A Singing of Angels
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In 1971 Cantor Jerome B. Kopmar founded a children’s chorus under the auspices of his congregation in Dayton, Ohio, for the dual purpose of elevating the musical content of its services and of offering concert performances for a broader general public. Known as the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale, the ensemble (some eighty members between the ages of nine and eighteen, at its peak) quickly attracted national attention—the only Jewish youth chorus to do so in the postwar decades. It performed twice in Israel, as well as in England and Holland, toured the United States, and appeared on national television on the NBC network—all in addition to its annual spring concerts in Dayton.
The typical voicing for Jewish choruses both in Europe and America has always been either SATB—for mixed four-part chorus or for boys singing soprano and alto with adult male voices on tenor and bass—or in the männerchor tradition, TTBB, for all adult male voices. Very little worthwhile sacred or secular Jewish music existed in three-part treble format (SSA). Therefore, commissioning new music for its own performances was a priority for the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale. Indeed, beyond the valuable educational and artistic experience for the young choristers and the aesthetic pleasure they brought to their audiences, the most lasting contribution of this all-too-brief episode in American Jewish cultural history is the body of new works commissioned by the Chorale. Over a period of twenty-seven years, until Kopmar’s retirement, in 1996, and the dissolution of the Chorale, full-length works and shorter individual pieces—sacred and secular—were commissioned from such composers as Issachar Miron, Morton Gold, Ralph Schlossberg, Abraham Kaplan, Sholom Kalib—and Charles Davidson.
Davidson’s A Singing of Angels was born thus as a Beth Abraham commission in 1966 and received its premiere by the Chorale in Dayton in 1967 under Cantor Kopmar’s direction. (It was a co-commission with the Beth El Junior Choral Society of Beth El Congregation in Akron, Ohio.)
Davidson envisioned a “folksong suite” comprising original choral settings and arrangements of traditional Jewish folk or folk-type songs, which would be reimagined for young voices and refocused through an artistic lens. For his subject matter and musical material he turned to the vast storehouse of eastern European Yiddish folklore, and he selected a group of songs that evoke—through a series of vignettes, anecdotes, and dialogues—various aspects and emotions of daily Jewish life in the villages and small towns of 19th- and early-20th-century eastern and east Central Europe. Most of these songs are well known to the cognoscenti of Yiddish culture; a few are generally familiar among wider segments of American Jewry as well. They vary in mood, flavor, and tone. Some are lively, sparkling with energy and humor; others are dreamlike and reflective, expressing poignant yearning and romantic love. Collectively they recall some of the typical, if admittedly romanticized, family scenes and struggles, reveries, situations, hopes, and folk superstitions (along with the satirical mockery they have sometimes provoked) that once appertained among large segments of Yiddish-speaking populations—throughout the Pale of Settlement of the Czarist Russian Empire as well as in such regions of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire as Galicia and southern Poland.
Apart from avoiding the hazards inherent in requiring both Jewish and non-Jewish American children to sing accurately and meaningfully in a language entirely foreign to most of them (notwithstanding a minuscule handful who still do have formal exposure in Yiddishist schools and summer camps), Davidson wanted to achieve an immediacy with contemporary audiences who were generations removed and perhaps culturally distant from the world depicted in these songs. He therefore conceived A Singing of Angels as an English-language work, not simply or reluctantly as a set of songs in translation; thus, no Yiddish option is provided. He collaborated with Samuel Rosenbaum, a talented and creative translator of many Yiddish songs and poems and a scriptwriter for numerous Judaic cantatas. Rather than pursue literal translations for these lyrics, Rosenbaum created English adaptations that are liberally based on the original texts, but which convey no less vividly their authentic spirit within an accessible context. No mere substitution for the original Yiddish, this work takes on, by artistic intention, a unique flavor of its own. And it becomes thereby a vehicle for a deliberately imagined sense of nostalgia, with which audiences who have never experienced the world to which they refer can still somehow identify.
Of the nine songs Davidson selected, some have always been considered genuine folksongs, while others, some with known authorship, have come to be perceived as such. All were at one time integrated into orally transmitted repertoires and traditions, within which they were most commonly sung without concern for their origins. These nine songs provided the raw ingredients (tunes and lyrics) for the composer’s inventive choral treatment, with his original harmonization, moments of counterpoint, instrumental accompaniment, and even some new material. For live concert performance, the work also includes a dramatic spoken narration (not part of this recording), which amplifies the historical-cultural context and bridges the movements.
Yiddish Folksong: Origin and Oral Tradition
Apart from the other parameters that might be included in a generic definition of folksong, folksongs are by nature part of an oral tradition—disseminated, learned, sung, and passed down by oral transmission, without recourse to notated sources. Notwithstanding some now discredited and naive 19th-century romantic notions, obviously no tune or poem, however simple, can have emerged authorless, as if it had created itself—sprung by some imagined spontaneous generation “from the natural expression of the folk,” as otherwise sophisticated collectors and even scholars sometimes suggested when the fields of ethnology and ethnomusicology were in their infancy. The identity of a song’s composer may be unknown to us, but that anonymity in no way nullifies the fact of human origin and authorship, any more than the anonymous Elgin marbles in ancient Athens could have come into being without having been chiseled by sculptors. Whether or not we know or suspect the originator’s identity—as most often we do not—every folk tune and its text still began life as someone’s invention. The folksong embryo was then subject to subsequent and, in some cases, continual alteration and development by others who sang, modified, and transmitted it orally in an ongoing and vital folkloric process.
The germination and historical course of folksong adaptations is similar. The deliberate attachment of a new text (newly composed or preexisting) to a previously known tune, either anonymous or attributed—or vice versa, i.e., a new tune joined to an older text—must also be initiated by some individual before acquiring its folksong function and gaining currency in a folk repertoire. Eventually the new hybrid entity may be considered a folksong—if it achieves assimilation and acceptance within an oral tradition.
Folksong can also include those songs whose tunes and texts were conceived together as corresponding parts of performable units, which might have been composed initially as renditions for popular entertainment by professional tunesmiths or bards. For example, many Yiddish songs that became part of genuine folk tradition and took on practical folksong functions were introduced as professional or quasi-professional performances— sometimes even improvised on the spot—by badkhonim, or wedding jesters, across large expanses of eastern Europe; and badkhonim also performed songs that were already in print but became folksongs as a result of their well-received performances. But once such songs became a part of oral tradition in this way, the identity of their composers often became unimportant in popular consciousness and was sooner or later shed. Like amateur song inventions and adaptations, such professionally conceived or introduced songs achieved folksong status through wide general acceptance, which, in turn, was probably because of their Volksgeist, or folk character. That Volksgeist may reflect not only the folkways, lifestyles, customs, themes, and sensibilities of a cultural group, but also the familiarity of its own peculiar folk melos. This overall assimilative process, together with the substantive change a song may undergo along its journey from professional composition to folk tradition, is sometimes described informally in contemporary ethnological parlance as “folklorization.”
It is probably true that the vast majority of Yiddish folksongs can properly be classified as “anonymous”—certainly with respect to one of the two components: texts or tunes. Yet ethnological research continues to yield new insights about the history and sources of specific songs, occasionally assigning identifiable authorship to previously anonymous and orally transmitted ones. However, the folklore status of those songs is not thereby diminished—if their primary mode of transmission and inheritance has been oral, and if we accept that such folklore status lies more in a song’s historic function, transmission mode, and common usage than in the factual circumstances of its patrimony.
In any case, those songs that are indeed still anonymous are not folksongs simply because they are anonymous, but because they are known to belong to an established oral tradition within the folklore of some particular ethnic, regional, national, social, or occupational group. Oral tradition is both an accumulative and a collective operation. Even though it may be documented in printed form, it “achieves its constancy,” as the erudite Jewish music historian Albert Weisser aptly observed, “not through the printed word, but by the very organic life span of the culture of which it is a living member.” In Weisser’s understanding, then, oral tradition differs from “personal” invention not by denying the role of the individual in invention or transmission, but by what happens to a song thereafter—how it lives and grows within its nurturing environment. In that sense, therefore, whatever its ancestry, folksong is very much a collective property and heritage rather than an individual possession. And “the folk”—as the perpetuators of these songs within their natural habitats—are thus not without a significant role in the molding, development, and metamorphosis of folksongs, in a procedure that we might call “continuous creation.” The role of “the folk” lies in a song’s evolution and change, whether conscious or unintentional.
The Process of Change
Change and variation are the inevitable consequences of oral transmission, of migration, and of differences among regional and cultural-environmental influences—all in the absence of any acknowledged urtext or “authorized version.” Both the tune and its text can, and usually will, therefore, have multiple variants. Folksong variants may be understood as nonidentical—but similar—accepted renditions of the same basic song, as they appear in the repertoires of differing distinct traditions. Such variants contain and represent the different ways a folksong has been transmitted and known traditionally from one region, generation, community, or social-cultural group to another. One variant may be considered as authentic or genuine as the next, provided each can be verified actually to have been extant among its adherents according to the particular variant. This principle can apply equally to anonymous folksongs and to those with known origins or composers.
Differences among musical variants can be minuscule or substantial, ranging from variations in passing and neighboring tones, phrase contours, modalities, details of rhythmic values, embellishments and ornamental extensions, appoggiaturas, repetitions, and even inclusion or omission of entire passages. Textual variations can encompass the following: word substitutions; regional vocabulary or dialect patterns; morphological matters; alternative situations, scenarios, or locales; introduction of different characters; changes in tense or gender; and a variety of other literary considerations. But the differences among variants do not obscure the basic identity of a song in terms of its recognizability to the layman or average listener. And the basic tune or tune skeleton generally ensures its recognition even when a variant involves more radical textual variation.
I. Once My Pair of Oxen
The Yiddish title of this anonymous folksong, from which Rosenbaum’s English lyric was adapted, is known as Hob ikh a por oksn, which actually translates as “I have a pair of oxen.” The song was found to have been established in at least one region of the Russian Empire by the late 19th century, if not earlier, and it is possible that it was also known in other Yiddish-speaking areas of what we now loosely call eastern Europe.
The fact that the text was first published in 1901 in Russia, in the watershed and, for its time, definitive collection Jewish Folksong in Russia (St. Petersburg), by Saul Ginsburg (1866–1940) and Pesach Marek (1862–1920) accords the song its bona fide Yiddish folklore status. Ginsburg and Marek were Russian Jewish haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) adherents and historians who also had law degrees. They were also avid music aficionados and active participants in the haskala-infused Russian Jewish intelligentsia, as well as in other intellectual, artistic, and Zionist circles. As was not uncommon in their Russian bourgeois intellectual milieu, both practiced professions: Marek as an accountant who nonetheless published serious historical writings; and Ginsburg as a lawyer who was also a history professor for a brief time after the October Revolution and before emigrating to the United States. Both had a passionate interest in Jewish history, which they eventually confined to the Russian imperial sphere. Driven by the emerging interest and activity in the documentation and preservation of Jewish folklore as part of a Jewish national revival, and encouraged by the growing realization after about 1890 that much of the oral tradition among the Jewish folk masses of the Czarist Empire was in danger of being lost, they became convinced of what was then still a novel proposition, at least in Russian historical thinking: that the history of Jewish folk music throughout the empire was itself an essential component of Russian Jewish history in general—not merely a matter of musicological interest.
Ginsburg and Marek teamed up to produce what became the first serious and comprehensive documented collection of Yiddish folksongs, which, despite the plethora of subsequent collections and publications by more advanced field researchers and trained ethnologists, has served ever since as a major primary resource for students and scholars. Prior to that landmark 1901 volume, the widening ripples of interest in Yiddish folksong had been confined in print to various single-sheet issues, a few broadsides, and pamphlets containing only a few songs—including texts alone in most cases. Rare musical notations of individual folksongs had appeared only occasionally as part of, or at the end of, journal articles—mostly in Germany. Moreover, the contents of certain other publications of that time designated as “folksong” were not really folksongs at all. Rather, they were popular entertainment-oriented creations with a folk spirit. These were frequently conceived “from the outside” by urban-based songwriters and bards who were not themselves part of the folk culture they tried either to depict or address—among them the lawyer Mark Warshavsky (1848–1907), now best known for his romanticized song Oyfn pripetshik, and the dramatist and poet Eliakum Zunser (1836–1913). (Some of their songs, however, did gain popularity among the folk masses and were adopted into traditional folk repertoires.)
Ginsburg and Marek therefore had few precedents on which to rely in pursuit of their mission, which began in 1898, the year generally assigned to the birth of the Jewish national music movement in Russia. They were neither equipped nor inclined to pursue on-location field research of the type begun soon afterward in Russia by the famous Anski Expedition and followed by a number of important collectors in the Russian orbit who developed more sophisticated methodologies—the most significant undoubtedly being Moshe Beregovsky (1892–1961). Nor did Ginsburg and Marek notate their songs or have them notated, as they might have known them firsthand, or even second- or thirdhand, as did some later folklorists and compilers such as Yehuda Leib Cahan (1881–1937), whose extremely valuable 1912 volumes were the result of his singing from memory to an arranger who then notated the songs. Rather, Ginsburg and Marek’s procedure was even more indirect. They placed notices in three haskala-Oriented Russian Jewish periodicals (two Hebrew and one Russian language) announcing their project and requesting notated contributions from throughout the land. They noted that it was especially important for this project to have the cooperation of elements of the intelligentsia who lived in remote or outlying regions of the empire, where old lifestyles and song traditions still persisted and were—they hoped—not yet irreparably diluted by haskala or other modern erosions.
In large measure, this project unavoidably involved viewing “the folk” from the elite perspectives and sensibilities of the Jewish middle classes, who could appreciate the long-range academic and intellectual significance of the endeavor in a way that the actual singers among the folk masses could not. Contributions would naturally come from, or via, those Jews who read such periodicals in the first place. Although some of them might have known certain folksongs from childhood—perhaps from home or communal environments that had preceded their own haskala influence or orientation, or from relatives in previous generations that were not yet so affected—many responded to Ginsburg and Marek by deliberately collecting songs from the folk cultures of which they were not, or were no longer, a part. Nevertheless, as the editors commented in their introduction to the volume, the response was rewarding and highly informative, and it even included submissions by “teachers from the provinces and Zionist activists.”
The resulting volume, which includes 376 folksongs, put the lie to the now inconceivable and ignorant statement in 1861 by the ethnographer Moshe Berlin that Russian Jewry in fact had no secular folksong of its own. This assumption had persisted among cosmopolitan Russian Jewish intellectual circles, in part because that intelligentsia was so culturally removed from nonurban Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement and from its folk masses. The project also confirmed the premise held by Ginsburg and Marek—and by others attracted early on to the potential of a Jewish national music based on its folklore—that it would have been a theoretical impossibility for the Jewish masses in the outlying regions, given their common colloquial daily language (Yiddish), not to have developed a folksong tradition with a secular content. That there could even have been such a debate may startle us today, but the question remained real in many untested assumptions until the publication of this work.
Although some contributors included musical notations along with Yiddish texts, which were then given to the music critic, composer, and future head of the music section of the Anski Expedition, Joel Engel (1868–1927), to edit and prepare for publication, the Ginsburg and Marek volume unfortunately went to press with only the texts and no music notations at all. Unexplained “exhaustive technical problems” is the reason cited in the preface for this omission, along with the unfulfilled promise that the music would be issued in a future publication. Therefore, only the text of our song, Hob ikh a por oksn, is confirmed by its presence in Ginsburg and Marek. But the same song appears with its tune in subsequent collections by others, including one as recent as 1984 in Israel, which suggests the authenticity of the musical parameter. The tune upon which Davidson relied is consistent with the basic pattern of those notations, which differ legitimately in small details among the received variants.
The contributions furnished Ginsburg and Marek appeared to stem mostly from—or be known in—the northern Jewish populations of the empire and the Pale: mainly the areas of Lithuania, Kurland, Poltava, and Podolia; and none from Poland or even from what was then known as Russian Poland. Each contributor’s name and his song’s presumed locale was printed with the text, and some text variants are included as well. Hob ikh a por oksn, for example, is documented in Ginsburg and Marek as submitted from six distinct towns or regions (Kurland, Vilna, Grodno, Kovno, Minsk, and Keydan). This in itself may suggest that in one or another of its variants, the song was ubiquitous throughout the wider area encompassed by that source. But it also demonstrates the danger of assuming a connection between where a song was found to be generally known and its supposed geographical derivation, since many songs were often known in multiple and disparate regions. (Even internal linguistic or dialect-related hints among text variations can be misleading, because those elements traveled as well and sometimes resulted in inconsistencies.) Indeed, the oral music tradition of eastern European Jewry owed much to its itinerant musicians, bards, and badkhonim. Traveling cantors and out-of-town yeshiva (talmudic academy) students also brought songs from one region to another, which then could become rooted in local tradition. Therefore, we cannot know the actual birthplace of Hob ikh a por oksn.
This song belongs to the category of “humorous folksong” and has no real meaning or logical progression other than its internal quasi-nonsense humor, which is reinforced by its rhyme and rhythm. It is also a cumulative song, a category known in the folklore of many peoples and ethnic traditions, which, in practice, can be used as a game. Additional strophes can even be improvised on the spot, making for a nearly endless possibility of variants; and indeed other extant strophes have been found, which refer to minks, turtles, and fish. Each strophe of a cumulative song accumulates one additional element—in this case a pair of animals or things—and the entire newly increased list is then repeated at the end of each strophe as an internal refrain, typically sung with an exaggerated accelerando. Familiar examples of other cumulative songs in Jewish tradition are the post-seder songs for Passover—ḥad gadya and Eḥad mi yode’a?—whose multiple musical versions (i.e., distinct and unrelated tunes for the same text, as opposed to variants) almost always incorporate such repeated and accelerated accumulations.
Davidson established the playful mood in the introduction by quoting a once-familiar children’s play-chant motive, “Olley, Olley In-Free.” Excitement increases gradually through the modulation by a half tone upward for each succeeding strophe, and a treble obligato adds interest at the fourth strophe. A brief pause for a contrasting statement in the minor mode precedes the final extreme acceleration.
II. My Pages Are Snowy White
The Yiddish title of this love song is known variously as Papir iz dokh vays (Paper Is White) and Papir iz vays un tint iz dokh shvarts (Paper Is White and Ink Is Black). Love songs were long thought to be historically alien to eastern European Jewish tradition, since romantic love itself is presumed to have been a foreign introduction. This attitude reflects the commonly held myth of a cultural monolith across eastern European Jewry, especially concerning religiously observant Jews. “Love is a new word among us,” remarked a Yiddish writer in the 1870s, perhaps implying that it was emerging then as a byproduct of the “new” cultural inroads of modernity—even among the religiously oriented folk masses who could no longer be entirely insulated forever from reverberations of the haskala from outside nor protected from instances of youthful rebellion that it could inspire. Yet even the 1901 Ginsburg and Marek volume contains a substantial number of specimens of love and courting songs, mostly from the feminine perspective. The other early-20th-century collections also confirm that, at least by the 19th century in traditional folk circles—notwithstanding the persistent institution of arranged marriages, as well as continued (albeit not always successful) rabbinic, parental, and other social discouragement even of “innocent” romance as a Western and non-Jewish behavior—themes of romantic love are hardly infrequent among those folksongs repertoires.
Moreover, the aforementioned Yehuda Leib Cahan demonstrated through manuscript text sources that love songs—or at least poems—were current in Yiddish folklore as early as the 16th century. And the ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovsky observed that some love songs in post–l9th-century compilations are similar in structure and form to those 16th-century ones—which suggests at least some degree of continuum.
By the early 20th century Papir iz dokh vays had become definitively established within Yiddish folklore in the Russian sphere. It was later found to be well known in Romania and may also have traveled through parts of the Hapsburg Empire. But it is believed to have been born under entirely different circumstances, as a song composed by Eliakum Zunser for his biblically based play M’khiras yosef (The Selling of Joseph) and introduced in that play’s initial student production in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1874. In the scene where Potifar’s wife, Zolika, tries to seduce Joseph, she sings an eight-strophe love song to him, and this song is thought to be the archetypal model and precursor of what later evolved into the present folksong, with radically varied and revised lyrics that would have resonated with 19th- and early-20th-century sensibilities and life situations.
Some time after the run of the play, the extracted song—in gradually altered form, with numerous textual as well as musical variants—apparently was spread among the masses in the Pale by traveling bards, and probably by Zunser himself, who by some point in the 1870s abandoned his supplementary “day job” trade and became one of the most famous and sought-after badkhonim.
Most revealing is the song’s inclusion in Moshe Beregovsky’s first volume of a projected multivolume anthology of Jewish folklore embracing vocal, instrumental, theatrical, and dance music. This volume presents annotated transcriptions from fieldwork dating at least as far back as the 1910s, but it was not published in Moscow until 1962, as Yevreyskiye narodnye pesny—without any date of Beregovsky’s writing or completion. That he cited no fewer than five variants, the earliest documentation of which dates to 1912, attests in no small way to the song’s wide currency across a geographical expanse that included Kiev, Berditchev, Ushomir (Zhitomir region), Vilna, and Poland.
Moshe Beregovsky is generally considered the most distinguished and commanding pioneer of Jewish folk music scholarship in Russia during the Soviet era. His vast collections of field recordings are reputed to include many thousands of items, and he edited and authored several important works (published and unpublished in his lifetime) in addition to the posthumous volume cited above. But in contrast to other Jewish folklore collectors and scholars both within and outside the Russian political and cultural orbit, he emphasized the urban environment and guise and the proletarian significance and value of Jewish folk music—in keeping with the prevailing Soviet ideologies to which he subscribed, at least officially, especially in his publications of the 1930s. Within that ideological framework, he focused on proletarian themes in Yiddish folksong, denouncing the emphasis on the Volksgeist in relation to a Jewish national regeneration, calling it a deliberately conceived antidote to the social and revolutionary struggles of the proletariat against capitalist oppression; and he branded much other Jewish musicological scholarship and musical creativity as tainted by a “clerical-bourgeois” approach, seeing therein both a bourgeois political (let alone a Zionist) agenda and a national-religious focus that ran counter to a perceived universality of proletarian aspirations. For Beregovsky, the legitimate “folk” referred to the enlightened, socially progressive, and forward-looking working classes, not the reactionary, romanticized, and parochial antiprogressive Jewish populations in the small towns and villages across the former Russian Empire.
Yet Beregovsky’s work is decidedly separable from that orientation, and it stands as an enduring monument to ethnomusicological scholarship—with methodologies and perspectives almost uncannily advanced for their time. Also among his contributions was a novel perception, at that time, that Jewish folklore should be considered within the overall context of the wider host culture and as one of its integral and interrelated parts. He was able, for example, to relate one of the Papir variants directly to a Ukrainian song, and to suggest both the points of divergence and their estimated time frames of occurrence. Our ability to trace the present song with the aid of his scholarship is itself a testament to its lasting value. Even his ideological orientation can turn out to be of assistance, inasmuch as it illustrated that songs such as this one had become current in the folklore of urban proletarian culture and did not necessarily remain confined to the environments to which they might have been introduced by badkhonim.
Beregovsky’s principal entry of Papir is vays... (text variant), which was transcribed as heard in Kiev in 1929 from an actress in a Moscow Jewish theater, is far more complex than other variants—including the one on which Davidson relied—and contains substantial musical differences from one strophe to another. In it, as in many but not all of the other variants, the signature opening phrase commences with an upward minor sixth leap, rather than a fifth as in Davidson’s setting, which more closely corresponds to Cahan’s variant from Poland—both of which lack the dotted quavers and semiquavers of the Beregovsky sample. Two additional variants, from Khotin, Bessarabia, are also found in a 1959 collection from Romania.
As a masculine expression, Papir iz dokh vays is an atypical Yiddish love song of its time. Its gender reversal apparently occurred at some point along its evolutionary path, or was consciously instituted as part of the overall textual revision by one or more bards—since the song was obviously a manifestly feminine proclamation of desire in Zunser’s play. But it remains typical of its genre in its melancholy mood and its longing.
Among parodies of this song is a humorous one located by the indefatigable Yiddish folksong scholar Chana [Eleanor Gordon] Mlotek, which reads: “Paper is white and ink is black; since you went away I neither eat nor drink—I’m expiring. May I hope to hear the same from you very soon!” Davidson’s setting adds an original countermelody, which introduces and concludes the movement and also serves as a descant to the principal melody.
III. In The Valley
The Yiddish words to this song, known in its original form as Bay dem shtetl shteyt a shtibl (Near the Town Stands a Cottage), were composed by Zalmen Rozental (ca. 1889–1959) to a simple preexisting folk tune. A native of Teleneshty, Bessarabia, Rozental wrote poetry in both Hebrew and Yiddish, including more than 100 lyrics to older folk melodies, and he pursued ethnographic and folklore research that yielded more than 300 songs. He was particularly interested in modern children’s education, in connection with which he wrote many playful children’s songs such as this one, and he founded a progressive school in his hometown in 1914. He studied in Odessa and lived for a time in Kishinev, and in 1940 he was exiled to Arkhangelsk (Archangel) for fourteen years for Zionist activities that fell afoul of the authorities.
The text of this song, therefore, cannot be said to have arisen from a natural folk milieu. Rather, it depicts—with harmless and quasi-nonsensical humor—an aspect of small-town traditional Jewish life as viewed from an outside, modern, and romanticized urban perspective. It was also translated into Hebrew by the famous poet laureate and avatar of modern Hebrew poetry, Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik (1873–1934). The song has many musical variants, but there are also alternative versions: Rozental’s text has been adapted to other independent and unrelated tunes. Among them is an original tune by the well-known Yiddish songwriter Michl Gelbart (1889–1962) dating to 1937–38; a version recorded in America by the popular cantor and entertainer Moishe Oysher; and another heard in Bucharest in 1949.
The song was published in 1925 according to Rozental’s original adaptation (tune and text) by the folklorist Menahem Kipnis, who transcribed it as he had heard it sung by an informant. It also appeared in Emil Seculetz’s volume of Yiddish songs known in Romania (1959), where he heard it sung in BotoÅŸani in 1929; and in 1932 in Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’s monumental and lifelong work, Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, in the volume devoted to “The Folksong of the East European Jews” (IX) where, unlike many other entries, it gives no source. This suggests that Idelsohn simply knew it himself from oral tradition or forgot his source.
Davidson juxtaposed a variant of Rozental’s adaptation against a separate unrelated waltz tune, and a wordless “nonsense” passage recurs between sections. But he also appears to have improvised on the original basic tune, giving it subtle turns of phrases not found in any of the extant variants.
IV. If Dreams Came True
This anonymous children’s folksong, which has numerous textual as well as musical variants, is known by several Yiddish titles—Volt ikh geven a rov (I Would Have Been a Rabbi); Zol ikh vern a rov (Should I Become a Rabbi?); Zol ikh zayn a rov (Should I Be a Rabbi?); Ikh volt g’gent zayn a rov (I Could Have Been a Rabbi)—according to its various text incipits. It appears to have been known through these and other variants in many parts of eastern Europe, and it was also translated into Hebrew by Bialik. The text reflects typical children’s daydreams about their future occupations. An entirely different musical version of the song is found in Cahan (1912, vol. 2), which he collected from Chemerovtsky, in the Ukraine. Here too Davidson has expanded the basic tune, and has also interpolated a complementary lilting triple-meter melody.
V. Dance With Me
This is an anonymous Yiddish folksong whose Yiddish title is In rod arayn (Join the Dance!). But the refrain has been attributed to Velvel Zbarzher-Ehrenkrants (1826–1883; Di khsidishe mizinke). The song’s modality conforms to the scale of one of the principal Ashkenazi prayer modes (Shtayger), known now by cantors and musicologists as the ahava rabba mode, and often colloquially but erroneously identified in cantorial parlance by the Yiddish term freygish (Phrygian—understood as “Jewish Phrygian”). The mode is built on the fifth tone of a minor scale (i.e., the fifth becomes the tonic)—with a lowered second and a raised third, giving the characteristic augmented interval between the second and third tones—and a lowered seventh as well, which provides the signature cadential element. The mode—and particularly its scale—is historically ubiquitous in Ukrainian and other eastern European secular songs, and it was adopted by synagogue chant only as a result of eastward Jewish migrations from German-speaking areas following the expulsions in the medieval and immediately postmedieval periods. Much Yiddish folksong later became infused with this modality as well—both from liturgical tradition and more directly from surrounding non-Jewish folksong. The modality also often permeates Hassidic song, which borrowed not only the mode but often songs and melodies in their entirety from Ukrainian, Polish, and other host cultures.
Although there are thematic strains of love-song sentiments in the text of this variant, the song is usually placed more broadly in the category of songs for, or referring to, weddings and other festivities. Indeed, the lyrics here contain an invitation to join the dance and rejoice together “while the stars still shine”—perhaps meaning merely while the night is yet young and while there is still time, or perhaps in reference to a typical outdoor wedding celebration “under the stars,” although the image of both romantic suggestion and mixed dancing (men with women) would then place the song outside traditional religious circles in eastern Europe and attach to it an element of modern Western influence. The third strophe here appears to express a spontaneous infatuation and to acknowledge with some poignancy the potentially fleeting nature of this couple’s encounter. Davidson, however, interpreted that strophe differently, in a Holocaust-oriented context, where, for him, it becomes a harbinger of the echoes of murdered children’s voices, and he transformed the musical expression accordingly. Indeed, Chana Mlotek has located a parody of this song that was sung in the Vilna Ghetto during the Second World War. Among other variants is one that more specifically refers to a wedding, where the elderly parents desire to dance together: “She loves her son-in-law, and I love my daughter-in-law. I would dearly love to dance with you, but at eighty my legs don’t obey me.”
VI. The Merry Rebbe Elie
Although to this day it is most often assumed to be an anonymous European folksong, Der rebe elimeylekh (The Rebbe Elimeylekh)—the original title of the song that forms the basis for this movement—was actually composed in America by Moshe Nadir [Isaac Reis] (1885–1943), an émigré Yiddish poet and intellectual from Galicia who wrote the song probably sometime during the first two decades of the 20th century and published it initially in pamphlet form in 1923, arranged by Abraham Ellstein. It has been adopted into some circles of Yiddish folklore simply as a benevolent humorous song, at most a gentle satire, about Hassidim—followers of a charismatic rebbe (rabbinical-type leader) or, more generally, adherents of one of the various and splintered mystically oriented and pious movements and philosophies known collectively as Hassidism, whose founding is attributed to Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1700–1760), known by the acronym the BESHT. And the song’s wider popularity among non–Yiddish-speaking circles has been encouraged by numerous concert renditions, choral arrangements, and recordings. All of this, however, is patently misleading, since the song actually belongs clearly to a special category of censorious anti-Hassidic songs.
Among the mitnaggedim (orthodox, establishment-oriented opponents of Hassidism on Jewish legal, academic, and philosophic grounds) in Europe during the 19th century, there arose a body of songs that mocked the Hassidim—and especially their rebbes and tzaddikim (patriarchal righteous ones), derogating them for what was perceived to be superstition, backwardness, blind obeisance to rebbes, frivolity, cult of personality, mystical focus, and excessive emphasis on song and dance as a means to ecstasy. For the mitnaggedim, this was all to the detriment of more sober study of the traditional religious texts—Bible and Talmud—as the primary objective and overriding virtue of Jewish life. Many of these anti-Hassidic vehicles also soon became popular as entertaining folksongs among Jews who were, strictly speaking, neither Hassidim nor mitnaggedim in a formal sense, but more sympathetic to the latter in their overall mainstream sensibilities. But these songs are often misinterpreted, especially by American audiences, as artificially nostalgic but nonetheless welcome romanticized vignettes of a European Hassidic world with which few, even through their previous generations, have any real connection beyond its legendary superficial trappings. Biting satire and intended negative image of the ecstatic Rebbe Elimeylekh and his inebriated followers notwithstanding, the popular perception of this song in particular is now more often innocently tied to yet another sympathetic look at a supposedly joyous aspect of folk life in the “Old World.” It is in that spirit of fun that Rosenbaum fashioned his more benign English lyrics, and in which Davidson included the song in this suite.
This song is generally thought to have been aimed at a specific rebbe: Elimeylekh of Lizhensk (1717–87), a popular tzaddik of the third generation of the Hassidic movement and one of the founders of Hassidism in Galicia, who, ironically, was known for his asceticism. Unlike some of his fellow rebbes, however, he also acknowledged that asceticism was not necessarily the only path to the mystical Hassidic goal of tikkun—“restitution and repair of the world”—and he is quoted as having said that one tzaddik might reach tikkun through eating and drinking, while another might do so through an ascetic life. But he also proposed that at times a tzaddik must descend to the level of his community in order to uplift it. And in later life he is said to have refocused on self-fulfillment, apparently neglecting the spiritual leadership of his community of followers.
Nadir’s conception of this song should be understood in the context of his own periods of skeptical disillusionment, anger, and moodiness. “When God had nothing better to do,” he is quoted as saying, “He created a world. When I have nothing better to do, I destroy it!” Indeed, much of his writing had an intended shock value, and his literary debut in New York’s Daily Herald was in a section titled “Awfully Bad Poetry and Not So Bad Prose.”
Der rebe elimeylekh seems to have achieved transatlantic folkloric status even before Nadir published it, for its first notated appearance (text only) was in a 1922 Vilna compilation (Pinkes) by Shlomo Bastomski, a folklorist and collector who identified it as an anonymous folksong received from an individual in Soviet Russia in 1921. Bastomski included it as well, without attribution, in his more substantial subsequent 1923 volume, where an addendum informs: “This song has a very nice melody.”
Only two years later it appeared in a Warsaw compendium as received from someone in Bialystok. Even though Nadir republished the song in New York in 1929, this time in a book, folklorists, collectors, and editors remained ignorant of its pedigree, and they continued to include and present it, in its array of variants, as an anonymous folksong—from Europe (as late as 1969) to Buenos Aires to Israel, as well as the United States. There is also testimony that it was sung in Soviet Russia in Russian, as Uncle Elye.
In recent decades, folklorists as well as amateur aficionados have seized upon superficial parallels between Der rebe elimeylekh and the well-known English nursery song “Old King Cole” (a “merry old soul who called for his fiddlers three”), in which can be found, of course, no trace of the underlying significance, ramifications, or purpose in Nadir’s song. There is the obvious if clouded mirror of the king who appears to have no more pressing urgencies than to be entertained, but there is no parallel to the religious-philosophical purposes attached to song and even merriment in Hassidic thinking. The unavoidable comparison is sometimes lifted beyond its legitimate boundary, especially in citations of Elimeylekh, without critical assessment, as a Yiddish version of “Old King Cole.”
It was, however, none other than Idelsohn—apparently also oblivious to the facts of the song’s genesis and unaware of its young age—who succinctly observed those parallels when he included Elimeylekh in his 1932 secular folksong volume (merely reprinted from Kipnis’s Warsaw publication from the 1920s). More provocative than the admittedly obvious if thin literary comparison as an implied inspiration for Nadir’s poem is Idelsohn’s proposed musical parallel. At first glance it is easy to dismiss that suggestion, since anyone who recalls “Old King Cole” will likely do so as a simplistic narrow-range tune in major. But in his annotation to Elimeylekh, Idelsohn presented a rare and radically different tune variant of the English children’s song—nearly an independent version altogether—in minor, whose refrain in particular bears startling resemblance to our Yiddish tune. That discovery increases at least the possibility of its role as a model for Nadir.
Nearly all printed variants and virtually all recordings and concert choral arrangements of Elimeylekh have been drawn from the various folkloric transmissions of the text as well as the tune—not from Nadir’s own published urtext. In most current familiar renditions, therefore, the denunciatory tone has long ago been tenderized and the negative characterization muted, partly through elimination of certain aspects altogether. Nadir’s original text did more than rely for its indictment on an insider understanding of the phrase zeyer freylekh (very merry) as euphemistic in this song’s context for “tipsy”—or more! In the last and now generally eclipsed stanza of his original poem, for example, “the drunken band of Rebn Meylekh-Elye danced and cavorted merrily, taking up each other’s instruments and carousing until dawn.”
Rosenbaum’s adaptation, of course, includes nothing so overt, and it focuses—as do most contemporary Yiddish renditions—on the positive perceptions of Hassidism vis-aÌ€-vis song and joy, celebrating its exuberant spirit and optimistic side. In at least that respect, for all its satirical humor and frivolity, even Nadir’s full original song does touch on a profound aspect of Hassidism: the sheer power of music to evoke joy even in the face of adversities, to encourage hope, and to alleviate mental, emotional, and even physical pain, sometimes by inducing altered states—a power acknowledged by some modern schools of science. These English lyrics and Davidson’s theatrical musical treatment both echo that Hassidic value of the niggun (melody) to “drive gloom and sadness away” and to “push all sorrow from today until tomorrow.” It is in that spirit that the song fits admirably into this suite.
VII. Softly Shines The Moonlight
Under its Yiddish title, Oy a nakht a sheyne (Oh, What a Lovely Night!), this song first appeared in print in a 1913 compilation, where it was identified as heard in Podvrodze [Padvrodz], Vilna district. It also appeared subsequently in 1927–28, in Cahan’s third volume, where it was presented as heard in Kishinev, Bessarabia. Cahan’s variant corresponds closely to the one used by Davidson. The text could refer to the pain of impending separation associated with emigration to America, when many men departed to establish themselves financially before sending for their wives and families or fiancées. But more likely it belongs to the special category of love songs associated with the harshest periods and episodes of military conscription under the czarist regimes. Here the young woman bemoans her beloved’s imminent departure and wonders if he will ever return—as so many did not.
Idelsohn’s entry of the song without attribution of a source in his 1932 eastern European Jewish folksong volume (IX of the Thesaurus) once again tells us that he either knew it from the oral tradition or had forgotten his source. But since the source was probably not Cahan (songs learned from Cahan are so credited there), the song’s independent appearance in Idelsohn may be another indication of its widespread currency in Yiddish folklore by that time.
Davidson dedicated this movement to the memory of Max Helfman (1901–63), one of the most important American composers of synagogue and other Judaically related music, who also wrote a choral setting of this song in its original Yiddish. As one of Davidson’s mentors, Helfman exerted a profound influence on the composer’s creative path. The accompanying figure beginning in the sixth measure is adapted from one of Helfman’s own settings, and the folk tune itself is introduced in the eighth measure.
VIII. Yome, Yome
In this third-person quotation, or recounting of a mother-daughter dialogue, each strophe begins with a request to a musician—Yome (a diminutive for Binyomin, or Benjamin)—either to sing the song or to play accompaniment for it, depending on the text variant. One variant, Mame vu geystu? appeared in Ginsburg and Marek, submitted from Kurland and Keydan (mistakenly identified as Kovno), and another appeared in Cahan (1927, vol 3), as heard in Narayev, Galicia, in which the musician addressed each time is named Shmulikl (diminutive for Shmuel, or Samuel) rather than Yome. (Cahan contains another variant with Yome as well.) Yet another of the multiple variants was confirmed by a sixteen-year-old in Botosani, Bessarabia, in 1928, and is documented in Seculetz’s folksong compilation.
Among extant variant texts, some introduce alternative or additional items that the mother suggests her daughter might want, at which the young girl protests each time that her mother doesn’t understand—until at last her one true desire is elicited, which remains the same in all variants. It is easy to see how this song might be extended, almost endlessly, by the mother continuing to imagine things her daughter might want, and how it could provide the basis for a singing game.
There is an obvious kernel of gentle humor at the conclusion, when the mother finally grasps the answer and her daughter’s string of “no” responses suddenly becomes an enthusiastic “yes, now you finally understand”—which practically invites comic delivery. But the song also reflects the embedded marriage goals of traditional Jewish societies.
IX. No One Else
The concluding movement is based on a humorous Yiddish play song composed in America, Dray yingelekh (Three Little Boys). The words are by Israel Goichberg (1894–1970), who emigrated to the United States from Bessarabia in 1913; and the tune is by Michl Gelbart, who was born in Ozorkow, Poland, and emigrated in 1912. Gelbart became well known in America for his many Yiddish children’s songs and six children’s operettas, but his catalogue also includes many charming, simple, and even childlike songs not necessarily for children’s audiences alone. Some of these even approach the level of art song.
The second strophe of the original Yiddish poem contains a play on the word nissele, which means “little nut” but is also the name of the third boy, who is the protagonist (diminutive for Nissan): “Mother brought three nuts from the market: one was for Berele, one for Chaim-Shmerele, and the best one for herself; lest you wonder why there was none for me, it’s because I am NISSELE!” Rosenbaum did not preserve that element in his lyric, in which he imagined alternative images, but he did exploit a similar play on words with the double meaning of “jack”—as the once-popular children’s plaything and also the third son’s name in his revised English adaptation.