Sergei Prokofiev: Overture on Hebrew Themes, Opus 34

Written for the Houston Symphony Not to be reprinted without permission.

In the spring of 1918, following the October Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev took the Pacific route from Russia to the United States. He rode the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, then traveled to Tokyo where he played a few concerts to pad his wallet, and finally sailed for San Francisco by way of Honolulu. In San Francisco, he was detained by immigration authorities who closely questioned whether he was a Bolshevik. “No,” he said, “because they took my money.” “Have you ever been in jail?” the officer asked. “Yeah, in yours,” he supposedly retorted.

That same year, a group of Russian Jewish musicians undertook a similar itinerary. Led by the clarinetist Simeon Bellison, the Zimro Ensemble had grown out of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in Saint Petersburg, part of a broader Jewish art music movement. While the majority of Jews in the Russian Empire had been required to live within the Pale of Settlement, often subject to extreme poverty and violence, Bellison and his collaborators were part of a small, assimilated, and religiously nonobservant elite. Their interest in preserving Ashkenazic folk music and using it as inspiration for new compositions followed the example of Czech, Hungarian, and Russian nationalist composers. Antonín Dvořak, writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1895, summarized the thinking of the time: “All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before.” It was the job of a composer to discover these songs and refine them into a national classical music.

The Zimro Ensemble took their Jewish repertoire on tour, hosted by Zionist organizations emerging among Jewish diaspora communities throughout Russia and East Asia. They performed in Siberia, China, Java, and Japan, raising money to continue on to the United States. Their ultimate destination was Palestine, where they aspired to build a “Temple of Jewish Art” (more modestly, a conservatory).

Their journey intersected with Prokofiev’s in New York, where Zimro debuted at Carnegie Hall. They were all acquainted from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, and though Prokofiev was not Jewish, he agreed to write a piece for them based on two melodies in Bellison’s notebook. They premiered Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes in February 1920 at the Bohemian Club in New York and repeated it on return programs at Carnegie. The original version was scored for clarinet, string quartet, and piano, and Prokofiev arranged it for chamber orchestra in 1934. The Zimro Ensemble never made it to Palestine, with most of its members settling in New York; Bellison was named principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, where he played until 1948.

The first Hebrew theme is unidentified, possibly an original creation of Bellison in the klezmer style. The second, more lyrical, theme is a Yiddish wedding song, Zayt gezunterheyt, performed at the end of the ceremony when the bride parts with her family. “Oh, farewell, my beloved parents! I’m leaving you. May God grant you health and long life, and me a happy journey.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.