Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Very un-Yiddish Scandal

I'm two-thirds of the way through the new Amazon Prime mini-series A Very English Scandal and let me say, I'm kind of obsessed. I'm not usually that interested in political scandal stories, but if you're any kind of Anglophile, you will be sucked in immediately by its dry, semi-horror semi-comic tone, sweeping green vistas, and numerous cozy pubs. In between the buggery, attempted murder and the endless search for one National Insurance card. Also, Hugh Grant is a revelation as Jeremy Thorpe.

But, this isn't about that. First, let me say, there's absolutely nothing Jewish about A Very English Scandal. Isn't that the whole point of being an Anglophile? The fantasy world where one's own angst is blissfully non-existent?


I was indeed taken aback in episode one, when the Hugh Grant character (Jeremy Thorpe) takes his new would-be lover, Norman Scott, back to his *mother's* house and, once there, woos him (??) by playing this duet with his mother, I mean, Ursula.

(Apologies for the very stupidly shot video. Stay with me.)

Anyone who's spent a minute in the world of klezmer would recognize this tune, sometimes labeled as a Cirba and usually as Hora Staccato. I know it from versions by Moishe Oysher, Oysher and the Barry Sisters, as well as Dave Tarras. 

Here's Moishe Oysher and the Barry Sisters absolutely killing it. Apologies for the video; I couldn't find the version I wanted on Youtube. 

In the past, it had never occurred to me that this tune that felt so incredibly Yiddish might actually be... not.

But, it did occur to me just now, when the producers of A Very English Scandal decided to use it for a particular emotional moment. This very powerful man, Thorpe, has brought home a very vulnerable younger man, Scott, and is in the process of wooing- or more like wowing- him into doing what he wants. But, still, it struck me as odd that the producers would choose this tune, of all things, for that moment, especially when Hugh Grant appears to be struggling to keep up with his violin finger miming. Why pick a piece that was so difficult to pull off? And so Jewish??? 

A little more research showed me that this Hora Staccato is not by Moishe Oysher, or even Dave Tarras, but was composed in 1906 by a Roma violin virtuoso named Grigoraș Dinicu. The tune probably gained its greatest fame with another virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz often saved Hora Staccato as a show stopping encore number.

So, that makes a lot more sense. Thorpe was a very confident, indeed, arrogant man. Of course he'd pull out a literal virtuosic show stopper to try to impress his young friend, and of course he'd think he had the chops to pull it off. Faster, he cries. That moment so perfectly encapsulates Thorpe's arrogance and vanity, some of the very qualities that would, we know now, end his career in total ignominy.

Anyway, Hora Staccato is a great tune. And I'm glad I can give props to the real composer, the great Grigoraș Dinicu.


  1. There are a lot of layers here. The following is just a sketch of a complicated trajectory. Heifetz’s father and first teacher, Ruvin Heifetz, was known to have played violin in Yiddish theater orchestras in Vilna and was a close friend of the Olefsky family, one of Vilna’s important Jewish musical families (and probably also kle
    zmer, as Ruvin Heifetz may also have been, although it’s not been documented). Its not clear how familiar Jascha Heifetz was with all of that or not, but he was a close friend of the Olefskys in both St. Petersburg and later in the US.

    Grigoraș Dinicu (1889-1949) was probably the best known Romani musician in the US, partly because of his appearances at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, and partly because his 1906 composition, “Hora Staccato” (possibly not the original title, although he recorded it under that name for the first time in 1928 and again in 1937 or 1938. Heifetz’s first recording of the composition was in 1938.

    But the story goes further back. Heifetz toured for the first time to Romania in 1928. According to Josh Walden’s account, he heard Dinicu in a Bucharest restaurant while on tour in 1929 and was impressed both by the playing (he is reputed to have claimed Dinicu to be the greatest violinist he had ever heard) and the composition. Dinicu wrote out a sketch of the tune for Heifetz (reputedly on a napkin), and Heifetz “transcribed” it. By 1930, he had negotiated with Dinicu to purchase the publishing rights to the tune and published it in 1930 with Carl Fischer listing the composers as Heifetz. Dinicu is listed in parentheses after the title. Dinicu himself was not only from a Romani musical dynasty; he had studied at the Bucharest Conservatory and had been a student of famous violin teacher, Carl Flesch. According to Wikipedia, Dinicu wrote it for his graduation from the conservatory in 1906 and performed it at the ceremony.

    You are right, it is only “Yiddish” by association (much like, perhaps “Misirlou”). It seems that all subsequent versions (in the US at least) were based on Heifetz’s arrangement and not directly from Dinicu. This would include not only Dave Tarras’ and the Moishe Oysher/Barry Sisters versions, but also famous renditions by swing musicians from Benny Goodman to Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. Heifetz also published a swing song version, “Hora Swing-cato,” in 1945 under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl with English lyrics.

    But the connections are there. First of all, Tarras and Oysher were both fans of Romanian music (especially the Wallachian and Moldavian Romani music known as muzică lăutarească). It’s possible that Tarras met and/or heard Dinicu while he was performing at the World’s Fair in New York, but it is not documented. Tarras also had a bent for classical music. He also adapted motifs from George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 (1901) for the 78 rpm recording “Roumanian Rhapsody” with Abe Ellstein (as the Roumanishe Kapelle) ca. 1947. While these motifs were all themselves based on well-known Romanian/ lăutarească tunes, it’s possible but unlikely that the source was not Enescu. As far as Oysher and the Barry Sisters go, possibly they got this from Tarras, as they worked together a lot and both recorded for Seymour Rechtzeit’s Banner Records, but there were already so many famous versions at that point, it’s possible that they got it from Heifetz or Goodman. Who knows?

    One more layer: Heifetz as a 13-year old boy in Vilna was apparently mentored by Jewish educator and musician-collector Zusman Kiselhof, a primary figure in the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music and publisher of folk music. He both made field recordings independently and as part of the An-ski expeditions leading up to World War One, some of which have been reissued on CD by the Vernadsky Library in Kiev.

  2. For further reading:

    Cosma, Viorel. Figuri de lautari. Bucharest, 1960.

    Kopytova, Galina. Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia

    Rubin, Joel E. and Michael Aylward. Chekhov’s Band: Eastern European Klezmer Music from the EMI Archives 1908-1913. CD anthology with text booklet. London: Renair Records, 2015

    Walden, Joshua S. “The Hora Staccato in Swing!”: Jascha Heifetz’s Musical Eclecticism and the Adaptation of Violin Miniatures. Journal of the Society for American Music 6 (2012): 405-31

    Thanks to Paul Gifford, a historian of Romani music in the US, for additional information.