Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 9

The Art of Jewish Song: Yiddish and Hebrew

by Neil W. Levin

V1ALLUSIONS TO HEBREW OR YIDDISH SONG are most frequently assumed to connote popular, folk, folklike, commercial, pedagogic, or theatrical genres and, in the case of Hebrew, kibbutz, ḥalutz (pioneer), aliya, and other Zionist-related songs of a folk character that are known collectively as “songs of the Land of Zion” (shirei eretz yisra’el). Rarely, if at all, outside a small and dwindling group of aficionados, however, do unmodified references to Hebrew or Yiddish song evoke association with the classical genre of lieder—or art song—that constitutes serious vocal chamber music for solo voice and piano as an interactive ensemble. It is this last genre that is the exclusive focus of this volume.

From a purely philological or linguistic standpoint, the German word lieder translates simply and generically as “song” (with reference to music, since it can also mean a lyrical, usually strophic poem in other contexts). The German equivalent of the English designation “art song”—referring to the type of classically cultivated solo song for voice and piano that rose to prominence in the Romantic era and has continued to be a staple genre of serious vocal music linked to poetic literature—is Kunstlieder. As a musical term, however, by the 19th century lied (and especially its plural, lieder) came to imply Kunstlied, so that although in theory the two words might be viewed as interchangeable, it long ago became customary in classical music parlance to refer to what we would call art songs simply as lieder. In fact, the term has entered the English language with that meaning in the classical context. (A folksong, on the other hand, might require its full German equivalent, Volkslied, for clarification or differentiation—as it would in Yiddish as well.)

While at one time the term lieder was generally used only for art songs in German (or written originally in German), it has come more inclusively to transcend German culture and to embrace art songs generically. It can thus apply not only to a recital devoted exclusively to German lieder, but equally so to a mixed program of songs by composers of German, French, Russian, English, American, or other nationalities and cultural backgrounds whose songs are settings of poetry in the corresponding languages. Some, however, would still prefer to call such a mixed program simply a “song recital,” assuming that the word “recital,” along with the venue and context of the event, indicates classical music as opposed to folk or popular songs. “Art song” is used in this essay interchangeably with the term lieder.

Curator's Note: The term “art song” is used throughout this website as a genre tag to denote songs of the lieder variety, as well as closely related works—not necessarily comprising a voice and piano duo—that display a similar compositional approach to setting poetry and/or folk songs (i.e., Jean Berger’s Two Songs from Ecclesiastes or Harold Shapero’s Three Hebrew Songs, both for tenor and orchestra, or Herbert Fromm’s Yemenite Cycle for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble).

Like virtually every art form associated with a particular period of origin, the seminal German lied of the Romantic era had its forerunners and antecedents. Those include the polyphonic lied of the late medieval period and the Renaissance; the Baroque continuo lied; and the Classical period art songs—all of which are now relatively obscure repertoires outside the academy, which do not, for the most part, represent the more enduring, significant legacies of those same periods. Beginning in the first quarter of the 19th century, however, with Schubert’s more than six hundred songs (cycles as well as individual pieces) and Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (op. 98, 1815–16), as well as some individual songs, lieder became firmly established as a major genre within classical music. As an intimate, introspective, expressive medium for solo voice and piano in a duo ensemble capable of exploring and interpreting serious poetry, it has attracted the talents of composers in nearly every generation since.

The lieder genre was a creature of the confluence of literary, sociological, aesthetic, commercial, and even technological developments that had emerged in Europe by the 19th century. Chief among these were the steep escalation of interest in Romantic lyric poetry as part of a wider, heightened attention by the educated public to serious poetry in general; the growth of middle and upper-middle classes for whom participation in music in the home became an important activity; the increased availability of music through commercial publishing; and the technical progress and improvements in the piano, whose greater range of sonorities, variety of fresh coloristic possibilities, depth of tone, and dynamic facility now suited it well to interplay and partnership with the human voice as part of a balanced artistic dyad.

We must bear in mind the piano’s critical generic role not only in German lieder but in other, analogous song repertoires of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although technical demands on the pianist can vary from one composer to another—and among songs by a single composer—the piano parts are, in principle, not accompaniments. Rather, they should be regarded as parts of a duo ensemble, ideally equal in importance to the vocal parts in expressing and interpreting the sentiments, evocations, and other meanings of the poetry. In this sense, the piano parts function like those in purely instrumental duos, such as, for example, the Beethoven piano sonatas for violin and piano—which in fact were so titled by the composer. (In this respect, true art song differs conceptually from other classically oriented song genres, including but not limited to those emanating from pre-Romantic eras; in those songs, the accompaniment primarily provides support to the singer.) If promotional billing of lieder recitals or recordings ignores this artistic parity by not listing the artists in alphabetical order without visual emphasis of one over the other, it is largely out of commercially driven considerations; the pianist usually has less public name recognition than the singer.

Command of the language and a thorough ability to interpret the words are skills ideally possessed by pianists who are seriously devoted to participation in lieder or other art song performance. Hans Heinz, one of the great voice teachers of his generation at The Juilliard School, used to give master classes exclusively for pianists interested in broadening their scope to include lieder. His annual admonition at the outset of each series was that formal study of at least German, French, and Russian (as a basis) must be a prerequisite not only for lieder singers but for the pianists as well—along with profound engagement with the poetry. In his view, as a partner in the duo the pianist must be sensitive to every shade and nuance of the sung language; translations are insufficient. Jennie Tourel, one of the supreme vocal artists of the second half of the 20th century, who was also a major presence on Juilliard’s faculty, took the same position in her sessions for pianists.

In practice, the ideal of pianistic unity with the vocal part is not always realized in lieder. Lazar Weiner’s Yiddish songs, which make up a substantial portion of this volume, meet the standard to near perfection. They are indeed paradigms for the quintessential lieder model, not only in their sophistication and their intricate probing of the poetry, but also in their fusion of piano and voice in synergetic expression. Ofer Ben-Amots’s Shtetl Songs, a song cycle, is also a masterpiece of pianistic and vocal coordination that treats folk elements with artistic techniques. Other songs, however, such as those by Henoch Kon, Michl Gelbart, Maurice Rauch, Paul Lamkoff, Solomon Golub, and Samuel Bugatch, among others represented here, are far more simple in both their vocal lines and their piano writing. Their simplicity in no way negates their artistic persona. They are regarded as lieder in the classical song tradition because of the nature of their poetry as well as their intended function.

There is no reason that songs such as those in this volume by Weiner, Ben-Amots, Helen Greenberg, or Max Helfman—and perhaps some of the others as well—should not, on their merits, join the Western canon of lieder or art songs. The Hebrew or Yiddish poetry need not preclude that inclusion. Greig’s lieder—to cite only one example of songs in languages other than those assumed (or once assumed) to be encompassed either by Western liberal arts education or by standard conservatory training for singers—are routinely programmed by artists with neither command nor knowledge of Norwegian. In those cases their preparation must be extended to include not only advance familiarization with the Norwegian language and the nuances and sensibilities it evokes in the songs beyond simplistic translations, but also some orientation pertaining to their cultural contexts. The same applies to any language and culture foreign to performers. Yet, to continue the example of Grieg, Norwegian ancestry or ethnicity would certainly not be required of the performers, any more than German ancestry is a prerequisite for singing Schumann. (We might recall in this connection that some of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos were not German; Kirsten Flagstad, a Norwegian, and Birgit Nilsson, a Swede, come to mind. Among the acknowledged giants of Italian opera interpretation in the 20th century we can cite the sopranos Joan Sutherland, an Australian, and Victoria de los Ángeles, a Spaniard; the tenors Jussi Björling, a Swede, and Richard Tucker, an American Jew; and the baritone Leonard Warren [Warenoff], by birth also an American Jew.)

The Western art song canon to which we refer can be exemplified by the German lieder of Schubert, Schumann, or Brahms; the French songs of Duparc, Debussy, or Ravel; the Russian songs of Rachmaninoff or Mussorgsky; English songs of Britten or Vaughn Williams; American songs of Ned Rorem or Samuel Barber; and songs in other languages by composers such as Dvořák, Grieg, or Sibelius. That this canon in fact has a Jewish counterpart in serious Hebrew and Yiddish lieder almost always comes as a jolting surprise to classical music devotees, Judaically educated circles, ardent adherents of secular Yiddish and Hebrew cultures, and otherwise knowledgeable participants in Jewish music alike. Equally enlightening is the revelation that a significant part of the collective Jewish repertoire is a product of the American experience.

The genres of cultivated Yiddish and modern Hebrew lieder, based on serious Jewish literary sources and modeled in great measure on artistic principles of Western classical song, were born in the first decade of the 20th century in Russia. Their genesis was a function of the New National School in Jewish music (a.k.a. the New Jewish School) that was associated with—and embodied by—the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg (founded in 1908) and its branches in Moscow and other cities in the Czarist Empire (see the biography of Joseph Achron.) Consistent with the goals, aspirations, and influence of the Gesellschaft, affiliated composers such as Moses Milner (1886–1953), Joseph Achron (1886–1943), Joel Engel (1868–1927), Alexander Krein (1883–1951), Mikhail Gniessen (1883–1957), Solomon Rosowsky (1878–1962), and Lazare Saminsky (1882–1959), among a number of others, began the road from folk to art song by fashioning artistic piano accompaniments to well-crafted arrangements of Jewish folksongs that were known throughout large swaths of the Pale of Settlement. In that transformed state, genuine Jewish folksongs could be presented as quasi–art songs on classical concert stages for general (i.e., non-Jewish as well as Jewish) audiences.

The natural next phase of the mission of those composers involved composition of original lieder in Yiddish and Hebrew. Conceived as a manifestly Jewish expression of an increased and often newly discovered national-cultural consciousness, these songs were based concretely on historically authentic eastern European Jewish sources; yet at the same time they were addressed with learned compositional techniques and procedures, and written with the piano and vocal parts flowing in genuine partnerships. In that endeavor, in addition to invoking folk verse, some of those composers also turned for the first time in any concerted way in musical history to serious Yiddish and modern Hebrew literature, often by established, recognized poets. Many of those classically oriented lieder exhibit the deliberate incorporation and development of an authentic Jewish folk melos (modalities, intervals, inflections, tunes, tune fragments, and motives) that informed large segments of Yiddish-speaking folk culture, which, although severely threatened by the encroachments of modernity, was still alive in the empire at that time—especially outside cosmopolitan centers. Also included in the source material for those secular lieder were echoes of modern Hebrew culture in settings of poetry by such leading modern Hebrew poets as Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik and Saul Tchernikovsky, as well as references to traditional sacred musical motifs—including prayer tunes and biblical cantillations.

In America, quite a few Yiddish-speaking immigrant and immigrant-era composers wrote original Yiddish songs (in addition to, and apart from, their folksong arrangements). Though intended for the recital stage as well as for more intimate yet organized musical and social gatherings, these songs by such composers as Solomon Golub, Paul Lamkoff, Hanoch Kon, and others of their milieu are admittedly far less advanced and often more lowbrow than the Russian-born models of the New Jewish School—the existence of which neither they nor their audiences appear even to have known, and whose contributions to classical music and Jewish culture alike have generally escaped the awareness of Yiddishist circles in America altogether. Curiously, the few Gesellschaft veterans who resettled in the United States focused on the larger forms: symphonic works, concertos, dance scores, and chamber music—as well as liturgical settings. Achron, for example, produced major works in America that were recorded for the Milken Archive, but his important songs date to his years in Russia. The relatively few songs written by other Gesellschaft-affiliated composers after immigration to America are usually simpler than most of their other opera.

Lazar Weiner stands virtually sui generis among his generation as the uncompromising American (immigrant) exponent and advocate of Yiddish lieder as high art. Ultimately, it was under Weiner’s pen that the American Yiddish art song—and quite possibly Yiddish lieder of any geographical or cultural origin—attained its most profound expression and reached its richest bloom. Many of the Yiddish as well as Hebrew songs by other composers in America during the first six decades of the 20th century—and for the most part until a renewed interest in the serious side of these genres sprouted in the 1970s—were aimed at broader segments of the Jewish public than those of circumscribed inner circles that could digest more highly developed musical vocabularies and more difficult poetry. On the other hand, some of these popularly targeted songs are settings of texts by poets to whom Weiner turned as well. Often, these simpler—albeit tasteful, innocent, and often charming—settings have harmonically and technically conventional piano roles (or, in a few cases such as Mikhl Gelbart, none) that are more like accompaniments than the ideally homologous and artistically complementary piano parts associated with classical lieder. Yet they fall under the lieder umbrella as intimate expressions of worthy poetry.

Encouraged and inspired by the modern revival of the Hebrew language that was associated with cultural Zionism and national-cultural consciousness, a number of American song composers have addressed Hebrew lieder as a relevant genre. Some of them included Hebrew along with Yiddish art songs as part of their dual efforts; others who were not attuned to Yiddish culture confined themselves to Hebrew lieder. Golub published songs in both Hebrew and Yiddish versions, regardless of the original language of the poems, which widened his audience base. On some levels, composers’ interest in Hebrew songs during the first half of the 20th century was—consciously or not—a continuation of the goals and mission of the New Jewish School, which viewed both Jewish languages as part of the national-cultural resurgence and, in many cases, accorded them equal status as vehicles for creative exploration. The volume of the Hebrew repertoire in America, however, has been far smaller than its Yiddish counterpart. It is in modern Israel that the Hebrew art song attained greater maturity as a unique classical music establishment became grounded there. Still, Hebrew lieder constitutes a valued part of the American Jewish experience.

Beginning in the last two decades of the 20th century, Hebrew and Yiddish poetry has caught the attention of a number of young composers as part of an overall renaissance. Some of them have turned to the lieder genre in a diverse array of styles and musical languages. This suggests that in Jewish cultural terms, this genre retains its power to speak to contemporary generations.

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