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Preservation Squall

The Milken Archive is trying to capture American Jewish music, but the first CDs raise doubts as to whether it can properly be called archival

Paul Mitchinson
January 27, 2004

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1922 song “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha” tells the story of four Russian-born violinists who make names for themselves in America. They become famed virtuosos on the stage of Carnegie Hall, yet never forget their roots:

We’re not high-brows, we’re not low-brows,
Anyone can see
You don’t have to use a chart
To see we’re He-brows from the start.

The Gershwins’ song remained unpublished for a decade after its composition. Today, it is rarely performed and all but forgotten.

“Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha” is unlikely to resurface on any of the 60 CDs that Naxos is set to release by spring 2005 as part of the budget label’s landmark recording deal with the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. While a final list has yet to be released, the vast majority of the 600 featured works will be world premiere recordings—of symphonies, concertos and art songs (the usual Naxos fare) as well as Yiddish theatre music, cantorial singing, and liturgical music going all the way back to the Colonial era.

Still, the Gershwins’ ditty crystallizes many of the challenges of the project—established in 1990 by philanthropist and investor Lowell Milken—which has thus far spent $17 million in an ambitious attempt to catalogue and record the “rich and diverse repertoire of music specifically related to the American Jewish experience.” There’s an awful lot of music “related to the American Jewish experience” out there. And notwithstanding the first offerings from Milken and Naxos, which began appearing in the fall, there are good reasons why much of it is obscure.

So far, the project has attracted little but praise for its efforts—at least publicly. The New York Times‘ Allan Kozinn lavished 2,500 words on a Milken-sponsored conference in November. In The Jewish Week, George Robinson claimed that the project had “taken a giant step towards reshaping the canon, not only of Jewish music but of American music.” But behind the scenes (and largely off the record), there’s been plenty of grumbling, especially by those who have cooperated with the Milken Archive or participated in its conferences. Some believe that certain branches of Jewish culture—particularly the Sephardic and Reform traditions—have been shortchanged by the archive’s organizers. For scholars, the project’s consumer appeal and vigorous cheerleading have undermined the careful scholarship necessary for a serious “archival” undertaking. Preserving the rich musical heritage of American Jewry, it’s clear, requires making difficult—and inevitably unpopular—choices about what’s worth preserving and how.

The man ultimately responsible for making these difficult choices is artistic director Neil W. Levin, a professor of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Before the establishment of the Milken Archive, Levin explains, “there was a lot of old music nobody had ever heard about before. Whole genres that were just not thought about: symphonies, piano concertos, and operas relating to Jewish experience directly. There are thousands of Yiddish lieder—art songs—that only a handful of people even knew about.”

Throughout history, much of the music created by American Jews existed ephemerally in the synagogue or on the stage. Take the case of Henry Jacobs, a choir director and prolific composer of synagogue music for Temple Sinai, in New Orleans. After Jacobs’ death in 1964, stacks of his musical manuscripts, none of them published, remained at the temple. “It was sitting in a room in the temple where the roof was leaking, and it was getting damaged,” says John Baron, a professor of music at Tulane University and co-author of the forthcoming Music in Jewish History and Culture. By the time Baron, who helped Milken arrange some local recordings, tried to move Jacobs’ music to a secure place, custodians had already thrown out all but a dozen pieces saved by the congregation’s organist.

Liturgical music is usually transmitted orally, so it can’t be discarded, but it is threatened by the passage of time, which can transform its character and substance. Contemporary melodies might be incorporated into some liturgies, only to be abandoned decades later for tunes of more recent vintage. This is partly why the archive has sponsored audio and video recordings of prayer services and concerts from New Orleans to Seattle to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, effectively taking snapshots of a musical form in perpetual flux.

Most of Milken’s resources, however, have been devoted to its partnership with Naxos, which represents, Levin says, the “core of the archive.” The early releases, as might be expected, have been heavily weighted towards highbrow classical music. “What we have recorded is overwhelmingly European-influenced art music, which takes as its basis many ancient Judaic themes,” says artist and repertoire advisor Paul Schwendener. “The Americas benefited disproportionately from the German late classical modernist tradition, because so many were forced over in the 1930s and 1940s.”

Some of these recordings have been illuminating and moving. Darius Milhaud’s Service Sacré is an expansive setting of the Sabbath morning service with additional prayers for Friday evening. Others, such as a promising disk of music by Joseph Achron (1886-1943), the Vilnius-born composer who aimed to create a Jewish national art music, seem rather forgettable. Concert-goers have had their ears assaulted for centuries by musical depictions of a sumptuous banquet hosted by Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon depicted in the Book of Daniel. Do we really need yet another ear-splitting, bombastic setting of Belshazzar’s feast? A previously unrecorded epic work by Kurt Weill, The Eternal Road, is tantalizing but incomplete, since only excerpts have been recorded. Taken together, this first wave seems more like a collection of curiosities than essential musical expressions.

The CDs of prayers from the Colonial period and Yiddish theater masterpieces are another story, but these recordings are as problematic as they are remarkable. Take the Yiddish songs: production scores from the early 20th century, if written down at all, have been lost, so the project was faced with the challenge of reimagining a lost sound. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, performers from the Lower East Side made thousands of studio recordings, but Levin is mostly dismissive of their efforts. “There were no recordings with a full theater pit orchestra,” he explains. The recordings that exist “use maybe three to five instruments, one of which would be a tuba, which would never have appeared in a pit orchestra.” Patrick Russ, who was responsible for the archive’s Yiddish theater orchestrations, has gone even further, declaring that there were “no surviving examples of Yiddish theater music except as it evolved into Fiddler on the Roof.”

Not surprisingly, the Milken recording sounds nothing like an old 78. The vocals are exciting and virtuosic, the melodies irresistible—and yet they are backed up by an orchestra that sounds more at home in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinssaal than on Second Avenue. In fact, on the Milken recording, it is the Vienna Chamber Orchestra that performs this most idiomatic expression of America’s musical vernacular.

Thus the Yiddish theater project has left some musicologists unsatisfied. Lorin Sklamberg, a sound archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and lead vocalist for the Klezmatics, provided the Milken project with some historic recordings for research and is disappointed with the results. “The orchestra isn’t visceral enough,” he says. “If you’re trying to evoke a certain style of playing, then go to the trouble of doing it. If you’re going to go to the trouble to record these songs, then take a little more time, ask people who would actually know the difference, and see how it affects them. These songs are done a disservice by the setting they’re put in.”

“I am sure that these songs never ever sounded like they sound in the archive now,” says Edwin Seroussi, a Milken board member and the director of the Jewish Music Research Center at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “They were performed in the past by musicians that were probably out of tune, who didn’t know how to read music, who improvised, so of course the impression was different. But it would be silly to record the songs in a poor manner just to say that this is an authentic historical reconstruction.”

The question of authenticity has always bedeviled period performances. Back in the 1980s, at the dawn of the early music revival, Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin provoked a storm of controversy by suggesting that “historically correct” performances were far better understood as expressions of modern taste. Whatever one thinks of his argument, it should be clear that the Milken effort to preserve American Jewish musical culture comes bundled with some unspoken assumptions. From its concentration on classical music to its glistening reconstruction of Yiddish theater works, the archive has a tendency to apologize for the earthy character of American Jewish creativity, to smooth it over and make it more palatable for Lincoln Center audiences.

Perhaps it would be better to stop thinking about the project as an archive at all. Most archives strive to preserve and maintain historical artifacts and documents, many of which are crumbling or incomplete. The Milken Archive, on the other hand, has a much broader aim—to reconstruct the past, to airbrush its imperfections, and to publicize its efforts. And it is guided by a philosophy that seems to come straight out of Gershwin’s “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha,” whose four highbrow violinists “may play low-brow in his privacy,” but take to the concert stage armed only with the works of Europe’s greatest classical composers. In short, it is an original creative project in its own right, inspired by the long and accomplished history of Jewish American composers of art music. By next year, when dozens more CDs will have been released, listeners and archivists will have a better idea of its historical significance.

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