Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Lev Zeitlin
(Aaron Leib)

Born on 14 March 1881[2], in Pinsk, White Russia (Belarus). His father was a successful lumber merchant. Although he and his wife were religious and conducted a traditional Jewish home, they gave their children a more or less modem upbringing, according to the ideas of that time. Their oldest child, a daughter, studied piano and had an influence on her brother's musical education.

Zeitlin studied in cheder, in a real shul [high school], and, most important, displayed a great passion for music. His first music teacher was the renowned Pinsk klezmer musician Beryl Fidler, and at the age of only nine he was admitted to the Odessa Imperial Music School,[3] where he studied violin with Professor Molinarski. He finished there at age eleven “with honors[4] and immediately entered the [St.] Petersburg Conservatory under the guidance of Professors Samos and Glazunov. He studied violin with Professor Galkin and theory, harmony, counterpoint, and composition with the famous composers Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Vital, Glazunov, etc. His friends were Efrem Zimbalist, Joseph Achron, Maximilian Steinberg (Rimsky-Korsakov's son-in-law), Mikhail Gnessin, Lazare Saminsky, Leo Low, Moshe Milner, and many others of that era.

Zeitlin's pursuit of composing can be seen from the following: while still a student at the Odessa Music School, without knowing anything about theory or instrumentation, he composed a musical work for full orchestra on Peter Weinberg's poem “The Sea.” The same can be said about the [St.] Petersburg Conservatory: beginning in 1907, on the advice of Professor Glazunov, Zeitlin devoted himself entirely to the study of composition and in 1912 brilliantly completed his composition studies by writing for his examination a piano sonata and a string quartet.[5]

M[endel] Elkin writes: “At that time, the group of young Jewish musicians made their historic announcement to the Jewish community to begin gathering Yiddish musical folklore. Thus was founded the 'Society for Jewish Folk Music,' which immediately began collecting. The collectors were S. Anski, Kisselgof, Rivesman, the engineer Acton, and others. The organization set up a music committee in which were: Aharon Leib Zeitlin,[6] Moshe Milner, Joseph Achron, S. Rosowsky, L. Saminsky, M. Shalyt, Gnessin, Low, and others.

The committee began to work with the collected material. Zeitlin first worked on the following: ‘Eli Zion,’ for cello and piano; ‘Zog zhe, rebenyu,’ a duet for tenor and baritone; ‘Reb Nakhmons nign,’ for string quintet; and ‘Shabes-lid,’ for [men’s] chorus. All these pieces were published by the music society. Before long, called by their own original, greater creations, the young music group gave up reworking and moved on to independent compositions of great worth, and it was then that Zeitlin displayed remarkable productivity. Within a period of a year he wrote eleven symphonic works (‘Chasidic Dances’)[7] and orchestrated a series of works by his friends Milner, Low Rosowsky, and others.”

As early as 1898, Saul Ginsberg and Pesach Marek had published in the Hebrew and Yiddish-Russian press a call for “All who are close to the masses of our people to sign up and send us the folk songs that are sung in their regions.” The call was a great success: many sent not just the texts but the melodies as well. In 1901, the collection came out, but it contained only the texts and not the musical notation. In 1909, Joel Engel began “revising” and “adapting” the melodies, and in 1908, as Lazare Saminsky says in his book Music of the Ghetto and the Bible, a group of young composers, students of Rimsky-Korsakov at the [St.] Petersburg Conservatory, Ephraim Shkliar, Mikhail Gnessin, Shlomo Rosowsky, and he [Saminsky] founded the “Society for Jewish Folk Music.” The society lasted for ten years.

The outbreak of World War I interrupted Zeitlin's creativity. In 1917, he was appointed a teacher of theory at the Ekaterinoslav Music School,[8] which a year later became a conservatory, where he was named professor and remained as director. At the same time an opera and symphony orchestra were founded in Ekaterinoslav, and until 1920 Zeitlin was the director and conductor.

Impelled by completely personal reasons to leave Russia in 1920, he relocated to Poland, where he occupied himself mainly with popularizing Jewish symphonic music.

“His concerts in Lodz and Vilna"—writes M. Elkin—“were extremely well received, but in Warsaw, because of the anti-Semitism among the leaders of the Philharmonic where the only symphony orchestra performed, none of his concerts could be staged, and because of that he returned to Vilna.”[9]

In Vilna, Zeitlin occupied himself mainly with pedagogical work. He gave a series of symphony concerts and conducted several operas in Yiddish, among them Tschaikowsky's Eugen Onegin.[10] All his concert programs were composed of Jewish symphonic music, and, although he had composed several works for voice and orchestra, he avoided performing his own works.

Because his living conditions were so poor, Zeitlin decided to immigrate to America. M. Elkin writes:

“Getting himself to America was not easy. It fell to me personally to intervene directly in this matter, to take care of everything that was needed for this trip. But with the help of SEJM Deputy Yitzchok Greenbaum[11] and of the Yiddish Artists’ Union, we managed to make his coming here possible, and in 1923 he set foot on the shore of the longed-for land. . . But the story of his arrival begins on the Isle of Tears, on Ellis Island, and who knows whether he would have been allowed to enter if not for his magic viola, which so impressed the ‘Princes’ of the Isle of Tears. ‘He is a sick man,’ the ‘boss’ of Ellis Island said to me. ‘We cannot allow him into the country.’ Again there followed intervention and endless requests that the gentle Zeitlin must endure. Finally, he was freed from ‘detention,’ and his first home was actually with me, where he lived for a long time until he was invited to be musical leader and soloist at the Capitol Theatre.”[12]

The invitation to become a “leader” in such an institution gave wings to his desire to work, and he began making plans for his composing activities. But soon came the first disappointment: the administration of the Capitol Theatre overwhelmed him with so many arranging and orchestrating duties for their programs that he hardly had time for their work, not to mention his own personal composing.

This was the first disappointment that had a fatal effect on him. Later came the so-called “efficiency” policy and the push from the theaters to out-do each other in programming, and all this robbed him of any possibility of doing his own work.

The artist and creator in Zeitlin refused to rest, so he began working into the night. Arriving home at midnight, exhausted after a day's work, he would sit in his room poring over various scores until four or five o'clock in the morning and in this way was able to write many symphonic works. According to information from Professor Achron, there exist in manuscript several dozen compositions . . ., all of which Zeitlin created in the almost inhuman conditions in which he lived and worked. But these same efforts brought him to his fatal and tragic end in the very flowering of his creative years.

As early as 1923, Zeitlin had been in touch with Engel, the head of the Jewish music publishing company in Berlin at that time, about publishing his works. As usual, he postponed it until he could make some corrections. Until his last minutes he dreamed, along with others of the group of “Yunge” (The Young Ones), of resurrecting the former Society for Jewish Folk Music and reviving its work. And when the Society for Yiddish Culture had, several months earlier, in 1930, again put out a call for such a reorganization, Zeitlin was one of the first to back it and to sign up for this effort. He had already, in cooperation with Joseph Achron, Professor Weinberg, F. Koretsky, and others, begun to develop plans for this undertaking, but it was not bashert (fated) for him to complete it.

He died 8 July 1930 in New York.

M. E.

  • M. Elkin -- Leo tseitlin iz geven eyger fun di shafer fun der nayer idisher folks-muzik, "Der tog", N. Y., 21 July 1920.

  • M. Elkin -- Leib tseitlin, "Literarisher bleter", Warsaw, N' 33, 1930.

  • Shlomo Ruzubski -- Lzkhr hmnukh l. tseitlin, "Harts", Tel aviv, 3 September 1930.

  • Sh. Rozuvski -- Vos far a muzikalisher talant iz geven leo tseitlin?, "Der tog", N. Y., 27 January 1933.

  • Israel Rabinovitsh -- "Muzik bey idn", Montreal, 1940, pp. 162-63.



    [1] Yehudah Leib, not Aharon Leib.

    [2] Leo Zeitlin was born 7 December 1884. The date of birth provided here is that of Soviet-Jewish violinist Lev Moiseevich Tseytlin, with whom Leo Zeitlin has been confused. See Paula Eisenstein Baker, “Who Was ‘L. Zeitlin’ of the Society for Jewish Folk Music?” YIVO Annual (vol. 23, 1996), 233–57.

    [3] Zeitlin entered the Odessa Branch of the Imperial Music School in September 1897, when he was almost thirteen.

    [4] He graduated from the Odessa Branch of the Imperial Music School in 1904 at the age of twenty and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory the following September.

    [5] According to his diploma, Zeitlin received his degree in 1910.

    [6] Zeitlin’s intitials were Y.L., for Yehudah Leib.

    [7] Only one Zeitlin orchestral work entitled “Hassidic Dance” exists.

    [8] Now Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine.

    [9 ]Zeitlin did conduct concerts in Warsaw after moving to Vilna.

    [10] According to newspaper advertising for the opera, Zeitlin was not the conductor.

    [11] SEJM refers to the lower house of the Polish Parliament.

    [12] Zeitlin was a violist in the Capitol Grand Orchestra and a staff musical arranger. There is no indication that he was a “musical leader” or a soloist.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 6, page 5149.

Translation courtesy of Susan Ganc and her Houston Yiddish class.
Footnotes courtesy of Paula Eisenstein Baker.


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