Two months in, early reflections

From a background of contemporary musicology and cultural studies, entering into the world of the archive has been an unusual experience. There are, however, clear ways that I can apply previous learning to this project, and it is these possible links which have been occupying my thoughts during my first two months on the job.

Cultural studies, in the UK especially, has since its inception in the late 1960s often been bound up with issues of ideology and the role of culture (popular and otherwise) in reinforcing, opposing, or negotiating dominant ways of thinking. Initially, this frequently meant the close re-reading of texts (music, film, literature, art, fashion) through new and occasionally radical lenses of class, gender, race, ethnicity, nation, subculture, semiotics and more. If this at times resulted in an overly dogmatic critical approach – people, after all, regularly exist across multiple subject positions – it nevertheless foregrounded the ways in which culture can become a site of struggle within which different and contesting meanings can be made. This rooting of the theoretical within everyday practice has clear resonances for a project like Jewish Lives/Scottish Spaces, dealing as it does with material culture and the multiple representations of identity therein – Jewish/Scottish, immigrant/host, Eastern/Western… For example, when in 1939 the Glasgow Jewish Institute Male Voice Choir performed a selection of ‘Modern Palestinian Folk Songs’ for a live BBC broadcast, were they doing so as Jews, as Scots, as Zionists, as amateur ethnomusicologists, or perhaps all of the above? Cultural negotiations like this reveal layers within layers: Jewish, Glaswegian, ‘regional’ (Scottish), the early BBC’s nation-unto-nation discourse, all counterbalanced by an expressed allegiance to the Yishuv – though perhaps more as a musically exotic ‘elsewhere’ than as a future home.

Questions such as these point to a fundamental theme of my research going forward: the different possibilities for community (real and imagined) and cultural identification that music offered Scottish Jews in the early twentieth century. In its distinctive combination of the affective, the embodied, the real-time, and through both participative and performative ways of being, music offers a singular route into these discussions:

[Music’s] ‘inherent characteristics’, its use of the iconic and non-denotative potentials of sounds, provides it with a special capacity to exercise power in a direct and concrete fashion. It can speak directly, concretely and with precision to the states of awareness which constitute our subjectivity, our very being.
(John Shepherd & Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory, 1997:213)


A large part of my recent studies, as well as my professional musical life, has been spent in the field of klezmer and Yiddish song. Given the numbers of Yiddish-speaking Jews arriving in Glasgow in the early decades of the twentieth century, it is highly likely that music such as this was present in the city some form or other, notwithstanding an almost total lack of documentation. Therefore, another initial task will be to dig around for any small evidence of music-making that I can find: in newspapers, oral histories, recordings, images and novels. In what ways did Jewish immigrants to Scotland hold onto their ‘old country’ musical vernacular, and how rapidly did they adopt that of their new home? If the musical traditions of Eastern Europe did not endure significantly in the Gorbals, the Pleasance and elsewhere, what took their place and why?

There has been no scholarly research into Jewish music in Scotland, so currently the field lies wide open. A further fruitful avenue of enquiry, and one blessed with a little more archival evidence to uncover, is through an analysis of some of the cantors who served Scotland’s synagogues in the last century. This is something that I will be exploring in several conference papers later this year. Now that cantors have been absent from the Scottish Jewish landscape for several decades, it is perhaps easy to forget the important role they once inhabited and its influence on the wider musical life of their congregations. Theirs is a story waiting to be told. But equally importantly, where did these figures stand in relation to the varied cultural identities at play in Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century? Almost all the significant figures who served in Scottish synagogues during this period were immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, a background which would surely have resonated with those they led in service every week. Kenneth Collins, in his 2016 survey of Scottish Jewish history, notes the importance of this in specifically musical terms: “For an increasingly secularised membership, though reared on the traditions of Eastern Europe, it was the vocal ability of the chazzan on the High Holy Days, rather than the scholarship of the rabbi, which reconnected the immigrant Jew with the traditions from which he was being estranged.”

University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, University Registry collection, GB248 R4/3/1

Frequently these men had cut their cantorial teeth in one of the large Jewish Eastern European prewar urban centres: Warsaw, Vilna, Budapest. And despite successful early careers they were subject to the same external pressures that impelled so many of their fellow Jews to head West. For Isaac Hirshow, born in Vitebsk in 1886 and cantor of Glasgow’s Garnethill synagogue from 1925, these wounds were still fresh three decades later:

I was born, brought up and shared the fate of my Jewish brethren in a country vast and rich. Yet, vast and rich as the country was, the Jew was cast into a corner like into a dustbin – in want, in misery, in darkness and fear…the last drop of his blood drained, the marrow of his bones dried up. (Isaac Hirshow, speaking in 1950)

Although he was already a highly literate and trained musician, Hirshow nevertheless saw fit to further his studies once in Scotland, becoming first ever Bachelor of Music at Glasgow University. What does this piece of information tell us about his own perceptions of his music and its relationship to the various musical traditions that Hirshow straddled?

Early days, early thoughts. Intriguing connections.

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