Leonard Bernstein is one of America’s most renowned and beloved composers. His name immediately brings to mind the music he composed for the theater, such as “West Side Story,” “On the Town,” “Candide,” “Wonderful Town.” His “Kaddish” is also famous. But how many people know Bernstein composed an abundance of sacred and secular Jewish music, including compositions such as “Simchu Na,” “Vayomer Elohim” and “Hashkiveinu”?
The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation, has been releasing recordings of music composed entirely or partially in America from the colonial period to our time. Distribution has begun in more than 57 countries, beginning with the United Kingdom, Germany and, now, France.
Lowell Milken founded the archive in 1990 as a means of combining his passion for Jewish music with his family’s commitment to education.
“We established the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music to preserve and make available to the world a vast body of outstanding music, much of which was undiscovered or in danger of being lost forever,” Milken said in a news release for the project.
The recordings feature works of well-known composers like Bernstein and Kurt Weill, including some Jewish-themed compositions that have not been published or recorded before. The series began publication in the United States more than a year ago, and started being released in France last month.
Nineteen titles have been published in Paris on the Naxos/Integral label, including works by Bernstein, Dave Brubeck, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Paul Schoenfield. Also available this month is an anthology of klezmer music, cantorial recordings and chants from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Neil Levin, artistic director of the Milken Archive and a professor of musicology at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, talked at a news conference in Paris this month about what “American Jewish music” means.
“There is no such thing as Jewish music. It’s just a term that sounds more convenient than what we actually mean, which is music of Jewish experience, of Jewish life,” he said.
Levin added that until now the project has focused on three types of music: sacred music composed for religious services; classical or “art” music; and music composed for the theater, particularly the American Yiddish theater that thrived in New York in the first half of the 20th century.
Many of the compositions in the series are being recorded for the first time, and much work went into the painstaking reconstruction of orchestrations.
In some cases, as with the songs from the American Yiddish theater, there were no original orchestrations because directors and composers couldn’t be bothered to write down complicated orchestrations for songs that were designed to be hits, not serious compositions.
“I was able to reconstruct the melodies because they were songs I knew,” Levin said. “They had been passed down orally.”
Levin said the project is important in order to create a “historical, documented record of the music of Jewish experience in America that has been recorded faithfully in terms of historical approaches.”
The CDs include liner notes featuring scholarly essays by Levin putting the music into historical context and detailing the reconstructive work needed to restore the pieces.
Herve Roten, a musicologist and professor at the University of Reims in France, said at the news conference that the project testifies to the diversity of Jewish music and Jewish culture
“We don’t speak of one type of Jewish music, but rather of many types of Jewish music,” he said. “Music is not Jewish, but can become Jewish.”
France, home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, offers “important archival possibilities,” he said.
Just as Jews always have interacted with the culture of the places they live, their music has been influenced by that surrounding culture, he said.
Israel Adler, a professor of musicology at Hebrew University, said at the news conference that the music being released by the archive was “on the point of being forgotten” in France.
This kind of work is practically nonexistent in the French music market today, Eric Russo of Integral Distribution told JTA.
“Who today would invest that much time, manpower, and money to promote practically or completely unknown works and composers?” he asked.
The Milken Archive next plans to turn its attention to secular folk music, Levin said. Perhaps in the near future we can expect to have Bob Dylan added to the pantheon of American Jewish musicians.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.