Singing Along With Izaly Zemtsovsky

Visiting Bloch Professor of Music Is Renowned Russian Folklorist

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs

With twinkling blue eyes and an irrepressible smile, visiting Bloch Professor of Music Izaly Zemtsovsky says, "I've been a lucky person all my life, despite difficulties."

Born in 1936, he vividly recalls his train being bombed as he and his mother fled the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1941. His father was killed in the war, but Zemtsovsky found a second father and mentor in Vladimir Propp, the prominent Soviet folklorist.

Rising to fame himself as an ethno-musicologist, Zemtsovsky found certain doors closed due to institutionalized Soviet anti-semitism. Only with perestroika did he feel free to openly pursue a long-held interest: the Jewish music of Russia.

This semester he gives six Bloch lectures on leading composers of the Russian Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908 and disbanded about 1926. (See schedule below.) He dedicated his opening Feb. 23 lecture on the phenomenon of Yiddish music to his grandmothers, from whom he learned Yiddish culture. "How happy they would be," he says with emotion.

The Ernest Bloch Professorship of Music and the Ernest Bloch Lectures were established in 1962 to bring distinguished figures in music to campus. Made possible by the Jacob and Rosa Stern Musical Fund, the professorship was founded in memory of Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), composer and professor of music at Berkeley from 1940 to 1959. Bloch is perhaps best known for his cello concerto on a Hebrew theme, Schlomo.

That Zemtsovsky has been invited to give the Bloch lectures is especially touching because Bloch was influenced by the Russian Society for Jewish Folk Music, which Zemtsovsky has brought back to life in modern-day St. Petersburg.

Zemtsovsky, the 23rd Bloch professor, is the first to address Jewish music, including folk and art songs, chamber music, the newly popular klezmer scores and sacred/liturgical works. His lectures will include pre-World War I recordings never before heard in the United States. His final lecture April 24 will feature a video of unique Purim Play music revived in post-perestroika Russia.

Last fall Zemtsovsky taught "Theory of Folklore" and "Introduction to Folklore" in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, where his wife, Alma Kunanbaeva, is a visiting scholar. This semester, as Bloch Professor of Music, he is teaching the graduate seminar "Russia: World Music in Miniature."

Anthropology professor and folklorist Alan Dundes, one of the faculty members responsible for bringing Zemtsovsky to campus, says, "He's the leading student of one of the greatest folklorists of the 20th century. I'm a big Propp fan. It's a great treat and honor for me and my students to have Zemtsovsky here, and very unusual for us to have a Russian folklorist."

Zemtsovsky has researched ethno-musicology in Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and the republics of Georgia, Abkhazia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

"To know only one people is to know no people," he says. "What does it mean to be Russian?" To find the answer, he has studied Slavic music and surrounding cultures from Finland to Turkey and compared seasonal songs from Spain to Siberia.

At Berkeley, Zemtsovsky and Harsha Ram, assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, have organized a series of musical evenings, "Sounds of Eurasia: Music from Russia's Borderlands," within the Eurasian Studies Group. "Sounds of Eurasia" starts Feb. 11 and occurs every other Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. in 270 Stephens Hall. Evenings of music from the peoples of Mongolia, Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Transcaucasia, the Carpathians, the Baltics and northern Finland have been scheduled so far.

"This is the first time this music has been covered in such scope in the United States," says Zemtsovsky. "Some day there will be a Eurasian Institute of America." His wife, Kunanbaeva, will teach the Kazakh language and "A Survey of Central Asia" here this fall.

With degrees in music composition, Rus-sian philology and ethno-musicology, Zem-tsovsky thinks of himself as primarily a folklorist and ethno-musicologist.

In St. Petersburg he helped establish the Department of Folklore at the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts in 1969, chairing it immediately after perestroika allowed non-Communist Party Jews to hold such positions. He also chaired the Folklore Department of the Union of Russian Composers and, in 1989, founded the Department of Traditional Culture of Siberian and Far East Peoples at the Russian Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg.

"I can't stop organizing!" says Zem-tsovsky. He was the first president of the International Delphic Movement in Russia, which aims to reconstitute the Delphic Games as an arts festival comparable to the Olympics. In 1992 he organized the first international conference on Jewish music, held in St. Petersburg.

Zemtsovsky has published 20 books and about 400 articles. His last theoretical article in the journal Ethnomusicology was awarded the 1997 Kunst Prize. One of his proudest achievements is "Jewish Folk Songs: An Anthology," published in 1994 after 10 years of work. He is now working on two books -a biography of Vladimir Propp ("my duty and my pleasure"), and another on the philosophy of music.

Zemtsovsky's St. Petersburg apartment contains well over 15,000 books, the most precious of which he cherishes in his small Berkeley apartment. More of his library is in Madison, Wisc., where he was a fellow at UW's Institute for Research in the Humanities in 1995 and 1996. He first came to work in the United States in 1994 as a visiting professor with UCLA's Department of Ethno-musicology.

Zemtsovsky and his wife say they have fallen in love with Berkeley. "It's a beautiful and wonderful place - so open to innovation and experimentation," he says. "Berkeley has accepted my own diversity. It seems that this is the only place in the whole world that accepts me as I really am. This has been the luckiest year of our lives."

1998 Ernest Bloch Lecture Schedule

The remaining lectures by Izaly Zem-tsovsky, Visiting Bloch Professor of Music, will be given on Fridays, 4:30 to 6 p.m., in 125 Morrison Hall on the following dates:

March 6: Joel Engel

March 13: Zusman Kiselgof

April 3: Moshe Beregovsky

April 17: Mikhail Gnesin, David Maggid, Sophie Maggid

April 24: The National Jewish Music Movement in Russia Today


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