USC Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies

2011 Citation Recipient

James Loeffler

The University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies, established in 2009 and sponsored by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California, is awarded annually for an outstanding monograph published on Russia, Eastern Europe, or Eurasia in the fields of literary and cultural studies in the previous calendar year.

Winner: James Loeffler
Title: The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale University Press)

The Most Musical Nation is a primary evaluation, a pervaia lastochka, in the study of the position of Jewish music and musicians within the mosaic of Russian culture during the period ca. 1900-1930. In investigating his subject, Loeffler reinforces the assumption that what is often described as “Russian” Modernism was, in fact, a synthesis of many ethnic ingredients. This fusion imparted a cosmopolitan vision and vital energy to Russian Symbolism and the avant-garde, which were among the most sophisticated movements of 20th century European arts and letters.

Loeffler examines the Jewish cultural experience and Jewish musical presence in late Imperial Russia both in the shtetl and in the metropolitan areas. He emphasizes key achievements of Rubinstein, Engel, Auer, Zimbalist and Elman, and, thereby, establishes an “ethnic” precedent to which so many, later Russian and Soviet musicians of Jewish extraction belonged. But, as Loeffler emphasizes, the Jewish cohort remained an organic part of Russian musical life, moving closely not only with the Russian elders of the Moscow Conservatoire, but also with the Russian prodigies and divas of the time. In placing the Jewish accomplishment within a broader Russian (rossiiskii) context of contemporary artists and composers, Loeffler amalgamates the two forces and implies that Russian music may, in fact, be more a “Eurasian” or even orientalist culture than an embellished borrowing of German, French and Italian conventions.

Of particular interest is the starting-point of many professional Jewish composers and performers, i.e. the domestic folk music of the shtetl and the strong ethnographical bias which this brought to their accomplishments. Ethnic allegiance molded compositions and deportments; cultural difference lay not in national identity, but in the fundamental difference between West and East. Loeffler also demonstrates that Jewish folk music served as both a storehouse of traditional values and as an agent of change: distinctive assets such as the cantonic nuances of the folk song or the bravura of the village fiddler were vital sources of inspiration to professional composers. Loeffler’s account of the anthropological expedition through Western Russia and the Ukraine in 1912 is especially informative, describing, how Engel recorded Yiddish songs in the Pale of Settlement, thus saving an entire cultural legacy for posterity.

Loeffler’s monograph boasts many such piquant morsels of information, the sum of which makes for an entertaining as well as enlightening narrative. Such episodes and interludes form a vital part of what Loeffler describes as “forgotten stories…. [which] challenge the simple narratives about how Jewish and European cultures developed as a whole.” Loeffler’s observations constitute a rich and sophisticated appreciation of the most musical nation.