Based on a Jewish folk song from Ansky's play The Dybbuk, Vitebsk is one of Copland's few works making use of a Jewish theme. (Vitebsk, Ansky's home town in Russia, was where the playwright first heard the tune.) Copland wrote, "Jewish influences were present in my music, even when I did not refer to them overtly. I grew up in the Eastern European tradition and so there was no novelty to it as was the case with folk materials relating to the American West." With Vitebsk, it was Copland's intention to reflect the harshness and drama of Jewish life in Russia. Audiences find it a strangely moving work.
-Vivian Perlis, 1998