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Sholom Secunda

Sholom SecundaSHOLOM SECUNDA (1894 – 1974) was among the most distinguished and preeminent composers associated with the American Yiddish theater. Born in Aleksandriya, in the Kherson region of the Ukraine, to a father who was an amateur badkhan (folk entertainer and singer at Jewish celebrations) who routinely taught songs to the family, the young Secunda became a coveted boy alto soloist in major synagogue choirs. He soon had a reputation as a brilliant wunderkind boy chazan (cantor), and he also gained his first theatrical exposure at the age of 11 in Goldfaden operetta roles at a children’s drama club. Following a pogrom in Nikolayev, where his family had relocated, Mr. Secunda emigrated to America with them in 1907 and, until his voice changed, was known there too “the prince of the young chazanim.”

In 1913 Mr. Secunda was engaged as a chorister in Yiddish productions at the Odeon Theater in New York, for which he began writing Yiddish songs. A year later he began studies at the Institute for Musical Art (now the Juilliard School), and in 1916, together with Solomon Shmulevitz (1868 – 1943), who was well established by then as a songwriter and lyricist for theater and vaudeville, Mr. Secunda wrote his first full-length score for Yoysher (Justice) at the Eden Theater. In that time frame, the legendary prima donna Regina Prager introduced one of Secunda’s songs, Heym Zise Heym (Home Sweet Home), which became his first real success.

Around 1919, the legendary singer-impresario producer-actor and songwriter Boris Thomashevsky (1865 – 1939) — who as a young immigrant cigar roller and singer had been instrumental in persuading a benefactor to bring an acting troupe from London for the first Yiddish theatrical performance in the United States and then had gone on in effect to found Yiddish theater in America — introduced Mr. Secunda to the young, still undiscovered George Gershwin. Mr. Thomashevsky suggested that they might form a team to compose for his prestigious National Theater, because he just had fallen out with his resident composer Joseph Rumshinsky (1881 – 1956) and was eager to find a replacement. Mr. Secunda rejected the idea, citing — at least for the record — his inability to relate to Gershwin’s jazz, rather than classical or Jewish, orientation. But it is tempting to fantasize about the course Second Avenue might have taken had Mr. Secunda been amenable. Meanwhile, Mr. Secunda became acquainted with Ernest Bloch’s music, and, struck by the level to which Jewish music could be elevated, he took some lessons with Mr. Bloch for about a year.

In 1921 Mr. Secunda worked in Philadelphia for three years in order to qualify for New York union membership. Moshka, his first operetta with his own orchestration, was produced at the Hopkinson Theater in Brooklyn in 1926. His children later recalled that by 1930 Mr. Secunda already was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the banal and unelevated level of much popular Yiddish theater and with its artistically counterproductive star — as opposed to repertory — system. Without ever abandoning Second Avenue altogether, he began turning his attention to serious Yiddish poetry, with a view to writing art songs.

After an unsuccessful attempt to break into Hollywood, Mr. Secunda accepted a position as music director of the Brooklyn radio station WLTH, which programmed Jewish popular and folk music and cantorial selections. There he also wrote jingles, including some for Manischewitz, and inaugurated a children’s program, Feter Sholom (Uncle Sholom). In 1932 Secunda moved to WEVD (named after the famous socialist leader Eugene V. Debs), which had New York’s largest Yiddish-speaking radio audience (“The station that speaks your language”).

Between 1935 and 1937 Mr. Secunda wrote scores for at least seven shows. He also began to experiment with incidental music for Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater. It was for one of those plays that he adapted a Polish song to a Yiddish version — Dona, Dona, which became internationally famous, especially much later, in the 1960s, when it was recorded in English as a folk-type ballad by such singers as Joan Baez and Theodore Bikel.

In the late 1930s, Mr. Secunda began a rewarding artistic association with Cantor Reuben Ticker, who subsequently became the international superstar opera tenor Richard Tucker and reigned for many years at the Metropolitan Opera House. Mr. Secunda arranged and composed a considerable amount of Hebrew liturgical music for Mr. Tucker’s cantorial recordings and concerts, as well as for his ongoing synagogue services, which he continued until his death. And Mr. Tucker became the principal advocate of Mr. Secunda’s synagogue music.

In 1945 Mr. Secunda became the music director of the Concord Hotel, one of the two leading upscale resorts in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains (north of New York City) that catered to a Jewish clientele. He held that position for 28 years, conducting Holy Day synagogue services and weekly summer concerts with full orchestra. Despite its popular and sometimes coarse “Borsht Belt” connotation, [the Concord] was a serious musical opportunity, especially when Mr. Tucker became the Concord’s cantor.

By the 1940s, when Mr. Secunda had returned more fully to the theater, Second Avenue audiences were beginning to shift from an immigrant-based to a nostalgia-oriented group, which led to increasing amounts of English interspersed with the Yiddish. Mr. Secunda's score for Uncle Sam in Israel (1950) reflects this trend. Although he claimed to have concluded his Second Avenue career after The Kosher Widow, in 1959, Mr. Secunda still wrote for Yiddish shows in the 1960s. His final Yiddish musical — produced as late as 1973, long after the thriving days of Yiddish theater had become memory — was Shver Tsu Zayn a Yid (It’s Hard to Be a Jew), a musical version of a well-known Sholom Aleichem play that first had been presented in New York in 1921.

From the 1960s on, Mr. Secunda accelerated his energies toward serious concert music. His aggregate output — in addition to more than 80 Yiddish operettas and musicals, many dozens of independent songs and dozens of cantorial-choral settings — includes a string quartet, a violin concerto and an orchestral tone poem. His two major cantatas — If Not Higher (based on a familiar story by Yehuda Leib Peretz) and Yizkor — were sung at live Yizkor performances and on television broadcasts by Mr. Tucker. Mr. Secunda made no secret of his hope that he might be remembered primarily for his classically oriented accomplishments rather than as a Yiddish theater composer. That hope, however, in view of his overriding fame on Second Avenue, probably will go unfulfilled.

(Source: Milken Archive of American Jewish Music)

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