Yitschok Schlossberg (1877-1930)


יצחק שלוסברג


lssakhar Fater: Jewish Music in Poland

between the World Wars, Tel Aviv 1992 (Hebrew), pp. 197-203


Translated by Elinor Robinson and Charles Nydorf from ther Yiddish version, New York 1997 and submitted to this web site, with much appreciation, by Roger Mason, Ph.D.  

Edited by Ada Holtzman


Yitschok Schlossberg (1877-1930)


Leopold Stokowski relates in his book "Music Belongs to Everyone" that when he heard Rachmaninoff's Preludes in sol-minor performed by the composer, he was impressed by the deeply conceived interpretation which carried him away with a mysterious, fantastic longing. Soon after, he heard the same composition played by Vladimir Horowitz, and a completely other world revealed itself to him, another rhythm, another color; and other feelings awakened in him just as a landscape is painted differently by each painter


There are musicians who never perform the same composition in the same way. Each time they give a different interpretation, another rendition, depending on mood, experience, and even imagination. They do not acknowledge standard, fixed norms. They play or conduct according to their inner impulses Yitschok Schlossberg was one of these musicians.  As a person of moods, he interpreted the compositions he played according to his psychological state. Each time he experienced them differently and conducted them differently. His conducting supported the thesis that music is not just an object for the ear but for the eye as well; the way in which the conductor and his ensemble see each other affects the interpretation of the music. The mutual contact between the conductor Yitschok Schlossberg and his singers and orchestral players went through the finest filaments of the soul, and his strength lay in being able to project onto the performers everything he wanted. From the worst actors he drew forth shrill, uncontrolled sounds and was able to discipline them. The modest, reserved ones he was able to stimulate. They were all compelled to follow obediently his inventive, often extreme approach, because his feelings became their feelings, his excitement, their excitement, his psychological state, their psychological state.


He was to be found conducting in all the Yiddish theaters: sometimes in the "Scala Theater on Dzielna Street, sometimes in the "Nowości" on Bielańska, but most frequently in the Kaminski Theater on Obożna  Street. The theater troupes and their directors haggled over him; although he participated in a collective, he was paid as if he were a star. I believe that it is no exaggeration to state that in the years 1918 - 1928, Yitschok Schlossberg was the most famous and popular conductor in Jewish Poland.


He was born in 1877 to a family of Chazonim (cantors). His grandfather, Nathan Schlossberg, was one of the well-known touring Chazonim in Russia; and his father Arie-Lajb, who became famous for his deep, bass voice, was called ""Shaagas Arie" (the roaring lion). He tried with his strong roaring voice to penetrate into the heavenly sphere. He did not, however, want his son Yitschok to be a Chazan or a musician. Finally, Yitschok ran away to Vilna, where he was chorister under Choirmaster Moyshe Darguzhanski. The Rabbi revealed the mysteries of music to his pupil and already by 1890, at the age of 13, he took the conductor's baton in his own hand.


Driven by his willpower to progress, he went to Warsaw, where he studied at the Conservatory. Forced to earn a living at the same time, he began to give music lessons until he succeeded in joining Fishzon's Yiddish Theater, where he took over the musical leadership.


At that time all the theater troupes were traveling ones and Yitschok Schlossberg also picked up the wanderer's staff, roaming through the cities and towns of Russia and Ukraine for several years. Conditions were hard, but he put all his heart and soul into his work. He not only led the orchestra and prepared the singers for the show, but he also composed music needed for the performance. The field was a neglected one. Even the parts that had existed for years had to be re-worked. He repaired, straightened out and remolded the old, and wrote new music for new operettas. It often happened that the whole performance was held together by its sweet melodies.


When in 1919, the then conductor of the Warsaw Synagogue, Leo Lyow, went to America, Yitschok Schlossberg was invited to fill this important position. For some time, he also led the choir of  the small but aristocratic synagogue, "Yeshurun"; but these were only fleeting episodes in his life. He was drawn to the Yiddish Theater, the broad masses of working people. He did not content himself with bringing Cantoral art to Jewish worshipers, but wanted to bring joy to the home of Jewish artisans and laborers, who were the main consumers of Yiddish Theater.


I was once told by the well-known actor Moyshe Lipman that Yitschok Schlossberg wrote music for 80 operettas. They were performed all over Poland by various theater-troupes in the big cities and small shtetls. He wrote music for such plays as "Hanka Malvinke VII Azoy" (Hanka Malvinke Wants it that Way) by Yankew Waksman (1916); "Di Sheyne Berta" (Pretty Berta) by the same author; "Tsvey kets in Eyn Zak" (Two Cats in One Sack); "Gekhapt a Chosn" (A Bridegroom Captured); "Der Leymener Goylem"; (Legendary Automaton of Clay) (1922); "Der Libling fun Froyen (The Women's Darling) (1923) and many similar plays.  He also composed music for Sholem Ash's "Amnon un Tamar" (Amnon and Tamar) which was performed by the Vilne Troupe, and several productions of VYKT (Varshever Yidisher Kunst Theater) where directed by Ida Kaminska and Zigmund Turkow; "Erdgayst" (Earth Spirit) by Wedekind and "Di Gildene Royze" (The Golden Rose) of Resler. For Zigmund Turkow he also wrote an interesting musical version of Etinger's play "Serkele". This pre-Goldfaden play had a colossal success in the years 1923-1924 and brought recognition to Schlossberg.


The path of Yitschok Schlossberg was a hard one, full of obstacles and thorns. He suffered in his final years and died relatively young at the age of 53. His wife Sonia was a well-known actress, and his two daughters, Manya and Liza, were also active on the Yiddish stage. Manya was the partner of Herman Fenigshteyn (Mali Pikus).


In "Muzikalisher Album" (the Musical Album), Warsaw, 1910, Menachem Kipnis wrote   about Yitschok Schlossberg:

"From a distance, his hand movements while conducting look like those of a strong swimmer crossing a deep river. He sits bent-over towards the orchestra. His angular head thrown forward. Thanks to the forceful leadership of Schlossberg, who controls the ensemble according to his taste and tempo as if it was clay in the hands of a potter, and the players acted completely according to his tempo and taste. That is why we often hear in the theater musical numbers that make an esthetic impression. His orchestral arrangements always illustrate the situation on stage with an enchanting Jewish taste."


A lengthier treatment of Yitschok Schlossberg, by Chanoch Ken, appears in "Moment" (November 4, 1930): I quote:


 "All his works were composed in the European style. There is almost no remaining trace of the conventional Yiddish operetta. Schlossberg brought about a kind of renaissance in Yiddish theater music.  His original style was later imitated by his American epigones.


Characteristic are his arrangements of songs, his beautiful accompaniments and especially his overtures. One of his loveliest compositions is "Der Melochim-Khor" (The Angle Chorus) in "Got, Mentsh un Tayvl" (God, Man  and Devil), which he wrote for Morris Moshkovitsh (1909). This was a splendid composition with a glorious harmonization. Many of his compositions crossed the ocean {to America) and were adapted by strangers and were signed by other names"…


About his power of influence as conductor we read further:

 "He possessed by nature a tremendous power of suggestion. His dark, sculptured head was often reminiscent of Nietzsche and Arthur Nikisch. His glowing eyes pierced like spears and hypnotized. When he sat down at his desk everything caught fire. From the weakest player on stage or orchestra he brought out the most beautiful nuances. It was a pleasure to see how the great master coaxed the greatest dynamism  out of his primitive orchestra.


 Finally, on the devotion of Schlossberg to Yiddish theater and Jewish music: "…and not only the Jewish world was excited about his original orchestrations: even in the Christian musical world his orchestrations received the greatest recognition. He even orchestrated for the Warsaw Opera, and the Opera's conductors were amazed, admiring his beautiful voice-leading and extraordinary understanding of instrumental color. And yet, with his heart and soul, he was devoted to Jewish music. As with all masters, he was drawn to his roots."


In a similar vein, the theater musician Yoysef Rumsheinsky wrote in the American "Forverts" on November 14, 1930:

"Schlossberg was the first musician to take Yiddish theater seriously. He was the first to have the patience and energy to write a 4-part choral arrangement for a simple song. I never forget how I once came upon him as he was arranging, with a large chorus and orchestra the "Mark-Khor" (Market Chorus) of Di Kishefmakherin" (The Enchantress); "Koyft Koyft Konim" (Buyers, Buy, Buy) from far off it sounded like the choir of a large choral society in Berlin or New York… His precision with chorus, orchestra and actors reached a pitch of nervous enthusiasm.


He used to be forgiven for all his frequent insults because people realized that this was not feigned irritability, but the expression of an emotion-filled musician who wanted to introduce beauty into the music of the impoverished Yiddish theater."


Everything that has been said so far refers to the peak of his career. Zigmund  Turkow describes in very different tones the decline of Yitschok Schlossberg's career. In his book "Di Ibergerisene Tkufe" (The Interrupted Age) he writes:

"…it was otherwise with the musician Yitschok Schlossberg, for many years an operetta-director. In his time he prepared for me the musical numbers of "Saraleh"  and "Di Gildene Royze" (The golden Rose). He was an old friend of the Kaminski family, a splendid musician and experienced director. He was, however, notorious for his uncontrolled nerves and the brutality with which he treated those who took part in his operettas. Unvarnished epithets were often directed at them from his conductor's desk and often reached the front row, especially when he was under the influence of alcohol to which he was very partial.


Zigmund  Turkow tells us further that when he prepared "Lo Takhmed" (Thou Shalt Not Covet) for his VYKT Theater he wanted to breathe modernity into the old Goldfaden. He drew promising young talents to the work like Broderzon, who wrote the "mise-en-scènes" for the production, and appoint Yosef Kaminski to the musical director of the show. Schlossberg apparently didn't like this and it led to an unpleasant incident between them:


 "One day he came up to me in the Union of the Artists and Writers with an unsteady gait, greeted me with a hate-filled glance and a whiff of strong liquor and cried out in a grating falsetto:  'Urchin! Instead of Schlossberg they're using a boy, a nobody!' "When he added an elaborate Russian curse, I quickly left, and avoided meeting him in future. Schlossberg had great talent. He sacrificed it to  drink.


Yitschok Schlossberg had a great reputation at the conductor's desk. He was an even more wonderful composer. As he walked, he constantly hummed in his hoarse monotonous tones which only he understood and from which he later produced new songs. His compositions were not mathematically calculated but flowed from his inner depths, and that is why all his compositions were so sweetly melodious, caressing, quiet, in a minor key; even the happy tunes were without noise and tumult.


Taking into consideration that Yiddish theater was from its start built on false shatnez (illegitimately mixed) foundations, he tried to purify it and drive off the foreign accretions. However, he always preserved the specific Jewish idiom, the Jewish flavor. His well-known overtures to "Shulamit", "Yom ha-Khupa" (Wedding Day), "Got, Mentsh, un Tayvl" (God, Man and Davil) others were exemplars of original Jewish musical creation. Unconsciously, without intellectual calculation, all the elements which characterize Jewish melos found a place in them. They were dominated by pentatonic lines, syncopated rhythms, Chassidic style and the whole tonal system of our prayer traditions.


The greatest praise went to his Cantoral composition "R'tse" from the Sabbath prayers. This creation made famous by the internationally known Chazzan Gershon Sirota, who with it, and thanks to it, conquered the stages of the world. It is worth quoting an extract from a description of the first concert which Sirota gave on February 14, 1912, in Carnegie Hall, NY.


"Sirota and his choir achieved their greatest effect when he sang the composition R'tse" of Yitschok Schlossberg. It is really impossible to describe the mood which prevailed during those ten minutes. The applause and cries of "once more!" afterwards lasted as long as the prayer had just before.


In truth, this composition has remained to this day the authentic prototype of Jewish liturgy. The heartfelt duet "Tachezinu Eyneynu" (We Shall See) is the embodiment of Jewish sweetness and the religious pathos. This is a prayer which can move a rock. It causes spiritual awakening in everyone who hears it. Yitschok Schlossberg rose to the greatest heights and became immortal thanks to this composition. It is only to be regretted that our music experts make the error of talking about the "R'tse" of Sirota, not mentioning Schlossberg Yitschok.


Schlossberg was tireless in the field of Jewish theater music but he did not have the good fortune to see a single one of his compositions printed during his life, at a time when everyone, old and young, was singing his songs, which had become hits. He never had any time, even to take care of himself and it was hard to talk to him. The only place where one could exchange a few words with him was the theater, after one rehearsal and before another. That is what he was like: thin as a rake, of medium height with a large head and an even larger forelock - Yitschok Schlossberg.




1.  Zigmund Turkow: Di Iberuerisene Tkufe, Central Farband (Society) of Polish Jews in Argentina, 1961 (pp.83, 178, 216, 217, 331-339).

2.  Shlita-Shteinitz, Entsiklopedya L'Muzika, Tel Aviv, published by  Ts'is'ik 1950, p.620.

3.  M. Yardeni: Leo Liov-Momentn in zayn Lebn un Shafn (Leo Liov – Moments in His Life and Creation). Farlag "Nigun", New York 1960.

4.  Yitschok Turkov-Grudberg: Yiddish Teater in Poyln, Farlag "Yiddish Bukh", Warsaw 1951, p.90.

    5.  Yahr-Bukh (Sefer Hashana), edited by Arye Tartakover, Tel Aviv 1967, p.350.

    6.  Di Chazonim-Velt, (The Chozzenim World) Warsaw, Jan.1934, p.17; Dec.1937, p.12.

7.  Leon Tadeusz Btaszczyk: Dyrygenci Polscy i Obcv w Polsce w XIX I XX w. Krakow 1964, p.296.

8.  Zalmen Zilbertsvayg: Leksikon fun Yiddishe Teater, Vol.3, Farlag "Elisheva", New York 1959, pp. 2150-2154.

9.  Entsiklopedia shel Gluyot, (Encyclopedia of the Diaspora), editor Yitschok Grinboym, Kerach Rishon (Vol. I), Warsaw, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1953, pp.313, 314.

10. A. Manger, Y. Turkow, M. Perenson: Yiddisher Teater of Eyrope .(Yiddish Theater of Europe)

     New York 1968, pp.82, 84,94.

11. Natan Stolnits: Negine in Yidishn Lebn, (Playing Music in the Life of the Jews) Toronto 1957, p.239.

12. Mikhoel Veykhert:  Zikhrones (Memoirs), Vol.2, Warsaw, pub. By a book committee, Farlag "Menoyre", Tel Aviv, 1961, p.95.




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