Piano Works of Slavic and Jewish composers including: Chopin, Dvořák, Glick and Shostakovich
- Eileen S. Cooper, Soprano
- Benjamin Berman, Tenor
- Paul Conrad, Piano
Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 7:30
A Recital Created by
Benjamin T. Berman, Tenor, and Eileen S. Cooper-Sedek, Soprano
Singers are citizens of the world through the constant study of foreign languages. Vocal literature inevitably takes a person to one of these foreign lands, into various traditions of poetry, and is a rich tool for learning about other people’s culture. However, it is rare that the background of the singer’s own heritage enters the purview of his or her vocal study, especially for those who hail from places far beyond the iconic world of Italian opera, French mélodie, or German Lied. This is the premise of our recital today: to explore the songs from the lands of our forefathers. Eileen Cooper’s mother’s family is from Poland, and Ben Berman’s fathers’ ancestors were Jews from Bohemia, Germany, and Russia. Through much digging and the help of generous friends, we have uncovered the wonderful classical music that emerged with unbridled passion in Eastern Europe.
We begin our program with three songs of Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) from his Op. 74. Chopin grew up in Warsaw and left roughly one month before The November Uprising (1830–31), an armed rebellion in the heartland of partitioned Poland against the Russian Empire. His songs brought to the European Romantic song repertoire a nationalistic character and tone it had lacked before through his folkloric inspiration, Polish dance rhythms, and pained nostalgia for home in post-Napoleonic Europe. The songs were written in the twenty or so years between 1827 and 1847 and exhibit a wide range of musical conventions, from pseudo-classicism to the lyrical tragedy the Romantic period. The strand of the tender song manifested itself in those jotted down in young girls’ and ladies’ diaries and albums, such as the love song Moja Pieszczotka (My Darling), set in a grand waltz, and Śliczny chłopiec (The Handsome Lad), sung to the melody of a Polish mazurka. The other main thematic category included songs relating to the contemporary history of his country and to the fate of a whole generation plagued by oppression, revolt, emigration. Melodya (Melody) alludes to echoes of war and immense loss in the world of the Southern Slavs. The sparse accompaniment throughout much of the song helps to illustrate the abandonment and hopelessness of refugees, driven from their homeland and fated to be forgotten.
One of the centerpieces of our recital is music that came out of Terezín (Theriesenstadt), the fortress-town outside of Prague that served as a major concentration camp for Jews during World War II. Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was a Czech-German Jew who was incarcerated there before being deported to Auschwitz in 1944. In his own words, “We did not simply sit down the rivers of Babylon and weep, but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live.” Ullmann’s style is simplistic in its settings, with unadventurous rhythm, clear, extremely linear part-writing (Bauni), and jazzy and occasionally non-functional harmony. The effect is that the words are highlighted, and these songs deserve a place in the great tradition of Yiddish story-telling. Margarithelech is a story of a Chavele’s discreet encounter with a lover in the forest, and A Mejdel in die Johren is the lament of an older woman who is past her prime marriageable age and perhaps too old to find love.
Jewish people have had a difficult time existing in Russia, but it was often the only place in Europe where they received a minimal amount of tolerance. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) knew of this struggle well. In the 1940s and 1950s Jewish people suffered from anti-Semitic policies of the Soviet government, led at the time by Josef Stalin. Shostakovich nevertheless reached into Jewish culture for inspiration, particularly with his 13th symphony, and this set of songs From Jewish Folk Poetry (op. 79), as an act of solidarity. These songs capture the joy and horror of Jewish life, often riddled with poverty and hunger. Shostakovich was always in conflict with the Communist Party, in particular with Stalin, for most of his career, as were other artists. When he was not being accused of “formalism” he was attacked for not towing the party line. Before one goes condemning the rigidity of the Soviets against artists, let one remember that Stravinsky was threatened with heavy fines by the police of Boston, Massachusetts, for his arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner. Shostakovich responded to official criticism in his own country with thickly-veiled irony. According to Lakubov, “Shostakovich intended to perform his composition [op.79] at the Union of Composers as early as the end of 1948…However, due to the virulent anti-Semitism and the ‘struggle against cosmopolitism’ campaign that had been launched in the country, this hearing proved impossible.” It was first publicly performed a full seven years later.
We close the first half of the program with the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s (1841-1904) famous song Když mne stará matka, which is the fourth of seven songs from his cycle Gypsy Songs, Op. 55 (1880). The poems in the cycle are from the collection “Ciganske melodie” written by his friend, the poet Adolf Heyduk, who also translated the Czech poems into German. The Czech language was repressed in the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, so much so that many Czech people often knew German better than their native tongue. Catering to the ruling people was often oppressive for Dvořák, who tried throughout his life to find a unique Czech voice. He became well-known throughout the German-speaking world through the advocacy of Johannes Brahms, who influenced his own publisher, Fritz Simrock in Berlin, to publish Dvořák’s music in German/Czech editions. A relationship with Simrock brought him renown, but it forced him to make concessions and compromises with a remote German audience. This is a similar story for much of the peoples of Eastern Europe, and is a common theme in the music today. Dvořák’s vocal setting of Gypsy Songs notably follows the natural inflections of the Czech language, with the piano part exhibiting more of the traditional rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic contours of Gypsy music. Když mne stará matka details the bittersweet joy of passing along the songs of one’s heritage to their own children and has a notable rhythmic structure of syncopated 6/8 in the piano against a steady 2/4 in the vocal line, creating a feeling of ambiguity and subtle struggle. The cycle as a whole expresses and emphasizes the connection between man and nature, the deep importance of music, and on freedom as something to be valued above all else; the poems and Dvorak’s musical setting of them were an emblem of the effort to liberate the Czech nation from Habsburg repression.
Like Shostakovich, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) before him had a great appreciation for Jewish culture. And so, in May 1914, one hundred years ago, Ravel composed a setting of the Kaddish, a hymn of praise to God, found in the Jewish liturgy. The Kaddish is an ancient Aramaic prayer inspired by the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. There are several forms of the Kaddish, including the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Kaddish after the study of a tractate of Talmud, and the Half Kaddish, or Reader’s Kaddish. Ravel’s setting is the Half (Reader’s) Kaddish, which is used in Jewish services to proclaim God’s greatness after reading from the Torah.
In the second half of the program, we will perform I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Srul Irving Glick. The children of Terezín attempted to cope with their imprisonment by composing poems and artwork, which later were published in a collection named after one of the poems. The poetry alternates between the ever-present cruel and bitter reality of life in the ghetto and fleeting images of beauty. This artistic outpouring was encouraged by the Nazis, who used the music and art that came out of Terezín as propaganda. Parts of this collection were set to music by many composers, and ours today is by Glick, a Canadian cantor and composer. His presentation of the duality of their existence is heartbreaking, from the dreamlike suspension in Alena Synkova’s “To Olga” to the excruciating numbness in Petr Fischl’s “Narrative.” The tone is ominous and dark, the music dissonant and acerbic. It is easy to forget that these words were written by children and teenagers. We wish to thank Patrice Jegou-Oyelese for her incalculable contribution to our research and appreciation, indeed, even the discovery of this music of Terezín.
The last piece on today’s program is a collection of four duets by Dvořák, which appeared in its first form as three duets in 1975 (op. 20). The fourth duet was added in 1879, and these were published by Simrock. These are indeed folk texts, but Dvořák “did not content himself with mere arrangement of folk melodies, but began to set the words to new music of his own” (Šourek). These duets were in fact the very piece that attracted the attention of Hr. Brahms of the Adjudicating Board (Brahms used the word “piquant”). Without composing these duets, it is likely that Dvořák would never have been discovered by Simrock and he may have been lost to posterity. And so we end where we began: with a composer who struggled to preserve his Slavic culture amid a world of foreign influence. In the spirit of Antonín Dvořák, then, we close with a heartfelt homage to the homes of our mothers.