FROM HIS FIRST EXPERIMENTS IN SONGWRITING, Lazar Weiner always chose Yiddish poems of fine literary value. Whether they were introspective, philosophical, or folk-related, they were invariably tasteful. And because of their clear diction and straightforward expressive affect, they were excellently suited to musical setting. He avoided metaphysical or highly involved intellectual speculations. In these predilections, Weiner was faithful to the long traditions of such classical song composers as Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Fauré, Debussy, and Mahler. In choosing to set Yiddish poetry to music, it was Weiner’s lofty aim to create a genuine, characteristic, and varied art music on the order of the great classical repertoire. Not for him was the merely commercial or the “hit parade” level of popular culture—or the corrupt accommodation to uncultured tastes.
In his efforts to forge a pure and authentic melodic style in his songs, he sought a return to primary Jewish sources: synagogue chant, Hassidic songs and dances, and biblical cantillation motifs. And he tried to identify among those sources the elements that had been least infiltrated by influences from Church music, opera, or commercial theater.
Pursuing the ideal of a pure melodic practice was only one aspect of Weiner’s efforts. Inventing an instrumental setting that could provide an interesting musical texture appropriate to the mood and spirit of the poetry, while not obscuring the character of the melodic line, was an equally vital concern. The piano parts are not accompanimental. Rather, they form an inseparable unity with the poetry and with the vocal lines. The pianistic component is highly varied in style as well as texture, and it plays a major role in punctuating and reflecting the changes in the poetry of each song. Occasionally Weiner would even adopt a simple “um-pah” dance figure in the piano part to support a folklike melody. But even in those cases, the subtle voicing and harmonic details reveal an inventive sophistication.
Weiner was well aware of the stylistic and procedural revolutions in 20th-century music. His appetite for the new and the experimental was insatiable. Well into his eighties, he could be found at concerts of contemporary music, no matter how radical or progressive, and he kept an open mind to all possibilities. Perhaps it was the strength of his inviolate conviction about the authenticity of his personal mission, his passionate devotion to the values of Yiddish culture, that enabled him to absorb as many outside influences without fear of compromising his core values.
Lazar Weiner’s songs can be categorized in a number of different ways. It is possible to consider them chronologically and to assign them to distinct periods: early, middle, and late. Or one can speak of very early songs as “songs of innocence,” later ones as reflections of pre-Holocaust fears and premonitions, postwar songs as expressions of concern over the impending decay and disappearance of Yiddish culture, and late songs as efforts to grapple with metaphysical issues, tragic reflections, and introspective deliberations.
Another way of organizing the repertoire might be to group songs by literary and musical type: love songs; simple songs with folklike melodies; songs with Hassidic character; dance songs; songs of introspection or elusive reverie; songs of desperate protest against injustice, against the destruction of a culture, or against the stigmatized positions of Jews in society; and songs dealing with theological issues such as the role of God in the affairs of man and the role of man in relation to God. Although nearly none of the songs is explicitly religious in any conventional sense, one finds a constantly recurring related theme: the connection between the secular and the sacred realms, and the inescapable interpenetration of the two worlds. Although Weiner was to all intents and purposes concerned personally with secular Jewish culture rather than with religious observance, his obsessive aspiration leaned toward the spiritual and the sacred. While generally avoiding the established rites of religious worship, he used the sacred images of Judaism to signal his devotion to profound traditional Jewish values.
It is worth noting that Weiner almost invariably followed certain techniques throughout his many decades as a song composer. Because his respect for the poetry was absolute, he allowed himself no departure from the text: no elisions, no prolongations, no cuts or repetitions. He followed changes in the mood or action within a poem with meticulous care. Rarely would he permit himself a decorative melisma or a brilliant high note for dramatic effect alone. Piano introductions were kept brief, and interludes and postludes were avoided. His focus was on economy and on natural flow of diction.
There was a phantom model for all of this: Weiner’s admiration for the music of Modest Mussorgsky—with whose music he came into contact during his formative years in Kiev—was boundless. For Mussorgsky, song emerged directly from language with a minimum of artificial intervention. Melodic contours and rhythmic flow grew out of the inflections, stresses, and durations of natural speech. The task, of course, was to find ways of organizing such unstable, irregular phenomena into coherent patterns—but patterns that nonetheless eschewed artificiality and the stylistic conventions of European opera and lieder. (Debussy, following Mussorgsky’s lead, created a vocal music based on a similar principle.) Weiner absorbed Mussorgsky’s approach, adapting it to the particular qualities and attributes of the Yiddish language and allowing it to evolve, utilizing far-reaching changes in harmonic and textural thinking.
This essay originally appeared in the liner notes to the CD, Lazar Weiner: The Art of Yiddish Song.