A Pioneer of Jewish Music

By Rebecca Borison

Born in Odessa in 1879, Jacob Weinberg was a talented and prolific Jewish composer, who sought to preserve and promote his Jewish heritage through his music. He is survived today by three granddaughters, and one of those granddaughters, Ellen Mausner, is working to revive and foster her grandfather’s legacy. As apart of that effort, Mausner is producing an hour-long concert version of Weinberg’s opera, The Pioneers, on Monday, August 20, in Manhattan. Moment was able to talk to Mausner to learn a bit more about her grandfather and the relationship between music and Judaism.

Can you tell me a bit of background about your grandfather?
He was a trained concert pianist and composer. He composed many works that have been published. In 1924, he wrote an opera called The Pioneers, or Chalutzim in Hebrew, that won an international composition contest. With the prize money of $1,500 he was able to bring his wife and son to New York City from Israel. He then joined the music faculty of Hunter College for many years.

How did he become interested in music?
I know he took piano lessons sort of as a cultural enrichment sort of thing, but he really loved it. And that became his life instead of following in the law practice his family had. I know he had an uncle, Peter Weinberg, who was a translator and a well-respected scholar. If you go on YouTube, there’s a clip of a young woman in Paris who was playing the clarinet in a recital and doing one of my grandfather’s pieces. I emailed her, and she was so excited that his relatives were still alive.

Were any of his pieces performed during his life?
He got several productions of The Pioneers concert version. It was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1946 and 1949 and at City Center in the 1930s when it was called the Mecca Temple. It was also performed in Jerusalem and in Berlin in the 1930s by a group called Kulturbund. The cast of the full production is actually a large cast, so it was more economical to just do the highlights. But The Pioneers have not a revival since 1949.

Why did you decide to put on a performance of the opera?
My father passed away a few years ago, and I’ve been looking more and more into his father’s work almost as a way of getting closer to my father and preserving his legacy. I feel closer to my own past. I’ve also been doing some genealogy research online. It’s only in the last few months that I even found out where my grandfather was buried because my parents never mentioned it. But I went to visit it at Westchester Hill Cemetery.

How did you go about putting together the performance?
I got a score of The Pioneers. We had auditions, and I hired four opera singers and a musical conductor, Cynthia Hiltz. We’re doing a concert version—no set, no props, just highlights. I’ll be the narrator.

Can you tell me about the opera itself?
The music is very beautiful. There are some comic numbers, love duets. It’s basically a tribute to Palestine. When people first left Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms they went to Palestine and lived on kibbutzes. That was the beginning of the State of Israel. The opera is 223 pages long. And this is just one of his many works. He was a brilliant man. He wrote a lot of fugues and rounds, and the way they blend is just beautiful. He also wrote the words, which are all in English. There’s a love story in the opera, sort of a Romeo and Juliet plot.

How have you been trying to publicize your grandfather’s work?
I’m hoping to get enough interest in this, so people will want to do a full production of it. I sent copies of the scores to the Israeli opera company. I’ve been in touch with the Milken Archives, which records classical Jewish music and honors composers of Jewish heritage. They’ve already recorded two CDs of Jacob’s music. I spoke with the director to see if he would do a recording of this opera. This music needs to be heard. It’s very enjoyable and catchy. We want to revive and promote this work so that Jacob Weinberg’s name lives on. The world can always use beautiful music. He has written so many wonderful things in addition to this opera. A lot of his clarinet songs are popular around the world. There’s so much that still hasn’t been recorded. It’s been published, but not recorded. They didn’t have the technology we have back then.

Did you receive your grandfather’s musical genes?
I do love music, and I’ve taken singing lessons, but I’m not an accomplished pianist. My father used to give me lessons, so I can play a little. I do acting and standup, and I played a psychiatrist on the Sopranos. My stage name is Ellen Orchid and you can see clips of some acting I’ve done on ellenorchid.com. I’ve written some plays. One of my plays is a solo piece called Rest in Pieces.  It’s a stand-up tragedy about the story of my father’s death told as a dark comedy. I use my grandfather’s music in it.

Why do you think music is important to Judaism?
Jewish music, the music that is part of the services, Passover, Sabbath, etc., all of the songs and traditions and the cantorial music is unique and beautiful and has unique musical features. Jacob used the traditional folk tunes and melodies of services, and even Hatikva, the Jewish national anthem, is included in The Pioneers. He wanted to preserve the uniquely Jewish music so that the music would be preserved and appreciated. What was unique to Jewish music is exactly what he wanted to promote by writing original music that included these folk tunes. He also wrote three different compositions of music for the Sabbath service as well as multiple Jewish hymns.

What is your next step after putting on this opera?
I’m not sure what the next step is. I’m fortunate enough, living in Manhattan there are a lot of collections of Jacob Weinberg’s papers. I’m going to be Xeroxing some papers my father donated to the Yivo archives. It contains handwritten music and orchestrations. I’m going to make it into an e-file so that I can send it to libraries around the world and the music has a chance of living on.

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