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Farn opsheyd, (Kleyne rapsodie) (1930)

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Mikhail Arnoldovich Milner
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica Present: An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry: Evgeny Kissin Mon., Feb. 24, 2014, 7:30 PM
© James Loeffler

Decades before Jews had access to modern conservatories in Eastern Europe, talented young boys received their musical educations through apprenticeships to wandering synagogue choirs. Blessed with a beautiful voice, Moyshe (Mikhail) Milner was one such case. The famous cantor Zeidel Rovner discovered him at age nine. He then spent the next two and a half years of his life as a meshoyrer (youth chorister), touring the Pale of Settlement. In the process, he learned the rudiments of music theory. Milner went on to join the Brodsky Synagogue choir in Kiev, and from there entered the Kiev Conservatory as a piano student. After the 1905 pogroms in Kiev, Milner considered emigrating. Instead, in 1907, he moved to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he began to compose in earnest.

As an early member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, Milner embraced the group's goal of producing a repertoire of classical music in an authentically Jewish national style. He drew acclaim for his art song settings of Yiddish poetry. These included his famous piece, "In kheyder" (In the Classroom), which he wrote as an angry reply to the popularity of a ballad, "Oyfn pripetshik" (On the Hearth), still beloved today. Like other composers, Milner felt too many so-called Jewish songs simply pasted Yiddish lyrics on top of Polish and Ukrainian melodies. But rather than respond by fetishizing individual Jewish folk melodies as unalloyed cultural essences, he focused on distilling the larger Jewish styles of intonation and expressive ornamentation that truly marked Jewish music as distinct from its neighbors. He sought as well to render the subtle vocal inflections of the Yiddish language in musical form. Tonight's featured work is written in that spirit.

A lush, virtuosic piano work, "Farn opsheyd (Kleyne rapsodie)" [Before Parting (Small Rhapsody)], takes full advantage of a free-flowing romantic genre much beloved by Milner. It also exhibits shades of the influence of Borodin, Glazunov, and, in particular, Milner's great inspiration, Scriabin. The piece begins in an andante cantabile in 3/4 meter. The left hand's rolling arpeggios accompany a simple melody embellished with heavy chromatic moves and dramatic intervallic leaps. After a moderato development section arrives an allegretto in 2/4 time. There, a second melody enters, loosely related to the first but built on short percussive patterns. The rest of the piece alternates meters and moods, rising to a stormy conclusion that bespeaks an anguished farewell.

After 1917 Milner remained in the Soviet Union. His complicated professional fate typified the experience of the leading Jewish composers in early Soviet music. In 1923, he premiered the first major Yiddish-language opera, "Di himlen brenen" (The Heavens are Burning) in Petrograd. But after two performances, the opera was cancelled and denounced as politically reactionary. Milner nevertheless continued to compose Jewish music and scored plays of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. The piece was published in 1930 in Leningrad by the Music Section of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society.