Vitebsk 12:03

Liner Notes

Whatever so-called Jewish influences individual observers or critics have detected, suspected, claimed—or wanted to hear—in a few other fairly well-known pieces by Aaron Copland, his piano trio, Vitebsk: A Study on a Jewish Theme stands as the only significant work of his mature phases that can be considered consciously and deliberately related to any aspect of actual Jewish experience. Apart from an early cello-and-piano piece (Lament) written at the age of nineteen, before his studies with Boulanger, Vitebsk is his sole outright, transparent exploitation of specifically Jewish elements. Not only is it explicitly based throughout (“mainly,” in the composer’s own words) on Jewish thematic material, but it is also fueled by a dramatic echo of eastern European Jewish folklore and by a famous product of Jewish literature.

Commissioned by the League of Composers, Vitebsk was “officially” completed in 1929, but it was apparently written mostly in 1928 while Copland was working at the MacDowell Colony. Its inspiration and genesis came from an English version of a Jewish theatrical production Copland had attended three years earlier: S. An-Sky’s The Dybbuk (Der dibek; originally also titled Between Two Worlds)—a 1914 play about demonic possession—which was based on a folk legend known among still unmodernized and unurbanized elements of the Jewish population in the region of the Czarist Empire known as the Pale of Settlement. (See the notes to David Tamkin’s opera in Volume 16.)

Written originally in Russian and then rewritten as a Yiddish play (which also enjoyed later film adaptations), The Dybbuk had also been adapted to a Hebrew version for the Moscow-based theatre company Habima. Director Yevgeny Vakhtangov asked Joel Engel (1868–1927) to compose incidental music for the 1919 Habima production in Moscow. According to subsequent accounts by the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, in which both Engel and An-Sky played key roles (also known less formally as the An-Sky Expedition), the two men had heard this particular dybbuk (demon) folk legend and “incident” from an innkeeper’s wife, and An-Sky later used it as the basis for his play. As a unifying and recurring thematic device for his score, Engel used a Hassidic tune whose origin (either as an original creation or one of the frequent Hassidic adoptions from surrounding Slavic repertoires) has been traced by oral tradition to the city of Vitebsk, or the region (Vitebsk oblast) in Belarus. Coincidentally, Vitebsk was An-Sky’s birthplace—but not the scene of the legendary dybbuk incident nor of its transmission to him and Engel while they were on the field expedition.

Originally a wordless Hassidic niggun, the song became known later as Mipnei ma (Yoreda han’shama: “Why/wherefore/because of what [has the soul fallen….”]) only as a result of Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s Hebrew translation. Despite assumptions to the contrary, Jewish music historian Albert Weisser—the first real authority on the An-Sky expedition and on Engel—thought it highly unlikely that it had been An-Sky who conveyed the niggun to Engel during the expedition. Rather, Weisser was convinced that Engel had discovered it and decided to use it on his own. It is this tune on which Copland based his piano trio.

New York theatrical records from the late 1920s show that there was an English version of The Dybbuk produced at the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street in Manhattan from December 1925 well into 1926. An adaptation of the Moscow Habima production, it was directed by former Habima associate David Vardi. The next known production in New York was the Hebrew version presented by “The Habima Players of Moscow” at the Mansfield Theatre from December 13, 1926, into 1927, and it was incorrectly advertised as “the original version.” There was a 1927 revival of the English-language version—again at the Neighborhood Playhouse—which was reviewed in The New York Times on December 16, 1927. It is not absolutely clear which of the two English productions Copland attended—1925 or 1927. It matters not, however, since he would have heard the same incidental music—including the Mipnei ma melody—at either one. (The same incidental score by Engel was, of course, used for Habima’s Hebrew production.) Copland determined to use the Mipnei ma tune, which impressed him as “a noble theme,” as the basis for his trio; and it became “an integral part of the work,” as he later explained. “It was my intention to reflect the harshness and drama of Jewish life in White Russia (Belarus),” he recalled in his autobiographical account—Copland: 1900 Through 1942—written with Vivian Perlis.  And, of course, The Dybbuk provided extraordinary drama.

Copland titled the trio Vitebsk, ostensibly to represent An-Sky’s birthplace as a connection to the piece and its melodic basis, although by then Vitebsk was familiar in artistic circles as the birthplace of the painter Marc Chagall. Also by then, the city itself (capital of the oblast of the same name), which had been an important pre-Bolshevik center for painters, painting, and art students, had acquired substantial political and politically related artistic significance. It was there that Chagall had founded an art school, or institute, in 1918 with the assistance of his friend and compatriot from pre–World War I Paris days, the journalist and art critic Anatoly Lunacharsky (Chagall was later ousted from the school as a “reactionary” or “retro” artist, inconsistent with the new Soviet-era artistic ideals). Lunacharsky, who was at the time head of NARKOMPROS (the Peoples’ Commissariat for Enlightenment, a new bureaucracy for “Soviet culture”), had appointed Chagall to the position of local commissar of fine arts just in time for him to assume responsibility for preparing Vitebsk visually for the first anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In that same year (1918), branches of EVKOM (the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs in the Soviet Union) and Evsektsiia (the Jewish section of the Communist Party) were established in the city, where the latter published its Yiddish newspaper, Der royte shtern (The Red Star) until 1923. In Czarist times, since 1897, Vitebsk had been one of the early centers of the Jewish Labor Bund and other labor-oriented socialist activities, although radically opposing Zionist organizations flourished there simultaneously. These groups continued to be active during the initial years of the Revolution and during the civil war. And, also in 1897, the Jewish painter Yuri Moiseevich Pen had opened his celebrated art school in Vitebsk, where the young Chagall trained. All during the 1920s Vitebsk hosted meetings, conferences, and formations of so-called “new art” movements consistent—or claiming to be—with the new Soviet values and aesthetics.

Copland’s trio is frequently misinterpreted naïvely as a nostalgic reference to imagined 19th-century Jewish life in small towns and villages in the inner recesses of the Pale—so-called shtetl life. (This too is a misunderstood terminology, since a shtetl, lit., small city or town, was generally defined as a market city or town with a population of at least 5,000. Copland was probably not immune to that misnomer.) And despite the misleading visual illustrations that have accompanied recordings, performances, or references to the trio, the work is emotionally and dramatically driven not by saccharine ideas of supposed shtetl life, but by the power of the legend contained in An-Sky’s play—the very notion of such demonic possession and its shocking acceptance as real among populations still untouched by modernity as late as the 20th century. Certainly it is no romantic backward glance at a perceived homogenous folk life of eastern European Jewry, even though the setting of this particular dybbuk tale is itself a shtetl (or smaller). Copland himself called the work “a dramatic character study.”

It is possible that some of these misperceptions or misconceptions concerning the trio are owed in part to an awareness of Chagall’s fanciful depictions on canvas (or paper) of Jewish village neighborhoods, folk musicians, mirthful rabbis, and quixotic Hassidic images in general, given the associations of Vitebsk with the painter. Copland himself invoked the Chagall association in his description of the piece: “A brief transition leads to the allegro vivace which suggests a Chagall-like grotesquerie.” (Albert Weisser, however, in an unpublished draft of an article, rejected this Chagall-related characterization, even though it was the composer’s own; he thought that relating the fast middle section in any way to Chagall paintings was “way off the mark” as a pretentious misrepresentation. For him, the spirit of this section reflects not the rabbis in Chagall’s paintings, but the klezmorim who “had just picked up their instruments.”)

In view of these common but misguided shtetl-life associations with the trio, we should be reminded all the more that Vitebsk was hardly the type of provincial village so often romanticized—even decades before Fiddler on the Roof—in numerous Second Avenue Yiddish theater productions and songs informed by manufactured nostalgia, which were well known by the 1920s. Vitebsk was a cosmopolitan city. Its Jewish population alone by the year 1897 (when it became expanded partly as a result of the 1891 expulsion of most Jews from Moscow) was more than 34,000—exceeding 50 percent of the total population. By 1926 there were more than 37,000 resident Jews, representing more than 37 percent of the general population.

The single movement of this trio is divided into three fairly well-defined sections, providing a clear ABA structure in which a fast middle section is encased by two slow ones. Each of the three sections is in turn a ternary “aba” design.

The Mipnei ma tune and its constituent phrases, motives, and fragments are discernible throughout. Its various appearances are separated and punctuated by declamatory statements and expositions. Far from any arrangement or setting of the tune, this is a work in which the complex yet transparent musical substance is inspired and driven by the features of the tune—its programmatic as well as musical implications. The dramatic motivation supports the mood alternations between poignant, reflective, and even mournful passages and those with dynamic fervor.

Copland has elaborated on the triadic outline of the first two measures of the Mipnei ma tune with impressive variety. The initial statement, in B minor, offers an individualistic shaping of the material. In subtle alterations the theme becomes both more instrumentally natural and more compact.

The middle section is full of charm and wit, exhibiting jazz features along with those typically associated with the 19th-century phases of klezmorim repertoires—all in cleverly crafted combination. These include pungent syncopations, cross accents, and implied offbeats.

Exploitation of quarter tones in the violin and cello parts provides another level of freshness even as it recalls ornamentation typical in different ways of eastern European Jewish instrumental folk music and cantorial techniques. Copland even furnished specific notation in the score for the quarter-tone passages, which are used in this piece as purely functional devices rather than any display of abstract credentials.

In addition to Mipnei ma, Copland referred in the trio to one of the subsidiary motifs of the ubiquitous traditional Ashkenazi chant (actually a patchwork collection of tune phrases) for kol nidrei, the legal formula rendered just before the eve of Yom Kippur (see the notes to John Zorn’s Kol nidre string quartet).

There is special power in the second statement of the Mipnei ma tune, with the violin and cello in unison, two octaves apart—this time in E-flat minor. Its further diminution gives it even greater focus.

In an unpublished draft of a paper, Albert Weisser offered a typically unique insight that is worth sharing:

The procedures used by Copland in Vitebsk are of singular importance to contemporary American Jewish composers. They demonstrate rather uncommon ways of dealing with Jewish melodic ingredients, and they are a useful corrective against the infrequent bombast found in Ernest Bloch. For here Copland’s aesthetic of the new, which would seem to have taken seriously Ezra Pound’s dictum of “wringing rhetoric by the neck,” stood him in good stead….Today one feels an open-endedness in Copland’s devices [such as in Vitebsk]. With Bloch that past leads to a dead end.

The world premiere of Vitebsk was presented at Town Hall in New York on February 16, 1929, by the trio for whom it had been commissioned.

Ironically but eerily discomfiting is the fact that this first public exposure of so manifestly a Jewish work included the enthusiastic participation of a German pianist who later not only declined to abandon Germany (as did a number of fellow artists and intellectuals) during the entire period of the Third Reich, but was generally known after the war in musical circles to have been an ardent and unrepentant Nazi sympathizer. Moreover, according to Arthur Rubinstein’s vivid recollection, supported by similar and worse recollections by others, as late in the regime as 1938, Walter Gieseking, while he was in Paris, had openly expressed his admiration for the Nazi party and for Hitler as the savior of his country. This can raise yet again the question of artists’ naïveté and susceptibility to propaganda, as opposed to their ideological commitment to ingrained doctrine—in this case, antisemitism. If the latter was at play as early as 1929 in the pianist’s attitudes, would it have precluded his participation in the premiere of a Jewish work? Would he have thought on his own to shun the work of a Jew, as became the official policy of his country and the party he came to support only a few years later? Perhaps, or perhaps not, given the context of an opportunity such as Vitebsk’s premiere for either artistic experience or public exposure at a relatively early stage in his career.

Without elaborating further, Weisser raised the question of whether there might have been a “hidden program” in Vitebsk. “Maybe,” he wrote. “The music is so picturesque, so full of rhythmic vitality, drama and contrasts as to lend itself easily to a variety of interpretations.” Whether such interpretations could or should include deeper-than-revealed layers of Jewish folkloristic or theatrical sensibilities—or political agendas altogether—we will probably never know. But the sheer artistic impact of Vitebsk is indeed measurable, for it has widely been viewed as a harbinger of Copland’s mature style in general and of his 1930 Piano Variations—a work that is in turn considered a groundbreaking event of his creative path. 

By: Neil W. Levin



Composer: Aaron Copland

Length: 12:03
Genre: Chamber

Performers: Ross Harbaugh, Cello;  Paul Posnak, Piano;  Peter Zazofsky, Violin

Additional Credits:

 Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes


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