From the World Of My Father
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From the World of My Father is Berlinski’s reconstruction from memory of some of the music he wrote and directed for PIAT, the émigré Yiddish theatrical troupe in Paris between 1933 and 1940, during his sojourn there as a refugee. He was unable to retrieve any of those scores prior to his departure for the United States, and they are presumed to be lost—although there is still the possibility that some may be found in Paris archives. After settling in America, he was able to fashion his recollections of the melodic material into this suite (which he titled before the publication of Irving Howe’s well-known book of nearly the same name).
In 1938, while still in Paris, Berlinski learned of the death of his father, who, together with the actors and actresses of the PIAT, had been his last remaining personal links to the world of eastern European Jewish life, language, and lore. As an immigrant from Poland to Germany, his father had been careful to transmit to his children some of the cultural heritage from eastern Europe—even as they acculturated to a very different environment and set of sensibilities in Leipzig. The elder Berlinski also sought to ensure that his children, even though he wanted them to become “modern German Jews,” would still have some familiarity with the Yiddish language, and he had engaged a tutor for that purpose.
Berlinski now determined to write a piece that would evoke the images—dances, laments, celebrations, piety, struggles and joys of daily life, and mysteries—of that world from which his father (and mother) had come in principle and which their parents and grandparents had known even more intimately. (His parents had actually come from the cosmopolitan and cultured Jewish community in Lódź, in what was Russian Poland, and not from the unwesternized outlying regions of the empire.) It was a world that he knew had declined considerably after the First World War on its path toward dilution, with the inroads of modernity and—in large areas of the former Czarist Empire—as a result of the Soviet regime. Although he could not have known it at the time, it was a world doomed to imminent and complete destruction within the next several years.
Around the same time, Berlinski was introduced by one of his teachers, Daniel-Lesur, to the inventor of the ondes martenot, an early electronic wave instrument. As it happened, Daniel-Lesur’s mother was a virtuoso performer on the instrument, and Berlinski decided to provide a role for her in his new piece. He thus scored the initial incarnation of the music that later became From the World of My Father. In Paris it was titled ḥatzot [Chazoth], for string quartet and ondes martenot—in which form it received its premiere in 1938 at the Salle Erard in Paris as a theatrical piece. In America he recycled the music as he remembered it into three versions, which, although containing basically the same music, exist as three suites. The one here, Suite no. 1, is scored for orchestra; the others are scored for clarinet solo and chamber orchestra and for cello and chamber orchestra. In addition, he fashioned some of these musical recollections from his Paris days into a sonata for flute and piano, and as a solo organ piece that received considerable attention.
By the time Berlinski scored the present orchestral version, he did so with the Holocaust and its destruction of European Jewry in mind. “The Holocaust did [now] put its imprint on virtually every note of this [American incarnation of the] work,” he wrote many years later. “The wedding dances became mayofes dances [forced servile Jewish entertainment, often mocking sacred songs with degrading dances for Polish gentry in the 17th and 18th centuries and symbolizing Jewish servility and subjugation—so named after a Sabbath eve table song, ma yafit, which for some reason gained special popularity in Poland]. The so-called freilekh [a joyous dance for celebrations among eastern European Jewry] became the dance of the dispossessed, and the meditative niggun [a spiritual, usually wordless melody among Hassidim] evolved into the eternal Jewish quest in which we, like Job, wrestle with Satan and even with God for the meaning of suffering.”
From the World of My Father displays a side of Berlinski’s musical persona not generally associated with his work as a whole. Its transparently conservative, conventionally melodic, and nostalgic perspectives may even surprise those familiar only with the later works that brought him his major recognition. It draws liberally on perceived sounds, inflections, modalities, and idioms of the melos associated in popular imagination with prewar eastern European Jewish life among the Yiddish-speaking populace. These are not, of course, musical evocations of life among the minority of middle-class Jews in sophisticated urban environments in east Central and eastern Europe, nor of the urbanized Yiddish-speaking Jewish proletariat in many cities, but of the masses in the smaller and even medium-sized towns and villages throughout vast regions of what had been, prior to the First World War, the Czarist and Hapsburg empires. Large numbers of Jews in those areas still adhered, even by the 1930s, to folkways of the previous century that in much Yiddish literature are presented as a Jewish fantasy world replete with age-old superstitions, but it was also a world of much Jewish learning, mystical cults, and sincere piety.
Overall, the musical depictions in this work are romantic and unabashedly sentimental, yet accomplished with skillful simplicity and never banal. Much of the melodic material derives from tunes that the actors and actresses of the PIAT had sung for Berlinski in Paris, and which he had assimilated into a musical idiom for incidental music for their productions to enhance both tragic and comic theatrical scenes. All four movements exude deeply felt emotion in their straightforward lines and effective counterpoint. “This was the music of my father’s generation,” Berlinski wrote about the work decades after its completion, “now dedicated to the actors and actresses of the PIAT—almost all of them victims of the Holocaust. It will remain with me the rest of my life—for every sound in it evokes in me a name, a face, a smile, or a lament. If that is sentimental, so be it!”