Unearthing the Rhythmic Flow of Yiddish Poems

Nocturnal thoughts. © Charles Thibo

Kafka is on my mind. It’s hard to escape him right now, and actually I do not want to escape him. I want to meet him, see him, listen to him, embrace him. He has become a companion dear to me, a friend for the rest of my life, just like Franz Schubert, Fanny Mendelssohn and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Kafka. The question of Jewishness and authenticity. During the winter of 1912, Kafka tried to promote in the Jewish community of Prague a band of Eastern European amateur actors with a Yiddish repertoire. He expected a certain hostility. The Jews in Prague generally despised the Jews from Russia as being uneducated, rough, even primitive. The saw their assimilation to the refined Austrian-Hungarian bourgeoisie as their supreme social achievement. Kafka however saw in Yizhak Lewi and his band an expression of authentic Jewishness, while he had much less interest in the lofty political dreams of his Zionist friends in Prague.

At some point I had to drop that book on Kafka and listen to Dmitry Shostakovich’s work “From Jewish Folk Poetry”, Op. 79a. It is a song cycle for voice and orchestra. Now, if you expect anything like Klezmer music, you are heading in the wrong direction. Shostakovich did not intend to copy that traditional Jewish folk music. In 1948, when he wrote the piece, he was under pressure to produce “melody infused with the essence of folklore”, as Laurel E. Fay writes. This had been Shostakovich’s pledge when he faced his colleagues at the 1948 Composers’ Congress. He would not repeat the mistake to write anything that might qualify as “formalistic” and thus be in contradiction with Soviet socialism.

Poor Shostakovich! Although he quickly completed the piece that was enthusiastically greeted by many colleagues, the work’s premiere in December 1948 was cancelled. The reason remains unknown according to Fay. It would seem that he had not presented it to the peer review process of the Union of Composers. Did he anticipate a new wave of Soviet antisemitism, disguised this time as a struggle against “rootless cosmopolitans”, Such a campaign was launched in December 1948, from the platform of the Soviet Writers’ Union. Shostakovich was a cautious man and the official culture policy an eternal maze. Songs – yes. But Jewish songs? “From Jewish folk poetry” would be performed only in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death.

Like Kafka, Shostakovich was interested in the pronunciation of Yiddish words and the rhythmic flow of Yiddish folk texts, texts that the composer knew only by their Russian translation. What emotions could they set free in their original language? “Shostakovich was attracted by the ambiguities in Jewish music, its ability to project radically different emotions simultaneously”, Fay explains. The composer picked eleven such poems, went to the bottom of their melodic essence and scored them first for soprano, contralto, tenor and piano (Op. 79). In a second step he fully orchestrated the pieces.

Feeling different emotions simultaneously – that was one of the central aspects of Kafka’s personal drama. His deepest inner self is exposed in his novels and tales, a soul torn by moral and emotional conflicts, searching for a way to express himself, searching for a way to exist. Shostakovich’s songs are sad and joyful, introspective and exuberant at the same time. Shostakovich’s setting makes each of them a little dramatic work, a micro-opera around the individual subjects: The Lament for the Dead Child – The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt – Lullaby – Before a Long Parting – A Warning – The Abandoned Father – The Song of Misery – Winter – A Good Life – The Young Girl’s Song – Happiness.

Kafka would have laughed at this, but he and Shostakovich are actually soul-mates in many regards.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” has been recorded by I Musici de Montreal, Nadia Pelle, Mary Ann Hart and Rodney Nolan.

© Charles Thibo

Published by

de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.