|Lord of the Earth! (Act I)||05:11|
|Under the Earth's Surface||02:31|
|Prelude to Act II||03:06|
|Dance of the Beggars||02:07|
|The Song of Israel||06:04|
David Tamkin’s opera The Dybbuk, with a libretto by his brother, Alexander, is based closely on the immortal classic Yiddish play of the same title by the celebrated author, playright, and folklorist S[emyon Akimovitch] An-Ski [Solomon Zainwil Rapaport] (1863–1920). Tamkin was first struck by its operatic possibilities when he saw its American production as a young man. Indeed, a learned essay following the opera’s premiere observed that An-Ski’s play itself was in effect a sort of “opera without music,” with the inflections of language, the implied melos of Jewish and Hassidic folk life, and the rhythm and hum of its rituals providing a type of music. But it was not until 1931 that Tamkin and his brother commenced work on the opera.
An-Ski, who was born in Belarus, separated himself from his traditionally religious background and surroundings to join the Haskala (the Jewish enlightenment movement) in Russia, and he wrote mostly in Russian until about 1904, after which he returned to the Yiddish language. He became attracted to social revolutionary circles, as well as to the populist narodniki movement, which embraced Russian peasant roots and values. After a thirteen-year exile in western Europe (mostly in Paris), he returned to Russia in the year of the 1905 Revolution and joined the Social Revolutionary Party. His involvement in the Jewish Labor Bund was internationally echoed in his Bund anthem, Di shvue (The Oath). After the 1905 Revolution, An-Ski also developed an intense interest in Jewish folklore, and he headed the watershed Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1911–14 (later informally referred to as the An-Ski expedition) throughout significant regions of the Russian Empire—notably Podolia and Volhynia—financed by Baron Horace Guinzbourg, which collected folklore, artifacts, music, and other documentation of Jewish life in those villages and hamlets. The fruits of that expedition were brought back to St. Petersburg, where they would be available for scientific and scholarly study and artistic use.
An-Ski’s play The Dybbuk provided a new window to a world of superstitions among Jews in areas of eastern Europe that had yet to be subdued by Westernization and the Haskala. An-Ski used this particular tale as a framework for depicting the mysterious world of Hassidic Jewry. He wrote the play originally in Russian, but translated it himself into Yiddish for its production in Vilna (Vilnius) in 1920 by the famous Yiddish theatrical troupe the Vilner Truppe. For its production in Berlin in the 1925–26 season by the Habima troupe from Moscow, it was translated into Hebrew by Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik—the leading figure of the modern Hebrew cultural renaissance, avatar of modern Hebrew poetry, and Israel’s poet laureate. That Berlin production marked Habima’s entry into the European theater world, and it was received there as a cultural revelation. A non-Jewish critic for a Berlin newspaper was mesmerized: “Of course, I could not understand one word of it,” he wrote, “but I could hear that this elegant Hebrew must have been the language in which God spoke to the ancient Israelites when He was in His best mood!”
In that interwar period, An-Ski’s drama about demonic possession evoked a very real way of life that was still being played out—not so far geographically from Berlin, but light-years away culturally. It bespoke a world in which daily lives were still governed by centuries-old folk beliefs, archaic rituals, medieval magic and mysteries, and outdated perceptions of good and evil. That immediacy appealed to Berlin critics and contributed to the play’s general success—almost as if lifting a veil on an utterly foreign world, so near and yet so far. Chemjo Vinaver, the distinguished musician, critic, and scholar of Hassidic music who had come from a Hassidic environment but was living in Berlin, reacted to the play less as a conventional drama than as “a loosely woven dramatic legend based on Hassidic lore and Jewish folkways.”
Incidental music for the 1922 Moscow production of The Dybbuk (also used for the Berlin Hebrew production) was composed by Joel [Yuli Dimitrovitch] Engel (1868–1927), one of the seminal figures of the Jewish national art music movement. Engel had also headed the music division of An-Ski’s ethnographic expedition, and both he and An-Ski are said to have been inspired to artistic expression of this folktale when they heard it together from an innkeeper’s wife in 1912. Since An-Ski’s construction of the play relied on a question posed as the principal motif in a Hassidic song (perhaps also learned during that expedition), Mipnei ma? (Why did the soul descend from the supreme height to the deep pit?), the tune of that song was used in the Vilna premiere, and Engel incorporated it into his incidental music along with other authentic folk and Hassidic melodies. In 1926, he published the score as an independent concert piece, Dybbuk Suite (Suite hadibbuk, op. 35).
In the 20th century there have been many artistic treatments of the dibbuk theme, and the play itself has inspired many works. An opera by the Italian composer, Lodovico Rocca, entitled Il Dibuk, was premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1934, and an orchestral prelude by Bernhard Sekles, Der Dybuk, was published in 1929. There is a dibbuk ballet score by Max Ettinger (1947), and there are several operas in addition to Tamkin’s, the most recent of which is Shulamit Ran’s Between Two Worlds, which was premiered in Chicago in 1997. A well-known Yiddish film version of the An-Ski play was made in Poland in 1937, starring Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, and a Hebrew film was produced in Israel in 1968.
The story concerns an archetypal demon in Jewish folklore, the dibbuk, an evil spirit that enters the body of a living person and cleaves to his soul—speaking through that person’s mouth as an independent and foreign personality and driving the inhabited victim to madness. A similar phenomenon is found in talmudic as well as kabbalistic literature, where the reference is simply to “evil spirit.” But the term dibbuk is not found in literature until the 17th century, in the Yiddish of that period, and it is actually an abbreviated form of the Hebrew, dibbuk m’ru’ah ra’a (cleavage of an evil spirit), or dibbuk min hahitzonim (dibbuk from the outside). Initially, a dibbuk was perceived as a type of devil or demon that entered an ill person. A later dimension concerned a dibbuk as the spirit of a dead person who had not been laid to rest properly, which thus became a demon—a belief also found in other folk cultures.
In the 16th century this dibbuk conception became intertwined with the mystical idea of transmigration of souls (gilgul). In that belief, a dibbuk could be perceived as an exposed soul that, because of it serious sins, was not permitted to transmigrate and therefore sought refuge within the body of a living person. At the same time, however, the new living host was considered to have committed some secret sin that invited a dibbuk to enter. Such notions were composites of folk beliefs from surrounding non-Jewish cultures and from kabbalistically oriented mysteries. In still other versions, the dibbuk could be simply the soul of one who dies unfulfilled and then wanders in search of a new vessel. From the latter half of the 16th century on, until as late as the early 20th century, there are many accounts and types of dibbuk incidents, and even descriptions as well as instructional literature on exorcisms.
In the opera, as in An-Ski’s play, the spirit of a dead young man—his marriage to his beloved having been thwarted—enters her body as a dibbuk. Ḥanan [Channon], a poor but brilliant talmudic student in the town of Brainitz, and Leah, a wealthy man’s daughter, were in love. But her father, Sender, arranged a “more appropriate” match for her, with a yet-to-be-identified wealthy man’s son. In a desperate effort to gain the riches that would make him acceptable to Leah’s father, Ḥanan turned from Talmud to the study of the Kabbala and mysticism in order to learn the dangerous secret of how to invoke the “evil spirit” in the service of his wish. That pursuit caused his death.
Following local custom, on Leah’s wedding day a separate feast is given for the town’s beggars, who dance with the bride. In his introduction to his libretto, Alexander Tamkin saw those dancing beggars as enacting “the suggestive role of the souls of the dead returned to dance at the wedding,” and he envisioned their movements working up to a “frenzied milling which sweeps the senses clear for that horrible, mad-minded incident so soon to come—the entrance of the dibbuk Channon into the body of the bride.”
Also following a prenuptial tradition, Leah visits her mother’s grave to invite her presence under the marriage canopy. While at the cemetery, she also sees Ḥanan’s grave, and she mourns for him while shrinking from the thought of the loveless marriage that lies ahead. Later, as the bridegroom places the veil over her face prior to the ceremony, Ḥanan’s spirit takes possession of her body.
In the third and final act, Sender takes his daughter to a reputed “wonder-working” rabbi, Azrael, for exorcism. Azrael summons the spirit of Ḥanan’s long-dead father, Nissan ben Rifke, who accuses Sender of having broken the agreement that their two children would marry when they reached the appropriate age. In a climactic scene, Ḥanan’s dead father’s claim is adjudicated by a rabbinical court, which finds in his favor. Sender is required to acknowledge his betrayal and to accept the court’s judgment: he must give half his fortune to the poor and for the rest of his days pray for the souls of Ḥanan and Nissan. Azrael proceeds to exorcise the dibbuk from Leah, pronouncing it “excommunicated from all Israel.” That accomplished, Azrael calls for the wedding to proceed. Now emptied of Ḥanan’s spirit, Leah is unable to sustain life. She calls to Ḥanan—to his soul—and his soul calls to her in response, paraphrasing the expressions of love in the biblical Song of Songs. She expires, following him into death, to be united with him eternally. As the curtain falls, the mysterious words of the old Hassidic song Mipnei ma?, with which the opera opens, are repeated by the same messenger: “Why, from the highest height to deepest depth below, has the soul fallen? The Fall contains the resurrection.”
With a commitment for a fully staged production still not secured, Tamkin extracted certain portions of the opera and reworked them into a concert version in eight movements, for tenor and orchestra. That suite was premiered in Portland, Oregon, in 1949, sung by Jan Peerce with the Portland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Janssen. The full opera in its original version received its premiere by New York City Opera in 1951 in a fully staged production, conducted by Joseph Rosenstock.
The present recording draws upon excerpts from both versions. "Lord of the Earth" contains an excerpt from the opening scene of Act I of the actual opera. A distraught elderly woman and two children rush into the synagogue and study house in Brainitz late at night, where a few remaining Hassidic and Talmud students are lingering, following their discourse about a Hassidic rebbe (rabbinical-type Hassidic leader) who once ruled against a rich man in favor of a poor one, and then upheld his ruling—foreshadowing the final scene of the opera. The distraught woman beseeches God to spare the children’s mother, who is unconscious and on the verge of death. The beadle suggests that those in the synagogue might form a minyan (prayer quorum of ten) to recite Psalms, as a traditional means of solace and an expression of faith; and he asks that she offer them the usual customary token of charity in return—in the name of the children’s mother. When she is able to offer only a single kopeck for each of them, the beadle reflects on the poor lot of the pious, intoning an old ironic song: “If I sold [burial] shrouds, then no one would die ...” Annoyed by his delaying and his sarcastic dissatisfaction with her tokens, the woman summons the children to find another prayer house.
"Wedding Music" contains an instrumental excerpt from the first movement of the concert suite, which is titled “Wedding Chorus.” But the music is drawn from the later wedding festivities scene in the opera.
"Under the Earth’s Surface," a reference to a passage in Act I of the opera libretto, is an excerpt from the second movement of the concert suite. Ḥanan has entered the synagogue (beit midrash). In response to a fellow student, Chenoch [Ḥanokh], who has reprimanded him for neglecting Talmud study in favor of kabbalistic fantasies (“The Talmud is not in your hand”), Ḥanan extols the mystical and spiritual attributes of the Kabbala over the rational and earthly focus of the Talmud (“it [the Talmud] binds you to earth, it forbids the attempt of heights; but the Kabbala wrenches your soul and throws you to loftiest heights”).
The fourth and fifth tracks presented here contain instrumental excerpts: "Prelude to Act II" is the fifth movement of the concert suite; "Dance of the Beggars" is its seventh movement.
The final excerpt, “The Song of Israel,” was written specifically for the concluding movement of the concert suite; it does not appear in the opera. It only loosely corresponds to Ḥanan’s singing of the biblical love song (Shir hashirim) toward the end of Act III of the opera, in the sense that some scholars interpret the Song of Songs as a metaphor for God’s love for the people Israel rather than as the romantic love poetry suggested by its erotic images. But here the new lyrics, by Jack Brooks, a motion-picture lyricist associated with Universal, form an overtly Zionist expression, referring to the new Jewish state as the Jewish people’s ultimate refuge. The concert was premiered during the euphoria that followed the establishment of the State of Israel, which had occurred less than a year before, at a time when the national consciousness of Jewish war and Holocaust refugees was immediate and acute. But these lyrics appear to have been written prior to the actual date of Israel’s declaration of statehood (May 14, 1948), since the fifth line in the printed score reads “Oh, give them now their homeland.” For that 1949 performance, with Israel already an independent sovereign nation, the line was altered accordingly: “Oh, now they have their homeland.”
In his review essay following the New York City Opera premiere, Chemjo Vinaver was gratified by the reception of the subject matter by a contemporary American audience:
It is consoling to think that there are still people capable of being carried away by the image of so irrational and mysterious a world as that of this play, and one wonders whether after all there may not be the possibility in this country for a Jewish culture above the borscht-and-bagels level that some of our entrepreneurs of culture seem to have decided is all we can take.
Libretto by Alexander Tamkin
LORD OF THE EARTH!
[In the synagogue at Brainitz, rushing to the Ark with children, shrieking hysterically]
Ai, Ai, Lord of the Earth! Help me! Come! Children, let us open the Ark and throw ourselves upon the Holy Scrolls and not leave them until our tears have won your mother back from the Valley of Death.
[a general silence as she wrenches open the doors of the Ark and buries her head amongst the Scrolls, intoning a wailing chant]
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Look, God of Abraham, down upon my misery. Look, God of Isaac, down on the grief of those little ones. Take not their mother away in the years of her youth. Adonai, do you intercede for the forlorn widow? Adonai, beloved mother of Israel, beseech the Almighty. Beseech Him that He shall not uproot the lovely sapling, nor cast the dove out of its nest, nor tear the gentle lamb away from the meadow. God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, look! God of Abraham, hear my lamentation. Adonai! Adonai! I’ll put down the world. I’ll tear Heaven apart—but from here I will not move—until they return the one who is the crown of my head.
Hannah Esther, would you have a minyan say Psalms for you?
ELDERLY WOMAN [withdraws from the Ark]
Yes, a minyan for Psalms. Hurry, hurry. Every second is precious. For two days, God help her, without speech, struggling with death.
They shall begin this very minute. But something for their trouble, poor things?
ELDERLY WOMAN [searching in her pockets]
Here are ten kopecks—but see that they say the Psalms.
Ten kopecks ... [with dry humor] one kopeck each, little enough that is. Only one kopeck. Such is the lot of the pious. Only one kopeck. If I sold [burial] shrouds, no one would die. If I sold lamps, then in the sky, the sun for spite, would shine at night.
Come, my doves, let us hurry to another prayer house.
UNDER THE EARTH'S SURFACE
Talmud? Not in my hand, the Talmud is cold and so dry. Under the surface of this earth is a world the same as ours, with fields, forests, seas and deserts, hamlets, cities, and life. Storms rage over the deserts and the seas which sail great ships. Rolls of thunder break o’er the forests as eternal fear holds sway. Thus is the Talmud. It is deep and vast and glorious. But it binds you to earth. It forbids the attempt of heights. But the Kabbala, the Kabbala wrenches your soul and throws you to loftiest heights. The Kabbala spreads all heavens before you and leads direct to paradise. It reaches out in the infinite and raises a corner of the great curtain of life. My heart turns faint. I have no strength.
SONG OF ISRAEL
Lyrics by Jack Brooks
Shir hashirim, Song of Songs, song of Israel my homeland. Israel, land of sorrow, watching, waiting, hoping, praying to be free. Israel shall be their home. Shir hashirim, Song of Songs; Song of Israel my homeland. Israel, homeless people loving, hating, living, dying to be free. Hear them cry, they cry for Israel. Children of the Chosen Land, what will be your fate? What will be your destiny? Wait, you must wait. Children born to Israel, born are they for tears. They live without a homeland through the endless years. Oh now they have their homeland; Banish now their fears.
Wand’ring, wand’ring, down the ages, weary heads held high, wand’ring home to Israel, to live and to die. Question not the will of heaven as the faithless do; Just remember in thy sorrow God hath chosen you.
Shir hashirim, Song of Songs, song of Israel my homeland. Israel, deathless people; standing, sadly, silent suffering to be free. Hear them singing, sing their song of Israel. Shir hashirim, Shir hashirim, Song of Songs, song of Israel.
I’ll keep my faith and freedom, freedom will not fail, and glory will be in my song, song of Israel.
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes Inc.