Abraham Goldfaden -- also sometimes referred to as Avram Goldfaden -- was a figure of such profound importance in poetry, literature, politics, and theater, as well as the broader history of Jewish and Western culture, that his contribution to music is often regarded as almost incidental. A poet, playwright, and author -- as well as a sometime journalist -- he was the founder in 1876, in Romania, of what is now acknowledged as the first professional Yiddish theater company in history; he also wrote what is believed to be the first Hebrew play ever performed in the United States; and his first published poem, "Progress" (1866), expressed sentiments that anticipated the foundations of modern Zionism years ahead of that event. And ironically, for all of that, and everything that followed in his life, it had been his intention to study medicine.
Born in Russia, he attended a religious school, but also received private education, and as a boy showed an interest in things theatrical and comedic, especially clowns and jesters. He trained at a rabbinical school, and became a teacher with medicine as his career goal, upon graduation in 1866. When he failed at that attempt, he turned to writing -- he initially authored poems in both Hebrew and Yiddish, though the latter eclipsed the former; at some point, he also thought to found a Yiddish-language newspaper in what later became Romania, and it was the wife of a potential backer who suggested that much more profitable would be a Yiddish-language theater company. This started as a public performance of several of his poems that had been set to music and became a full-blown evening's comedy entertainment and finally a proper, professional theater company.
Goldfaden's songs became the glue that linked much of the work that was done -- almost all of it comedic in nature -- and he participated as a performer in some of this work as well. He would continue to dabble in journalism for the rest of his life, but theater became his main focus from that pioneering endeavor in 1876. By that time, many of his poems, set to music, had become extremely popular songs within the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Rather than simply being a poet, he became a songwriter as such, composing works that were intended to be sung, for use in his plays. His works and his productions became the focus of a thriving industry, as singers -- including renowned cantors -- and aspiring actors came to audition by the dozens, even the hundreds. The burgeoning Jewish middle class in the late 19th century fueled a growth in audience that gave the Yiddish theater in those years almost exponential growth -- offshoots and outgrowths of the phenomenon that he'd started in Bucharest began spawning as well; it was two Goldfaden company alumni, Israel Rosenberg and Jacob Spivakovsky, who went on to return to their native Russia and found that empire's first Yiddish theater company.
He could have gone on doing the kind of theater that had carried him in those first years -- lightly comedic, and not terribly serious -- but instead he decided to push the envelope by devising plays built around increasingly serious subjects. This eventually put him at odds with the most conservative elements of his audience, and also with the Tsar's government, at a time when Goldfaden had relocated his company to Russia. Finally, in 1883, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, all Yiddish theater was banned in Russia, in a move accompanying a rising swell of anti-Semitism -- Goldfaden's company of the time dissolved, members going their separate ways. There was no place at the time for him in the Yiddish theater circles of Romania or in places such as Warsaw, and he mostly survived as a poet for the next few years -- he might've made a fresh start in theater somewhere in Europe but for the worsening anti-Semitic currents running through various societies and nations. His plays, ironically enough, were still widely performed, but in that day and age, there was no means of securing royalties from those performances. Although these were decidedly lean years for him, Goldfaden did find the time and wherewithal to be a Parisian delegate to the 1900 World Zioist Congress. He had previously visited the United States and New York City in 1887, but had been thwarted in his efforts to found a theater company by business and other complications; but in 1903, with Jewish life in Eastern Europe deteriorating rapidly, he finally cut the cord and headed to New York City.
He arrived in 1904 and what he saw of the city must have astonished and dazzled him -- here he was, surrounded by as many Jews as lived in the biggest cities in Europe, but from all over the world, and of every political persuasion; there were even, in those days, a tiny number of African-Americans who attended synagogue; and if there was anti-Semitism, it wasn't institutionalized or fostered openly by the government. Even those individuals who would have been familiar to him had made extraordinary achievements -- a one-time minor player in one of his companies, Jacob Adler, was now a theater owner himself and had a company of his own (and his children, Stella Adler and Luther Adler, would be come stage and screen legends in the United States); and his one-time singing protégé Zigmund Mogulescu -- who'd joined his company as an 18-year-old cantorial singer 20-some years before -- was now a star of such renown that his name on a program could make a play a success. Ironically, Goldfaden failed initially, as a journalist, mostly for being too outspoken in a time when governments felt they could do something about that. But inspired by his contact with some young Zionist enthusiasts, he also authored a play, David ba-Milchama, which in March of 1906 became the first Hebrew-language play to be performed in the United States. Goldfaden enjoyed one last great stage success, Ben Ami, a dramatic adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, which opened at the People's Theater of December 25, 1907, to large audiences and good reviews. Goldfaden passed away two and a half weeks later, remembered in The New York Times as "the Yiddish Shakespeare," and a prophet as well as a poet. Some 75,000 people attended his funeral, in a procession that went from the Bowery on the Lower East Side all the way to Brooklyn, where he was buried in Washington Cemetery.
Goldfaden's music was such a tiny part of his work -- but an essential part in helping the early popular works, the genre-defining works, hold together, especially in those early days when his reputation was being made -- that it seems almost superfluous to talk about it by itself; it's a bit like talking about Shakespeare's song lyrics, which are important but a tiny fraction of what makes the man important. Some of Goldfaden's music has been recorded in a more formal classical setting by the likes of Itzhak Perlman; his songs got one of their biggest boosts in the mid-20th century when Richard Tucker, the cantor-turned-opera singer, recorded a 10" LP of Goldfaden songs from his plays -- what one hears are songs and arias not at all removed from the sort of work that Johann Strauss II and Carl Zeller or, later, Emmerich Kálmán would have been generating on operetta stages of the period, highly melodic and subtly sophisticated. His music, like his plays, are ripe for rediscovery in the 21st century, if only as representative works of a core 19th century European urban Jewish culture that is all but forgotten.