Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics
By Kevin C. KarnesOT11 cover

From an essay of 1933 published in the Riga magazine Music Review (Muzikas Apskats), the world first learned of a remarkable collection of Jewish folk music, compiled more than three decades earlier in the northwestern reaches of the Russian Empire. The author of the essay was Emilis Melngailis, the compiler of the collection, which he described in his sixtieth year only to lament its loss. As Melngailis recounted, he had spent the summer of 1899 teaching German in the Kovno town of Keidan, where he befriended a Jewish youth named Cemachs Piks and transcribed, with his help, the melodies and texts of some 120 songs performed in Hebrew and Yiddish. Adorning his transcriptions with photographs, he explained, he donated the collection to the Imperial Geographical Society in St. Petersburg when he returned to that city in the fall. Looking back in 1933, he recalled learning of the collection’s disappearance from the society’s archives amidst the chaos of the October Revolution. “Perhaps,” he speculated, “it departed with some emigrant or other.”

No one knows what happened to the collection Melngailis described. A catalog of the Geographical Society’s holdings in 1914–16 makes no reference to it. But after he wrote of it in 1933, its story became part of popular lore about the life and work of this celebrated Latvian ethnographer, who published thirteen volumes of Latvian vernacular music between 1902 and 1953. In a laudatory volume from the Stalin years, in an autobiographical memoir of 1953, and in Melngailis’s only postwar biography (1959), his encounter with Jewish singers in the summer of 1899 was described as a pivotal and defining moment in his life. His lost collection was said to memorialize his first experience of vernacular music making in Baltic Russia, and to exemplify ways of listening that would occupy him as a scholar until his death in 1954. Still, his collection was never found. Its contents remained all but unknown.

A major turn in this story occurred in the second decade of Latvia’s post-Soviet independence, when the composer Pauls Dambis found manuscript transcriptions, in Melngailis’s hand, of some sixty Jewish folk songs in a pair of blue-covered notebooks preserved in the Archives of Latvian Folklore in Riga. Professor Dambis sent copies of the notebooks to the musicologist Joachim Braun of Bar-Ilan University, and Professor Braun—a longtime friend and collaborator of mine—shared them with me, suggesting that we undertake a study. To these newly discovered transcriptions Melngailis appended notes indicating that some of the material originated in Keidan in 1899. But others he dated as late as 1928, and the locales he named alongside them ranged from northern Lithuania to Riga and Latvia’s northeastern Latgale region. What Professor Dambis discovered, we realized, was not just a remnant of Melngailis’s lost collection of 1899, but also a testimony to a lifetime of engagement with Jewish musics and musicians. These blue-covered notebooks were composite volumes, into which Melngailis copied parts of his early collection and also added new transcriptions made in the course of subsequent decades.

Over the next few years of intensive work in the Archives of Latvian Folklore and in Riga’s Museum of Literature and Music, I found further evidence of Melngailis’s enduring interest in Jewish folklore: transcriptions of additional Yiddish and Hebrew songs, songs in which Latvian singers commented on local Jewish communities and individuals, Melngailis’s orchestral arrangement of a Jewish dance he inscribed in the field, and even the photograph and address of a singer of a Yiddish melody. More than this, I came to understand his lifelong ethnographic project as something more complex than what it is typically understood to be: a national (or nationalist) endeavor to map Latvian songs onto Latvian political geographies. Rather, struck by the variety of materials preserved in the unpublished reaches of Melngailis’s estate—where Yiddish lullabies abut Latvian wedding songs, where Latvian dances stand intermixed with songs in Romani, Russian, Liv, Latgalian, German, and unidentified tongues—I came to understand Menlgailis’s manuscript notebooks as inscribing traces of historical landscapes filled with the sounds of diversity. As he traveled the countryside of the Republic of Latvia in the 1920s and 30s, Melngailis transcribed and described nearly everything he heard, before he later sorted the “Latvian” from the rest for the purpose of publication. While his published volumes inscribe an imaginary and exclusively Latvian space, one that resonates with the simpler cultural landscape left in the wake of the Holocaust and postwar Stalinism, his unpublished field notes and other manuscript materials describe landscapes of cultural diversity, of soundscapes shaped by everyday encounters and exchanges among the region’s many peoples.

The inscriptions of Jewish music in Melngailis’s estate, published for the first time in Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics, enable us to study and sound anew songs and dances performed by members of the region’s historical Jewish communities. The variety of these materials attests to the vitality and diversity of Jewish lives and musics in pre-Revolutionary imperial spaces that largely lay outside the Russian Pale of Settlement, and also in the Republic of Latvia into which those spaces were folded after 1918. The volume includes devotional songs, Zionist anthems, youth group marches, Hasidic dances, and popular tunes composed in a decidedly Germanic vein. Some of these songs are among the most widely performed in Jewish communities throughout eastern and central Europe, testifying to a common culture of Ashkenazic singing that tied Baltic spaces to such fabled centers of Jewish culture as Vilna and Warsaw, Minsk and Odessa. Other songs in Melngailis’s notebooks do not appear in any other published collections of Jewish music from the period—a fact that counters impressions of a common culture with reminders of the distinctiveness of local Jewish communities, customs, and musics.

It is an ironic fact that our most extensive collection of Jewish vernacular music from this time and place was compiled by a figure who did not identify with Jewish individuals or communities in any way, and who even sought to garner support for his collecting projects from the occupying Nazi forces in 1941–44. And yet, the songs transcribed in his collection are sounding once again. Performed by the singer Sasha Lurje of the Berlin- and Riga-based Yiddish psychedelic rock band Forshpil, they form part of a new, multimedia exhibition of Jewish folklore at the Jewish museum in Riga. They were also showcased in Forshpil’s recent residency at the University of Virginia.



Karnes headshotKevin C. Karnes is a historical musicologist who studies sounding expressions of identity, difference, and belonging in central and eastern Europe from the nineteenth century through the present. His recent work includes Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics (A-R Editions, 2014), and a new book, Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa,which will be published by Oxford University Press next year. He is currently the Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Emory University.