Zinoviy Kiselgof as a Founder of Jewish Music Folklore Studies in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th Century

The name of Zinoviy (Zusman) Kiselgof is little known to contemporary Jewish musicians, whereas he should be considered one of the most important figures in the Jewish music revival in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. A collection of Jewish folklore materials he gathered during several decades of his life (in total - about 2000 music items) is extremely significant both in quantity and quality. This collection had a strong influence on the formation of a Jewish national music school in the Russian Empire, prosperity of which could have been explained by the “ideas of self-knowledge” which were so popular among the Jewish intelligentsia in this period.  Composers and performers considered Kiselgof ’s collection a main source for better comprehension of Jewish national melos.

The real scope of Kiselgof ’s activity in the area of Jewish folklore studies has been not evaluated on the proper level until now1 . Materials of his collection were held in the Soviet archives and libraries under the status of special holdings for several decades and were completely unavailable for researchers. And even when the wind of social change in the former Soviet Union touched them, they didn’t gain popularity at once. There was a very slow process of recognition and evaluation of those hidden treasures, which required of researchers a good knowledge of the Yiddish language, Jewish musical tradition, Jewish liturgy and understanding of the ways of development of the Jewish national music school in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Kiselgof had a strong desire to prepare his folklore materials for publication but, unfortunately, was unable to accomplish his project. He wrote about it in two versions of his autobiography in 1935 and 1936. He wrote in 1935: “I collected more than 2000 folksongs for the period 1907-1915. Some of them were published in 1912. A full version of the collection is supposed to be published soon”2 . Official letters from Moscow publishing house “International Book” dated 1932 and preserved among his personal documents also provided us with information about a planned discussion concerning this project3 .

Zinoviy Kiselgof ’s personal archive was given to the Cabinet for Jewish Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 1940. The inventory list dated May 29 1940 affirmed the fact of transfer4 . But even Moyshe Beregovsky, the only researcher, who had an unlimited access to this collection and partly used its materials in his project “Anthology of Jewish music folklore”, didn’t provide any general review of Kiselgof ’s collection except an obviously ideological critical analysis of Kiselgof ’s two pre-revolutionary editions, issued in 1912 and 19155 .
We have every reason to suppose that Kiselgof ’s collection together with materials of Shlomo Ans-ky’s expeditions of 1912-1914, where Kiselgof also actively participated, composed a fundamental base of Jewish music folklore studies in the Russian Empire.

Zinoviy (Zussman) Aronovitsh Kiselgof was born in 1878 in Velizh, Vitebsk province, in the family of a teacher. He received a typical Jewish education: went to kheder (traditional Jewish elementary school), and then was a student at Velizh Jewish College. He became a scholarship student at Vilna Jewish teachers’ College in 1894.

Zinoviy Kiselgof didn’t have any systematic musical education, other than violin lessons that he took for a very short time. He wrote about that in his autobiography: “Finally, when I was 11, I began to take violin lessons. My teacher was a Velizh musician (klezmer) Meir Berson, or Meir the Red (Meir Rizhiy), as everyone called him. Actually, he was the only musician who taught me something. The rest of the necessary knowledge I acquired myself. I had a perfect pitch and as a child could easily transcribe melodies by ear. No doubt, if I had learnt music systematically, I would have become a professional.»6

After graduation from teachers’ training college Kiselgof worked in different educational institutions in Vitebsk. He moved to St. PeterSburg in 1906, where he became a teacher at OPE (Society for the development of education among Russian Jews) and a conductor of children’s choruses. He also continued his personal education - at the Lesgaft’s Open University, and then - at the Petersburg University (physics and mathematics faculty). From 1920 until his death he was a Director of National Jewish School # 11 and Children’s home #79 in Petersburg-Leningrad. He was arrested in 1938 and put into jail. Next year he was discharged owing to his illness and shortly after that, in 1939, he died.
Kiselgof ’s  personal archives are currently stored at the Institute of Manuscripts of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. It is possible to select three groups of materials in it, connected with three main directions of his multifaceted activity:

1) documents related with his pedagogic work; 2) documents that attest to his creative collaboration with Jewish theaters in 20-30s of the 20th century (especially with Moscow “GOSET”); 3) documents that highlight his activity as a collector and propagator of Jewish folk music.
His activity as a teacher is quite well highlighted in the historical literature (especially in the literature related to the history of Jews in St.-Petersburg). A lot of excellent references about him (from children and from his colleagues as well) can also be found in Kiselgof ’s personal archive.

Materials connected with Kiselgof ’s activity in the area of Jewish professional theater can also be of great interest. Back in 1909, the researcher took part in the special concert organized with a goal to raise money for the creation of A Jewish Theater in St. Petersburg. Since 1919 (when the Jewish theater “GOSET” was organized) he had been working as a permanent musical consultant at the theater and actively participated in musical staging of performances. He wrote about that in his autobiography: “Jewish section of the Council of national minorities invited me to take part in the organization of the first Jewish state theater with Granovsky as a head of it. I accepted this offer as a singing teacher and a teacher of music theory at the theatrical studio as well as a lecturer on Jewish folk music, a performer of songs and a choirmaster of the theater”7 .

Jewish composers very often used his folklore materials as a thematic base for their theater music. For example, Yosif Akhron introduced Kiselgof ’s melodies into his music for plays “The sorceress” and “Mazltov”; Pulver collaborated with Kiselgof when he was working on the music arrangement for performances “Two Hundred Thousand” and “Night at the rebe’s house”; Alexander Krein used his melodies in the music for theater performance “At Night at the old marketplace”. In the most of cases Kiselgof himself helped all the actors to learn new music compositions.
Kiselgof was very close to many prominent theater leaders and artists - rare valuable autographs of Solomon Mikhoels and Binyamin Zuskin, which preserved among the personal Kiselgof ’s documents can testify that8 .

But the most important part of Kiselgof ’s collection highlights his activity as a collector and active popularizer of Jewish music heritage (especially at the Petersburg Society for Jewish folk music). He was one of the organizers of this society and a member of its board from 1908 until 1921. References to Zinoviy Kiselgof as the excellent expert in the area of Jewish musical tradition often could be found in the official reports of the society and on the pages of Russian-Jewish periodicals (for example, in “The Russian Music Newspaper).

Here it is the list of lectures Kiselgof delivered on the music meetings of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St.-Petersburg:
On Jewish folksongs from Lyubavichi (1910)
On Jewish folksong (1913)
Character and form of Jewish folksongs (1913)
Jewish folksongs of Volin province (based on the impressions from

S. An-sky’s ethnographic expedition of 1913).
The program of this lecture included the following points:
Main technical principles of recording process. Attitude of local inhabitants

to the expedition participants and their research goals. Types of folk singers and musicians: Yehiel Lerner, Kremenets’s “Thilim-Vecker”, Motel Reyder. Features and forms of Jewish songs. Songs from Volin and Lithuania9 .
Jewish folksongs in Dubrovna (about music ethnographical expedition in Dubrovna in 1914 granted by the Society of Jewish Folk music in St.¬Petersburg).
The main points of the lecture: In the Yankel Goz’s “hotel”. Mune der Shuster. Zalman Tseytlin and synagogue songs of his grandfather. The old synagogue in Dubrovna. Shabbat erev Tishe-Bov. On the factory. Songs of cantonists. Klezmer Meir Gopenko (1916)10 .

As we see, the researcher devoted much of his attention to the place of music tradition in the life of “shtetl” and reconstructed the general types of performers and interpreters of synagogue songs and Hassidic tunes, notable for the power of emotional impression11 .

Kiselgof ’s paper “On the Jewish folk songs”, which was read in 1911, a year later was published lithographically and distributed in the branches of Society for Jewish folk music in Kiev, Moscow, Kharkov and Riga. It was also published in A German version.

The paper represents Kiselgof ’s interesting attempt to analyze of “what Jewish music is”. In those years the definition of Jewish music was a subject for extensive discussion between two leaders of Jewish musical revival in Russia - Joel Engel and Lazar Saminsky. As we know, they used all their intellect and erudition, trying to work out this definition. Kiselgof, on the contrary, demonstrated a completely different approach. He avoided any complicated theoretical reflections in order to find the only comprehensive answer for this question - he just talked about Jewish song - old and contemporary, religious and secular. “The main task of this paper is to demonstrate that Jewish folk genius created enormous music treasures, which are still waiting for research. Our mission is to uncover them…”12

His attitude to Jewish folksong is both touching and full of feeling. He adores Jewish songs. Sometimes his words sound as a real lyric revelation: “Jewish secular song is always a song of ghetto. It never has typical features of village nature, such a space of fields, the fragrance of flowers and the purl of a brook… Jewish song is an urban song, associated only with narrow streets and small houses. The stony walls are squeezing the song and making it very concentrated on a limited circle of images and figures. Even a humorous song is no more than a sad smile, which is even bitterer than tears”13 .

Kiselgof ’s paper has a very detailed structure. It is divided on the small chapters under the following sub-titles:
1 A revival of Jewish national and cultural life.
2 Music as a part of national art.
3 Origins of music and ancient Jewish music.
4 Synagogue songs and “nusakh”.
5General features of Jewish folksong.
6 The Jewish folksongs of the present-days: general style, forms, features and ethnography. Evaluation.
7 Classification of secular songs.
8Analysis of different song genres: religious songs, lullabies, children’s, love songs, wedding and family songs, songs of soldiers and cantonists, humorous songs etc.
9Hassidic songs.
10Wedding songs (Klezmer music - L. Sh.).
11 Scholarly works. Conclusion.

Kilselgof ’s survey of ancient Jewish music and its influence on the traditional synagogue music is based on the works of E. Naumann and F. Fetis, notable music historians of 19th century. He also discussed several points of L. Sakkety’s researches, which could be found in his “History of music”. He couldn’t agree with Sakkety’s opinion that Jews lost their songs during the historical development of the nation. Kiselgof ’s statement about the deep relationship between synagogue music and church music is based on the survey of the famous Russian music historian Vladimir Stasov14 .

As we see, Kiselgof was well informed of the theoretical level of development of Jewish music studies in the XIX and beginning of XXth century. The chapters actually dedicated to Jewish folksongs show the most interest. Kiselgof avoided specifically musical analysis of songs. He was not a professional music historian and that’s why he concentrated mostly on the poetical values of folksongs15 . His comments are always very simple; he never erected any intricate philosophic conceptions onuncomplicated folk texts and talked only about the nature of folk poetry.  In this way he always gained a great advantage in comparison with other researchers, because his knowledge of religious traditions and Jewish languages was based on the strong traditional life style customary in his environment since his childhood.

Kiselhof proposed a very simple primary classification of folklore materials. He divided all folksongs onto two main categories:
Songs with words (mostly in Yiddish) and Songs without words: hassidic nigunim and traditional wedding music (Klezmer music)16 . For Hassidic music he invented a special additional definition: “vocal music without words”. He did so because of a special mystical sense of hassidic nigunim. Kiselgof mentioned Itskhok Leybush Perets’s novel “Mekubolim” as a quintessence of the Hassidic music philosophy17 .

In Kiselgof ’s opinion, religious song is very close to traditional prayer. He chose several most popular songs of that type and provided them with his personal comments (Eli, Eli, lomo azavtonu; Der parom (The ferryboat); and Di alte kashe (The old question).

I’d like to quote a text of this song in order to illustrate it with Kiselgof ’s original comments and thus to demonstrate the analytical approach of the researcher.

Fregt di velt di alte kashe:Trala-tradi-ri-di-rom?Entfert men: tradi-ridi-rey-lom,Oy,oy, tradi-ridi-rom!Az me vil, kon men dokh zogn: tray-dim!Blaybt dokh vider di alte kashe:Trala-tradi-ri-di-rom?

“Since the world and people have been created, all humanity faces the same old and important question: “What is life? What is its sense?” It isn’t easy to find a correct decision for this problem. Different solutions were considered, but the only right answer is still not found: “blaybt dokh fort di alte kashe” - and occupies people’s mind”18.

Kiselgof tried to show up the whole emotional range of the folklore genres. He managed to demonstrate the maximum possible contrast within the genre of lullabies: he provided us with two opposite examples of lullabies. One of them (Az ikh volt gehat dem keysers oytsres - If I had all the king’s treasures) is a real quintessence of mother’s love; the second one (Dos kind ligt in vigele - The child lies in the cradle) involves us in the tragic atmosphere of the mother’s death. He applies the same approach for the characteristic of love and wedding songs.

Kiselgof also paid attention to the allegorical meaning of certain wedding songs. For example, he found out a hidden deep sense in the popular song about a bride “Di gilderne pave” (“The golden peacock”):
Es kumt tsu flien di gilderne paveFun a fremder land,Hot zi farloyrn dI gilderne federMit a groysn shand.
Vi es iz biter, mayn libe muter,A feygele on a nest,Azoy iz biter, mayn libe muter,Shver un shvigers kest.
Kiselgof wrote in his comments: “Di gilderne pave” is an allegorical symbol of Jewish nation. “Di gilderne feder” - the golden feather the peahen lost means our Holy teaching, Torah. Shver un shvigers kest is existence in Golus (Exile), far from mother’s house”19 .

The next chapter, “Hassidic songs,” is mostly dedicated to the traditional Hassidic performance style. The researcher described the state of excitement the Hassid is usually getting to while singing “the highest melody without words”20 : “The Hassid is singing his song during the prayer or before it in order to become deeply involved into the mood of prayer. He feels this song so keenly, that finally is getting into the state of ecstasy. The profound sincerity and fullness of feelings require expression of specific sounds in addition to swinging movements of body, intensive gesticulation and snapping the fingers. The sincerity of feelings is the most important stipulation for the Hassidic performance style”21 .
In Kiselgof ’s opinion, the patterns of Jewish instrumental folk music and Hassidic nigunim are still insufficiently represented in the works of modern composers, whereas their investigation and creative comprehension might add a lot to the understanding of spiritual Jewish world and to the introduction of new colors into the art of the whole world in general22 .

At the end of the paper Kiselgof returned to his previous assertion that Jewish music still remains terra incognita for researchers and performers. As a collector of Jewish music he saw his personal mission in filling this cultural gap; he managed to familiarize assimilated Jewish intellectuals with the rich musical traditions of its nation. He entirely accepted Yoel Engel’s program for the formation of A Jewish national school in music: “At first, we have to collect and fix catalogue the rich musical treasures hidden in the inmost recesses of the folk soul. We need to highlight and polish all these treasures in the process of creative work and finally turn them into the powerful national and cultural subject, which would be compared with the key place of folksongs in the other nations’ culture”23 .

As we learnt from Zinoviy Kiselgof ’s biography, he started to collect Jewish music systematically beginning in 1902. In that period of time he had been deeply involved into the underground Bund activities and had been teaching revolutionary songs to Jewish workers24 . Winter 1907 he went on vacation to Lyubavichi, Mogilyov province. This town was well known as a center of Habad Hassidism and a residence of Rabbi Sholom-Dov-Ber Shneyerson. There Kiselgof was able to collect more than 100 Jewish folk melodies - songs, nigunim and instrumental pieces. Those materials laid the foundation of his large future collection. We found much more detailed information about Kiselgof’s research activity while we were searching chronology, geography and main principles of formation of his collection.

His manuscript folklore archive consists of 88 notebooks and albums. Numbers ##1-73 contain music; ## 74-88 represent texts for songs25 .
In the process of preliminary investigation of Kiselgof ’s collection the following groups of materials were selected:
1) Recordings, which reflect Kiselgof ’s participation in the expedition of Petersburg Jewish historic and ethnographic society of 1913 (Podolye province: Bohopol; Kherson province: Golta; Volin province: Olika, Dubno, Merovits, Mlinov, Kremenets, Klevan, Lyudmir, Kovel (mostly decodings from phonocylinders); materials of his personal ethnographic trip to Dubrovno, Mogilyov province, in 1914, sponsored by Petersburg society for Jewish music (including decodings from phonocylinders);
2) songs and tunes, which were Performed by different persons in the years 1910-1935 without use of phonograph (Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Kiev, Warsaw, Vitebsk, Vilna, Odessa, ZhItomir, Poltava, LyubavichI, Bobruysk, Mozir etc.;
3) separate cantorial albums, collected from different people (including compositions, attributed to the famous cantor Nisi Beltzer); 4) small albums and collections of songs, which became a part of Kiselgof ’s
archive: Sendor Bishkin’s collection of folksongs (collected in Kremenetz); Nathan Vigdorovich’s collection of  Shabbat religious songs, nigunim and folksongs; Leya Veytzer’s collection of songs (recorded in Kremenetz); anonymous collection from Dubrovno;
5) Klezmer albums: music albums of klezmer Meir Gopenko from Dubrovno (1914); Motl Reyder’s album from Dubno, Volin province,1913; Moisey Gershkovich Komediant’s collection from Kremenetz, Volin’ province, 1913; Motl Shteygart’s albums from Bogopol’ un Khmelnik, Podolye province, 1913 (including compositions attributed to the famous klezmer Arn Moyshe Pedotzer-Kholodenko from Berdichev).

We believe that this collection can provide scientists and performers with a lot of unknown, never published songs. A large volume of the collection, its wide geographic range and as a result - a large quantity of interesting variants to the different songs (texts, as well as melodies and plots) - all those factors might be very optimistic for new, original folklore researches.


1 In modern Jewish encyclopedias (“Encyclopedia Judaica” and “The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia” in Russian)  Zinoviy Kiselgof ’s name is only mentioned  among the members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg. A short annotation about him can be found in Soroker’s bio-bibliographical lexicon (in 2 volumes; Jerusalem, 1992). Galina Kopitova, “Society for Jewish Folks Music in Petersburg-Petrograd” (St. Petersburg, 1997), highlighted Kiselgof ’s activity as a teacher and lecturer about Jewish music and referred to Tverskoy’s articles in the “Leningrad Jewish Almanac (Underground Press. 1988, # 18; 1989. # 19) and in the newspaper “Ami” (St. Petersburg, 1993, #5). Mikhail Beyzer, “Jews in Petersburg” (Jerusalem: Library-Aliya, 1990), featured Kiselgof as a brilliant teacher and organizer of Jewish education as well.
2 “My autobiography” (April 11, 1935). Institute of Manuscripts of Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine (hereafter referred to as IM VNLU); Fund 190; # 244, p.3.
3 IM VNLU; Fund 190; # 247, 248.
4 A preliminary inventory list of Kiselgof ’s personal archive. IM VNLU; Fund 190; #243.
5 Beregovsky completed a critical analysis of two of Kiselgof ’s collections:
- Jewish folk melodies, written down by Z. A. Kiselgof. Vol. 2. Petrograd, 1915
- Collection of Songs for Jewish Family and School, collected by Zinoviy Kiselgof and arranged byAlexander Zhitomirsky and Pavel Lvov. St. Petersburg - Berlin: Society for Jewish Folk Music in St.Petersburg and Leo Wintz in Berlin, 1912.See Beregovsky’s article in the book “Problemes fun folkloristik. Zaml.1/ Unter der redaktsye fun M.Viner. Kiev-Kharkov: Natsmindfarlag, 1932. Z. 94-145. In the introduction to the unpublished secondvolume of his anthology, Beregovsky respectfully mentioned Kiselgof as his adviser: “We were able toget more details about songs from the Leningrad collection that were recorded by Zinoviy Kiselgof.<…> Zinoviy Aronovich was very kind to provide us with information about performers and songs,and he also sent us transcriptions of the songs” (Archives of The Russian Institute for the Arts History;Fund # 45; Part 1, # 1, p.5).
6 Personal documents of Zinoviy Kiselgof. Autobiography. IM VNLU, F.190, #246, p.1.
7 Personal documents of Zinoviy Kiselgof. Autobiography. IM VNLU, F.190, #246, p.1.
8 See a fragment from Mikhoels’ letter to Kiselgof: “Although I’m not so proficient in writing, I can
remember and appreciate people, who are near to my heart” (IM VNLU, # 190; # 251, p.5).
9 See: Report of the Society for Jewish Folk Music for 1913 and essay about activities of the Society for the first five years (1909-1913). St. Petersburg, 1914, p. 20.
10 See: Galina Kopitova. Society for Jewish Folk Music in Petersburg-Petrograd. - St. Petersburg, 1997, p.
11 These records are available on the CD “Treasures of Jewish Culture in Ukraine” (Kiev, 1997).
12 Zinoviy Kiselgof, “About Jewish Folk Song” (IM VNLU; Fund 190; # 244, pp. 1-2.)
13 Ibid., p. 7.
14 In his report “A few words about Jewish folksong” Joel Engel recalls his conversation with Stasov
during Easter week in St. Petersburg approximately in 1901: “Eight years ago I was fortunate to speak with him (Stasov - L. Sh.) about Jewish music. In the middle of the spirited conversation, Stasov suddenly stopped talking and raised a finger: “Now, listen, - he exclaimed. I strained my ears perplexedly. It was very still, and only distant sounds of paschal bells wafted to our ears from the street through wet and slow falling snow. “Do you hear? - said Stasov. - […] Today, in all the churches,
“Christ is risen” can be heard. Wonderful melody! I dare swear that this song was sung even before Christ. It was sung in the Temple at Jerusalem, and from there it started going all over the world, although it was modified, and is still going, and will keep going” (IM VNLU; Fund 190; # 265, pp. 25¬26).
15 The same way, with stress on the poetical aspect of Jewish folk song, is Pesach Marek’s introduction to the collection “Jewish Folk Songs in Russia” (St. Petersburg: “Voskhod” Publishing house, 1901), as well as Semyon An-sky’s article “About Jewish Folk Song” (See: “Yevreyskaya Starina” magazine; St. Petersburg, 1909. Vol. 2, pp. 56-70).
16 Zinoviy Kiselgof, “About Jewish Folk Song”, pp. 8-9.
17 Ibid., p. 9.
18 Ibid., p. 10.
19 Ibid., p. 15.
20 Ibid., p.17.
21 Ibid., pp. 17-18.
22 Ibid., p. 19
23 Ibid., p. 20.
24 We learnt about this aspect of Kiselgof ’s activity from his autobiography: “The first songs written down by me were revolutionary Bund songs” (Kiselgof ’s autobiography; IM VNLU; Fund 190; # 246, p. 1.)
25 It is necessary to tell that cataloguing of that collection was done by Moyshe Beregovsky shortly after it was given to the Cabinet for Jewish Culture in 1940.


Manuscripts of religious songs from the Kiselgof collection
The following materials represent religious songs from the manuscript part of the Kiselgof collection. Please bear in mind that these manuscripts are not decodings of the soundtracks. Transliteration of the titles corresponds to the rules of the YIVO standardized Yiddish transliteration and Ashkenazic Hebrew dialect of each singer.

k402 Ekhod mi yoydeya (Who knows about one)
The song for the Passover Seder ceremony.

k907 Mishebeyrakh (Who blessed the ones before us)
A prayer of the Sabbath morning service, which also serves as a traditional healing

k912 Nokheyn kisakho meyos (Your throne is established from old)
Psalm #93 included in the Kabbalath Sabbath service.

k933 Eleyheynu veleyhey aveyseynu heey impipioys shlikhey amkho
(O Lord, our God and God of our fathers)
A prayer from Musaf for the 1st day of Rosh Hashanah.