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Folk roots resonate in a modernist Copland piece

Aaron Copland. BSO Archives/Courtesy BSO Archives

On Sunday, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players present a program including Aaron Copland’s 1929 trio “Vitebsk”; the early piece would be Copland’s most explicit musical exploration of his own Slavic-Jewish ancestry. It was also Copland’s first use of folk music — specifically, the Hasidic song “Mipnei Mah” (“Wherefore, O wherefore”), a song prominently featured in S. An-sky’s play “The Dybbuk,” which Copland had seen in New York in 1925. (The title of Copland’s piece references An-sky’s hometown.)

The success of “The Dybbuk” owed much to its musical score, by Joel Engel. The play originated in a 1912 ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement, the area of imperial Russia designated for Jewish residency, in which An-sky and Engel took part. An-sky collected folk tales, Engel collected tunes; they later combined them into a fantastic plot of forbidden love and unearthly possession, in a setting imbued with observed details of shtetl life.


Engel was raised outside the Pale. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, he became the music critic for the liberal Moscow newspaper “Russkiye vedomosti” and an influential educator (among those he tutored was the future novelist Boris Pasternak). At the same time, he was spearheading the collection and preservation of Russian-Jewish folk music. In one sense, Engel was a purist, disdaining recently composed Yiddish-language songs in favor of “true” folk songs. But Engel also advocated translating such folklore into polished art-music stylizations. The Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908 in St. Petersburg, largely dedicated its first concert to Engel’s renderings.

Engel was sympathetic to Russian political reform — he took over the “Russkiye vedomosti” breaking-news desk during the 1905 revolution — but after the 1917 Revolution, he ran afoul of the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Berlin, afterward to Palestine, then under the pro-
Zionist British Mandate. Engel tried to stylistically pivot, from classicized refractions of Diaspora songs to a more diverse, practical music for a reconstituted Jewish homeland. But conditions in Palestine, culturally and otherwise, were a long way from Berlin and Moscow: Engel found himself celebrated, but more for his symbolic presence than his expertise.


Copland’s working of “Mipnei Mah” into a 1920s-modernist evocation of “the harshness and drama of Jewish life in White Russia” (as he put it) hinted at the sort of folkloric transformation he would later use to create his distinct brand of musical Americana. Engel imagined something similar for a future Israel, but he died in 1927at 58, in Tel Aviv.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players and pianist Gilbert Kalish perform music of Copland, Fine, Mozart, and Brahms at Jordan Hall, Jan. 12 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $22-$38,

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at