specific wedding situation (within the framework of "sitting down," there was a farewell to the bride with her friends. At this point, "the violinist usually sought to influence the listeners […] and by their playing, caused them to cry, especially if the bride was an orphan" [1, p. 37]), and in a broad sense, like the crying of the Jewish people in Galut (in exile), amid constant deprivation and persecution.

The next thematic element (tt. 27–49) is based on an ascending gamma-shaped movement. Since the Baroque era (the figure of anabasis), this type of movement symbolizes the aspiration to the highest, divine beginning.

Later (in vol. 58–67), another figurative, emotional sphere manifests itself, a lighter, painfully dreamy one, which can be compared with the hopes and thoughts of the Jewish people about a better life on earth and in heaven. The tension that prevailed at the beginning recedes briefly in this fragment. F major replaces the dominant minor color in the concerto.

In the second part, the dance principle dominates the concerto, but in each of the three sections, freilechs appear in a different guise: either as a playful dance or fun, then as an unstoppable dance, a whirlwind, and then a dance through tears. And at certain moments, the dance beginning fades completely into the background, giving way to a dramatic utterance or spiritual chant.

The music in the first section is closest to the everyday situation in which freilechs – wedding fun – were performed. The listener is presented with an elegant scherzo dance with an ornate melody, an abundance of singing, a whimsical change of strokes, and a modest accompaniment of woodwinds. However, the replicas of stringed instruments, performed by the ricochet technique, begin to invade the dance. Similar in sound to a tremolo, it has the same expressive meaning, in this case, creating an alarming atmosphere, as if warning about a certain threat. The "dispute" of these two elements transforms the graceful freilechs into a tense dance, a whirlwind in which almost all the orchestral instruments were "involved." This section brings to mind critical moments of Jewish history, numerous conflicts with the local population when peaceful coexistence suddenly ended in pogroms and beatings. However, all these conflicts were regional and short-term in nature.

The second section is already associated with a planned formidable offensive. This effect is created by the progressive movement along the chromatic scale of cellos and double basses combined with rhythmic ostinato [3]. The instrumental composition is also noteworthy in the second section, which includes only low strings, bass clarinet with bassoon and brass winds in addition to the solo violin. Such a combination of timbres creates a gloomy color, a feeling of a pre-storm atmosphere, as if all life, which was "bubbling" in the previous section, has quieted down in the face of a new threat. That's why the soloist's part sounds even more lonely, resembling both a moan and the sounds of an alarm siren. It's like the hero is left alone to face an impending catastrophe. And the hero in this concerto, we recall, is both an individual and a whole nation.

The increase in tension within this section leads to a cadence, an emotional reaction someone has to the events taking place. It is filled with a state of despair, violent protest and is the dramatic culmination of the concerto.

In the second part of the third section (vol. 239), the atmosphere of the dance returns, but by nature, it is far removed from what it was at the beginning. It can be compared to a self-forgetful dance through tears, despite all the tragedies and hardships. This effect is achieved by a contrasting combination of a tense, even somewhat overwrought theme and a background that has the character of a continuous stream, in which "swirling passages of woodwinds, and the staccato sounds of the double bass, bassoon, and harp. The tremolo of high strings playing sul ponticello is mixed, which gives a surreal and phantasmagoric shade to the dance vortex."

But the culmination of the whole work is the appearance of a quote, "table tune," from the Moisei Beregovsky's collection, which belongs to the genre of tish nigun, "spiritual tune," performed during the Sabbath meal. The presentation of this chant resembles the temple tradition of responsory singing, which is characteristic not only of Catholicism but also of ancient synagogue singing. This is evidenced, first of all, by the dialogical type of texture, based on the alternation of the soloist's phrases and the unison of the entire orchestra.

The aspiration of the development to conduct the tish nigun quotation marks an exit into another important figurative sphere of the concerto, a spiritual one, which will become especially relevant for the composer later, after moving to Israel, and is realized in the form of an appeal to the themes and images of the Holy Scripture. During the Soviet period, this area of Heifets's creativity was still only being outlined, and the "Drinking Chant," with all its spiritual content, primarily represents Jewish folk art in this composition.

The use of folk melodies is quite understandable since, in Soviet times, quoting folklore was welcomed. Moreover, we recall that Heifets's creative formation occurred in the era of composers' interest in folklore in the sixties, so it is not surprising that this area retained its importance in Heifets's work for many years.

Not limiting himself to the folklore approach, the composer begins to already introduce new perspectives related to the history of the Jewish people into the composition in the second part of the concerto. According to the researchers, historical memory is one of the main components of preserving Jewish identity in Russia. And first of all, it is the memory of anti-Semitism.

In the Soviet Union, the perception of anti-Semitism occurred in a peculiar way. Researcher T. V. Frolova, referring to the works of N. V. Yukhneva [9], notes that anti-Semitism existed in the USSR throughout all time. She emphasizes that the perception of anti-Semitism was influenced by the distortion of Russian self-consciousness, formed under the influence of the state's policy, which was looking for an enemy, and the opposition of Christianity as a religion of good and universal equality before God and Judaism as a religion of retribution and evil.

E. Stein [12] found that, in reality, most Russian Jews rarely encounter an open manifestation of anti-Semitism, but it is of great importance for maintaining Jewish identity.

This aspect is really extremely important in Heifets's work. It is not by chance that the composer turns to the theme of the Second World War, the Holocaust ('Trio Requiem'), the early Jewish pogroms ('Violin Concerto').

However, this topic has its own specifics. The theme of the oppression of Jewry always takes a wider turn. It has a universal humanistic message behind it, which feels in continuity with the traditions of the Russian school of composition. It is impossible not to recall the work of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Jewish theme was connected with humanism. For Shostakovich, it became a kind of symbol of protest in opposition to the absolute evil that destroys everything human. "This is not a purely musical question, but also a moral one. I often check people by their attitude to Jews" [7, p. 205]. "For me, the Jews have become a symbol. All human defenselessness is concentrated in them" [7, p. 206]. Such statements by the composer are quoted by Solomon Volkov in his book about Shostakovich.

That is, Heifets's work reveals a close connection with both Jewish and Russian culture. Jewish themes are organically included in his work. They are comprehended "from the inside," but at the same time, in musical works, these themes are refracted through the prism of the traditions of the Russian symphony school, organically perceived by the composer through his teacher Askold Murov and Dmitri Shostakovich.

It is interesting that after moving to Israel, the composer repeatedly came to Russia for his works' premieres. And when asked about his nationality in art, he answered that he was a "Russian composer living in Israel" [2], and in his life abroad, he appreciates that he is there, as it were, "above the east and west, neither here nor there"[2].

We have no information about how the composer would have answered this question during his life in the USSR, but I think it was a period of growing interest in Jewish art and a desire to know and feel a closer connection with his national roots. It is no accident that in the violin concerto, in our opinion, all other emotions are blocked by the strongest longing for the Promised Land, the desire for it with all thoughts, and, in general, dreams of a better life in the earthly and heavenly world. Every note in the concerto is shrouded in the halo of a beautiful but thus far unattainable dream. This is the reason for a very noticeable aching note in the composition. This concerto makes it clear that the composer's move to Israel three years later was not just an opportunity but a deep inner need that had formed earlier.

It is interesting that after moving to Israel, the composer again feels like a "stranger." It is not by chance that the question of national identity in the Israeli period of the composer's work arises with a new urgency, which may be the subject of separate consideration.

Thus, Heifets's 'Concerto for Violin and Orchestra' is, in our opinion, an example of the fusion of two national and cultural traditions and reflects the Russian-Jewish composer's need to feel his national identity. Russian Russian-speaking Jews represent a fully formed cultural and linguistic group or sub-ethnic community, the distinctive features of which are the Russian language and the Russian culture specifically assimilated through it, as well as the predominance of not the ethnoreligious concept of Jewry, as in most Western countries, but only ethnic, which is reflected in Heifets's works during the Soviet period.

Russian Jews' artistic and literary creativity is often considered today as a separate cultural phenomenon that deserves to be studied both in the context of the culture of the Jewish people and in the context of Russian culture. In our opinion, the same approach is possible concerning the works of Ilya Heifets.

[1] Ilya Heifets's life and creative path are divided into two stages: Soviet (1949–1991) and Israeli (since 1991).

[2] Klezmer are Jewish folk musicians who play most often in wandering ensembles ("capellas") of three to five performers at weddings, balls, festivities, fairs [5].

[3] Heifets later resorts to the ostinato technique, so masterfully applied by Dmitri Shostakovich in his 'Seventh Symphony,' which is repeated in his works with similar semantic content (Symphonies No. 1, No. 4).

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