Concert Pianist Irene Jacobi: WNYC American Music Festival, 1943

At the height of World War II, WNYC invited concert pianist Irene Jacobi and her husband, composer Frederick Jacobi, to perform some of his works for the station's fourth annual American Music Festival.

Irene Jacobi (formerly Schwarcz) was a graduate of New York City’s Institute of Musical Art, now known as the Juilliard School. She met her husband, modernist composer Frederick Jacobi, when he was an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. A match made in music heaven, they married in 1917 and Irene frequently played Frederick’s music, which drew on influences as diverse as Native American folkloric recordings and Jewish traditional themes. His compositions were also performed by leading American and international orchestras as near as  New York and as far away as Paris, Warsaw and Vienna. His music was conducted by legends such as Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitzky.

Having created work for nearly a decade, inspired by Native American culture primarily, by the 1930s Frederick Jacobi turned his attentions to his own Jewish culture. Jacobi was invited to compose an entire Sabbath eve service by New York City’s Temple Emanu-El. Following this creative shift on their journey, the couple performed his compositions, accompanied by orchestras or quartets, at concerts of Jewish vocal and instrumental music in New York City at the Lexington Avenue YM-YWCA and at multiple venues in Europe.

The above soft-focused image of the spell-binding Irene Jacobi by Greenwich Village photographer Jo Jonas understandably seized our attention at the Forward Archive. On the basis of such a striking portrait, we surely would have cataloged her as an actor, if not for the attached caption detailing her upcoming performance on WNYC’s American Music Festival of 1943. The Forward which was published daily in Yiddish at the time, was being asked by WNYC’s publicist to inform readers of this special broadcast and sent along the photo of Irene. In a radio program intended to reach overseas listeners, Irene Jacobi would accompany soprano Sally Pestcoe’s vocal rendering of her husband's From The Prophet Nehemiah and would then perform her piano interpretation of his Prodigal Dances. As heard in the audio introduction above, Irene was more than just a radiant face, she was a recognized recording artist in her own right with major labels, including RCA.

According to Mr. Seligson, (WNYC’s public relations representative who signed the caption), in a note to Chaim Ehrenreich, the Forward’s Theater Page Editor, the concert was to be broadcast on the evening of February 12th, 1943 from 6-6.30 p.m. The war was unfinished, but February brought news of the major defeat of the Nazis by the Soviets at Stalingrad. And in the Warsaw Ghetto, as deportations of Jews to the death camp Treblinka continued apace, the first insurrection by resistors was noted—one that would eventually lead to April’s historic uprising.

And here in a broadcast meant to resonate beyond our city was perhaps a tuneful message of faith, in a piece inspired by an Old Testament prophet who led the people in the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s own walls. Perhaps Seligson and Ehrenreich had themselves orchestrated some spiritual resistance over the airwaves.

   Note from WNYC to The Jewish Daily Forward reagarding the Jacobi concert. (Forward Association)


A shorter version of this blog first appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward's Throwback Thursday feature.

Many thanks to Danny Sbardella and Katrina Dixon for making this audio available from the NYPL Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.