A mol in a tsayt: Legend of Toil was one of the first Yiddish cantatas Lazar Weiner wrote for the Arbeter Ring Khor (Workmen’s Circle Chorus) in New York, completing it in 1933—about two years after commencing his tenure as its music director. Composed to a poem by Yisroel [Itsik] Goichberg (1893–1970), it addresses what were then resonant themes of class struggle and redress of subjugation through labor movements. Those themes are explored succinctly and summarized against the backdrop of the desperate condition of impoverished and exploited coal miners who suddenly take the offensive and commit themselves to a long, bitter, and costly but ultimately successful fight in which “the miner liberated himself and gained the rightful fruit of his labor.”
For the Yiddish-speaking urban choristers and their principal audiences, the coal miner theme—and the history of miners’ unionization and their battles with management—obviously had symbolic rather than direct application, even though examples and precedents established in that industry could be both meaningful and instructive. To those who subscribed to the notion of a transcending international brotherhood of laborers, the text spoke powerfully to a feeling of solidarity. Yet this work treats the themes of class struggle and the correction of imbalances in universal and humanistic terms—using Yiddish language and literature as a medium, not as an echo of a specifically Jewish cause.
Few Jews were coal miners at any point in the American experience; and the number of Jews who lived in mining towns and were engaged in commerce there at one time was small. It is true that the coalfield enclaves of Appalachia collectively hosted hundreds (but probably not thousands) of resident Jews between the 1880s and the 1930s, and studies have demonstrated that on balance those mining towns were basically receptive to Jews; but generally those Jews were not miners. Nor were they secular Yiddishists or socialists—or even potential socialists. To the contrary, typically they were retail merchants—initially peddlers, who in many cases rose to be bona fide proprietors—who provided miners, their families, and the rest of the townspeople with clothing, other dry goods, and potables obtained from the East Coast. Often they could compete successfully with mine company stores because they were willing to take greater risks at extending credit; and they could be open for business on Sundays (and on Saturdays and even cyclical Jewish holydays as well), when authorities were willing to look the other way in the face of Sunday closing laws. Moreover, far from the orientations of the antireligious secularists of the Yiddishist-socialist milieu in large eastern and Midwestern cities, these Jews tended stubbornly to maintain their communal identities by establishing small synagogues, which usually meant selectively fusing orthodox/traditional and Reform elements and—except for a handful of congregations that supported full-time rabbis—availing themselves of itinerant rabbis and even lay leaders without formal ordination.
Goichberg’s poem thus bypasses specifically Jewish involvements in the struggles for social justice and economic fairness. Yet as a metaphor for the wider cause of unionization and fair labor practices, its particular subject along with its overall tone could resonate easily with Workmen’s Circle choristers and their audiences. They could identify with the cantata’s message not only out of sympathy, but because many of them had been and still were active in unionization campaigns and confrontations supported by bakers, milliners, cigar rollers, and—especially and most visibly—those in the needle trades. (Weiner was also the first conductor of the chorus of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—the ILGWU.) One of the Workmen’s Circle’s favorite songs in English was R. Chaplin’s general labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever,” adapted to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
When the union’s inspiration
Through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.
For the union makes us strong!
They have taken untold millions
That they never toiled to earn;
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn;
We can break their haughty power,
Gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.
In our hands is placed a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies
Magnified a thousand fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong.
If taken at face value, some of Goichberg’s imagery goes beyond movements for organized labor, suggesting militant and violent revolt if not outright revolution in its evocation of “bloody” years of strife—during which “if one [miner] fell, there were two standing in his place.” Indeed, the early history of labor-management confrontations in America is hardly without its bloody episodes and its barbaric attempts to crush labor disputes, when some companies were not above hiring private armies of goons to attack strikers (the infamous Pullman strike in Chicago in May 1894, for example). The militant images in Goichberg’s text could thus appeal to Yiddish choruses and audiences far to the left of the Workmen’s Circle, which by the 1930s was unmistakably on record as having repudiated Communism and the Communist Party along with any revolutionary aims of dismantling the American political system. Weiner, too, had been an avowed anti-Communist since the late 1920s.
For the Arbeter Ring, A mol in a tsayt (Once Upon a Time) could be interpreted as a nonviolent ode to unionization as an American right fully within the political order. That interpretation is underscored in Weiner’s musical treatment, which gives the cantata a folk character—without quoting any folk music sources. The vocal lines and choral writing are handled with directness, yet with a restrained measure of his usual sophistication in harmonic language and contrapuntal invention. The work is deliberately simple, but it betrays the composer’s uncompromising standards.
Weiner conducted the Arbeter Ring Khor in its world premiere of A mol in a tsayt at Carnegie Hall in 1935. The concert was billed as a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the chorus’s founding (as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Workmen’s Circle’s tuberculosis sanatorium), although considerable confusion continues to surround the actual year of its commencement and the chain of events leading up to the adopted and generally accepted founding date of 1914–15. Accounts vary about the date and circumstances (whether the chorus was or should be considered a continuation of an earlier, less formally founded one dating at least as far back as 1910, or the result of a politically related split) and about who was the first director—Nicholas Zaslavsky, who was succeeded by Meyer Posner ca. 1916/1919(?) (Posner directed the chorus until at least 1929), or J. Pirozhnikov, who also preceded Posner. One source refers to Pirozhnikov as “a” first conductor; another refers to each as the first conductor; and both names appear in other accounts. From what we can piece together without arriving at a firm, definitive chronology, it appears that Pirozhnikov preceded Zaslavsky, probably as the director of a Yiddish workers’ chorus that evolved into the Arbeter Ring Khor. If that was the case, it remains unclear whether, prior to 1914, that or any chorus was recognized as an official arm of the Workmen’s Circle.)
The soloists for the premiere of the cantata were Minna Ysaeva-Tulchin (soprano), Max Spivak (tenor), and Moshe Rudinow (baritone), who was the cantor at Temple Emanu-El in New York. Also on the program was Meyer Posner’s Arbeter-Ring-Himen (The Anthem of the Workmen’s Circle), to a poem by A. Liessin, which was typically included in the chorus’s concerts, and a Yiddish adaptation by David Pinski of a Schubert work, Miriam’s Song of Triumph. The program was presented at Town Hall a month later, with additional offerings that included a choral arrangement by Rukin of “The Song of the Miners”; Posner’s S’loyfn s’yogn; “The Beetle and the Rose” by Fayt; “Corn” by Sheinin; and Vladimir Heifetz’s Meyshe ganvet arbes.
A mol in a tsayt was published with the subtitle Legend of Toil in 1945, in a version with piano accompaniment. It received performances in that form not only by Workmen’s Circle choruses in Chicago; Newark, Trenton, and Paterson, New Jersey; and other cities but also by unrelated Yiddish choruses—most notably New York’s far-left Frayhayts Gezang Farayn/Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, which Weiner had once directed, and sister choruses of the Ordn (the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, which was affiliated at one time with and under the umbrella of the International Workers Order). An English translation and version by Olga Paul was included.
In a 1946 edition of The Call, the publication of A mol in a tsayt: Legend of Toil was reviewed by Reuven Kosakoff, a respected composer of Jewishly related music and an accomplished pianist. “Weiner is one of the few composers I know of,” he wrote, “who successfully attempts to blend his music into the life of the day, and into the poetry . . . so as to achieve a perfect unit. He feels the poem most deeply first, and then builds his musical concepts, so that combined, they are greater than either medium individually.”
Weiner orchestrated the cantata’s accompaniment for string orchestra, which he employed at the premiere and for subsequent performances under his baton. But he did not publish the orchestration. He had planned to create yet another version for two pianos, which, as he explained to this writer in an interview, he felt would provide a better alternative to the string orchestration than the usual single piano. He even mused that a two-piano version might be preferable to string orchestra for this particular work in terms of the interesting textures and sonorities it could provide. Since, however, no sketches could be located (it is not certain that he ever commenced the task), the Milken Archive commissioned a two-piano accompaniment for its recording in 2001.
By: Neil W. Levin
Libretto: Itsik Goichberg
Sung in Yiddish
Your father, my child, was a miner
And seldom saw the light of day.
He worked from dawn until late at night
Hunched over in a dark shaft.
He breathed in coal dust; he shivered from fear:
There could be an explosion—and that would be the end.
And what kind of wage awaited him after this work,
When he dragged himself home like a shadow?
A wife with four children, in the grasp of death,
Clothed in dirt-flecked rags.
And a silent stare from his own wife,
One that reproaches and digs into your flesh:
Four children—four lights kindled in the house,
And see how they flicker and go out,
Without a satisfying day or joyful hour;
A garden is planted— and there is no sun.
Well, is it than a wonder that he drowned his pain
in whiskey—not to be sober?
And so it happened that one night
In a moment of sobriety
Your father stumbled upon a thought;
Something lit up his tired mind,
And his fist clenched.
The next day your father went to the mine
And brought the resolute decision forth from his lips:
THE MINER AND HIS COMRADES
You, comrade miners, stop and listen—
We lie hidden under the earth like mice,
We drill coal for our magnate,
So he can have a warm house, be satisfied and have a full belly,
So he can sit all day in the bath, carefree and enjoying himself,
And we—mired in our own sweat and in filth,
And we—we trudge on with our wives and children.
He lives like a king and we like dogs.
An end to this! We won’t take it anymore!
Everything belongs to us, to us, the princes of labor.
We’ll take what is owed us—and they owe it all to us,
The shoe and the clothes, the bread and the schmaltz.
However, to talk is easy but to act is hard.
Men don’t surrender easily what they’ve stolen.
The miners, in ranks, struggled bravely,
If one fell, there were two standing in his place.
But through bloody years, through years of strife
The miner liberated himself and gained the rightful fruit of his labor.
dayn foter kind iz a shakhter geven
un hot zeltn dem likhtikn tog ongezen.
ge’arbet fun fri bizl shpet in der nakht
mit geboygenem rukn in fintsterer shakht.
ge’otemt mit koyl shtoyb gefibert fun shrek
an oyfrays ken kumen un makhn an ek.
un vos far a loyn hot im nokhdem dervart,
ven er hot vi a shotn aheym zikh geshart?
a vayb mit fir kinder in negl fun toyt
di layber in shmates farfleytst mit koyt.
un oygn tsvey shtume fun eygenem vayb
vos taynen un shnaydn zikh eyn in dayn layb:
fir kinder—fir likhtlekh getsundn in hoyz
un ze vi zey tsanken un leshn zikh oys,
kayn zetiker tog un kayn freydike sho
a gortn geflantst—un kayn zun iz nito.
nu iz den a vunder, vos er hot zayn payn
fartrunken mit bronfn—nit nikhter tsu zayn?
un hot zikh dayn foter amol in der nakht,
in nikhtere shoyn tsu epes dertrakht,
hot epes baloykhtn zayn midn farshtand
un shtayf iz gevorn di foyst fun zayn hant.
af morgn iz foter gekumen in shakht
un festn bashlus af di lipn gebrakht:
THE MINER AND HIS COMRADES
ir, shakhter khaveyrim, rayst iber un hert—
mir lign farborgn vi mayz unter d’erd,
mir drileven koyln far undzer magnat,
az voyl zol im zayn un varem un zat,
az bodn zol er zikh in voyltog, un guts,
un mir—in dem eygenem shveys un shmuts,
un mir—mir dergeyen mit vayb un mit kind,
er lebt vi a kenig un mir vi di hint.
a sof zol es nemen! mir viln nit mer!
undz printsn fun arbet—undz ales gehert.
mir’l nemen vos kumt undz—un kumen kumt undz alts,
der shukh un dos kleyd, dos broyt un dos shmalts.
mir’l nemen (ales) vos es kumt undz—un kumen kumt undz alts
der shukh un dos kleyd, dos broyt un dos shmelts.
undz printsn fun arbet—undz ales gehert.
a sof zol es nemen!
mir viln nit mer!
nor gring iz tsu zogn un shver iz tsu ton,
nit laykht git men op vos m’rabevet on.
gekemft hobn mutik di shakhters in rey.
iz eyner gefaln—es shteyen shoyn tsvey.
durkh blutike yorn, durkh yorn fun shtrayt
hot shakhter di frukht fun zayn pratse bafrayt.
Composer: Lazar Weiner
Raphael Frieder, Baritone;
Amy Goldstein, Soprano;
Neil Levin, Conductor
Date Recorded: 07/01/2001
Venue: Blackheath Concert Hall, London, UK
Engineer: and Morgan Roberts, Campbell Hughes
Assistant Engineer: Hamza, Andreas
Assistant Engineer: Weir, Simon
Project Manager: Levin, Neil
Translation: Adam J. Levitin