Forgotten composer who ‘helped define Scottish-Jewish identity’ to be celebrated in new project

The work of Russian-born cantor Isaac Hirshow will feature in a BBC3 concert later this year


A forgotten composer who “helped define Scottish-Jewish identity” will be celebrated in a new BBC Radio 3 project.

The work of Russian-born cantor Isaac Hirshow, who was University of Glasgow’s first Bachelor of Music, will feature in a special concert broadcast later this year alongside selections from six other composers “who have been historically marginalised despite their significant influence on classical music”, said a BBC spokesperson.

“Despite the fact that Hirshow’s public concerts in Glasgow helped define Scottish-Jewish identity, he remains relatively unknown and we’re keen to promote his incredible legacy as part of this project,” the spokesperson added.

Hirshow was born Yitzak Gershov in 1883. A native of Velizh, a Russian shetl, he eventually made his way to Warsaw, where he worked as a choirmaster and cantor at Adas Yeshurun, known as the “synagogue of musicians”.

He emigrated to Scotland in 1922, where he served as cantor for the Chevra Kadisha synagogue before accepting an offer from Garnethill synagogue in 1925, where he remained for 30 years.

Radio 3 has partnered with the Arts and Humanities Research Council on the initiative, which granted funding to academics studying each of the seven musicians.

Dr Phil Alexander, the musician and scholar uncovering Hirshow’s story, said: “His music and his musical life kind of straddles east and west.

“His own music very much reflects this kind of dual viewpoint…  his own story speaks to that, it’s representative of that, and his music is representative of it as well.

“Isaac Hirshow’s own journey reminds us that migration is a kind of integral and ongoing part of not just the Jewish story, but also the human story. So that has very contemporary resonances as well.”

Dr Alexander is most excited by a work called The Hope of Israel, written for Hirshow’s final degree piece.

He describes the 25-minute cantata as a “superb setting of min hameitzar, and also some texts from Isiah, for chamber orchestra, choir and four soloists.”  Dr Alexander believes the piece has never been performed in its entirety with a full orchestra- and that is why he is thrilled to be involved in the Radio 3 project, which will draw on the academics’ research to inform future performances and broadcasts. 

Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey said: “[Our] collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council is crucial at a time when we want to inspire listeners by shining a light on unfairly forgotten areas of Western classical music.

“Hopefully this inspiration will draw in listeners from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of musical interests.”

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