Sh'ma (Hear) 04:12
25 Febbraio 1944 (February 25, 1944) 02:44
Il Canto del Corvo (Song of the Crow) 02:45
Cantare (Singing) 05:05
Congedo (Leave Taking) 05:03

Liner Notes

The books and other writing of the Italian Jewish chemist, author, and Holocaust and German death camp survivor Primo Levi (1919–1987) were sadly catapulted to heightened awareness upon his apparent suicide in 1987, even though he was already recognized as a major figure in the world of 20th-century Italian literature. Not all of his writings are Jewishly themed or Holocaust related (or not directly so), but those that are are generally acknowledged to be sui generis in their subtlety and quiet dignity—the product of an intensely human but humble and reserved personality with extraordinary literary gifts.

In the wake of Levi’s death and the resulting new level of attention to his works, Sargon was attracted to his lesser known poems, which he later described as impressing him as deeply felt expressions of Levi’s personal experience. Sargon also intuited a natural musicality in the poetry, most of which was written within a few months of the liberation of Auschwitz and Levi’s return to Italy. Of the five poems he chose to set for soprano, flute, clarinet, cello, and piano as an ordered single work, the first four were written in 1948, and they express Levi’s reaction to the war, the Holocaust, and the immediate aftermath. The final song of the cycle is a setting of a poem that dates to 1974, which is retrospective in its mood and character. 

The title Sargon gave to this group of five settings, Sh’ma—although it translates simply as “Listen!”—refers to the Judaic monotheistic credo from Deuteronomy: sh’ma yisra’el adonai eloheinu adonai eḥad (Listen, Israel! Adonai is our only God; Adonai is oneness—His Unity is His essence). He took the title from Levi’s allusion in the first poem to the full text of the required twice-daily recitations of the formula known as k’ri’at sh’ma, which includes—immediately following the monotheistic pronouncement—words from Deuteronomy in which Israel, having just received the Torah, is commanded to love the one God (“with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”) and to be reminded at all times of the commandments contained in the Torah:

And these words which I command you this day shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.

These words occur in Deuteronomy following, and as part of, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Referring to horrors he has witnessed at Auschwitz and to which millions of people were subjected throughout Europe, he questions whether all humanity was killed in those victims, not only in body but in spirit, even as they remained alive—whether they could even be considered human. That question is posed beginning in the fifth line of the poem with the words that were to become the title of the book that established his literary reputation, If This Is a Man (1947):

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who struggles for a crust of bread
Who dies at a “yes” or a “no.”

Paraphrasing the words from the k’ri’at sh’ma, he admonishes:

Meditate on the fact that this has occurred:
I command these words to you.
Engrave them on your heart
When you are at home, when you walk on your way
Lying down, rising up,
Repeat them to your children.

In the middle section of this first song of the cycle, Sargon introduces into the instrumental lines the incipit of the anonymous tune that became inextricably associated in America (only) with the pronouncement of sh’ma yisra’el. He repeats and only minimally develops that motive with contrapuntally imitative entrances for each of the instruments, giving a mildly bitonal flavor; and at one point he begins to proceed with the tune’s next motive, but leaves it hanging without resolution. The declamatory character of the outer sections of the song also relates to k’ri’at sh’ma in terms of its historically unswerving proclamation.

In the second song, marked “Andante with the heavy tread of a funeral march,” uses the cello col legno to suggest a distorted sound of a death drum, echoed by weighted chords on the piano. But at the climactic words “liberi, sotto il sole” (free, under the sun), the music appears to transcend hopelessness and perhaps even death.

The third song is a graphic portrayal of the messenger in the form of the crow, which arrives rushing and panting—represented by chirping sounds in the flute and clarinet. The musical depiction of the crow’s threatening dance over the snow—when,looking around with evil in its demeanor, it scratches the sign of the cross in the frozen snow with its beak, is particularly eerie and frightening. 

Against a lyrical vocal line in the fourth song, Cantare, the instruments play echoes of a frivolous air with a carnival flavor, which, despite its banal sound, offers a tentatively beguiling recollection of the past—when “everything was just as it had always been… [when] to kill someone seemed a terrible thing: to die, something far off.”

The final song, whose poem Congedo was written in 1974, reflects upon prewar Italy and its civilized society, which can only be a memory. Sargon saw in this poem a premonition of suicide in the poet’s farewell to friends: “It’s getting late … I’ll leave ‘nebish’ poems like these for you…. then we’ll go off, each under the weight of his own burden.” 

There is an unmistakable stamp of Puccini in the vocal lines, which is most transparent in the final song. This is no accident, nor is it unoriginal imitation. To the contrary, Sargon felt invited in that direction by what he deemed the operatic character of the poem, the natural singing voice of the language, and the cadences. The deliberate Puccini-like echoes in the finale were meant to suggest an Italy of beauty before it became an Italy of war.

The world premiere of Sh’ma was presented at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas in 1988, sung by Christine Schadeberg together with the “Voices of Change” ensemble and Harvey Boatright on the flute. 

By: Neil W. Levin



Sung in Italian (see below)

I. Sh'ma (Hear)
January 10, 1946

You who dwell securely
In your warm house,
You who find hot food and friendly faces awaiting you
When you return home in the evening:
Consider whether this is a man.
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who struggles for a crust of bread
Who dies at a "yes" or a "no."
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and nameless
Without the strength to remember
With eyes that are empty and a
  womb that is cold
Like a frog in the winter
Meditate on the fact that this has taken place:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your heart
When you are at home, when you walk on your way
Lying down, rising up,
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house disintegrate
May disease make you powerless
May your children turn their faces
away from you.

II. 21 Febbraio, 1944  (February 21, 1944)
January 9, 1946

I would like to believe that something,
Something other than death has undone you.
I would like to be able to describe the strength
With which we desired at that time
(We who were already submerged)
To be able once again
To walk together, free, under the sun.

III. Il Canto del Corvo (The Song of the Crow)
January 9, 1946

"I have come from far off
To bring bad news.
I flew over the mountain,
I flew through the low cloud,
My belly was mirrored in the swamp.
I have flown without rest
For a hundred miles without rest
So as to find your window,
So as to find your ear,
To bring you the sad news
Which will take the joy from your sleep,
Which will spoil your bread and wine,
Which will sit every evening on your heart."
Thus he sang, dancing despicably
On the other side of my windowpane,
  there, on the snow.
When he grew silent, he looked around, evilly,
He made the sign of the cross on the ground
  with his beak,
And opened wide his black wings.

IV. Cantare (To Sing)
January 3, 1946

... But then when we begin singing
Our good, foolish songs
It would happen that everything
Was just like it had always been.

A day was only a day
Seven days made a week.
To kill someone seemed a terrible thing:
To die, something far off.

And the months passed so very quickly,
But there were still so many ahead of us!
Once again we were only young people:
Not Martyrs, not criminals, not saints.

This and other things came into our minds
As we continued to sing
But these thoughts were like clouds,
And so difficult to explain.

V. Congedo (Parting)
Anguillara, December 28, 1974

It's getting late, my dear ones:
And so I won't take bread or wine from you.
But only a few hours of silence,
The tales of Peter the fisherman,
The musky odor of this lake,
The ancient smell of burning twigs,
The squealing chatter of the gulls,
The gold of the lichen which appears gratis
  on the rooftops,
And a bed, where I'll sleep alone.
In exchange, I'll leave nebbish poems
  like these for you,
Written to be appreciated by five or six
Then we'll all go off, each under the weight
  of his own burden,
Since, as I was saying, it grows late now.


I. Sh'ma (Hear)
January 10, 1946

Voi che vivete sicuri
Nelle vostre tiepide case,
Voi che trovate tornando a sera
Il cibo caldo a visi amici:
Considerate se questo e un uomo,
Che lavora nel fango
Che non conosce pace
Che lotta per mezzo pane
Che muore per un si o per un no.
Consierate se questa e una donna,
Senza capelli a senza nome
Senza piu forza di ricordare
Vuoti gli occhi e freddo il grembo
Come una rana d'inverno.
Meditate che questo e stato:
Vi commando queste parole.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore
Stando in casa andando per via,
Coricandovi alzandovi:
Ripetetele ai vostri fegli.
O vi si sfaccia la casa,
La malattia vi impedisca,
I vostri nati torcano il viso da voi.

II. 21 Febbraio, 1944  (February 21, 1944)
January 9, 1946

Vorrei credere qualcosa oltre,
Oltre che morte ti ha disfatta.
Vorrei poter dire la forza
Con cui desiderammo allora,
Noi gia sommersi,
Di potere ancora una volta insieme
Camminare liberi sotto il sole.

III. Il Canto del Corvo (The Song of the Crow)
January 9, 1946

"Sono venuto di molto lontano
Per portare mala novella.
Ho superato la montagna,
Ho forato la nuvola bassa,
Mi sono specchiato il ventre nello stagno.
Ho volato senza riposo,
Per cento miglia senza riposo,
Per trovare la tua finestra,
Per trovare il tuo orecchio,
Per portarti la nuova trista
Che ti corrompa il pane e il vino,
Che ti sieda ogni sera nel cuore."
Cosi cantava turpe danzando,
Di la dal vetro, sopra la neve.
Come tacque, guardo maligno,
Segno col becco il suolo in croce
E tese aperte le ali nere.

IV. Cantare (To Sing)
January 3, 1946

... Ma quando poi cominciammo a cantare
Le buone nostre canzoni insensate,
Allora avvenne che tutte le cose
Furono ancora com'erano state

Un giorno non fu che un giorno:
Sette fanno una settimana.
Cosa cattiva ci parve uccidere;
Morire, una cosa lontana.

E i mesi passano piuttosto rapidi,
Ma davanti ne abbiamo tanti!
Fummo di nuovo soltanto giovani:
Non martiri, non infami, non santi.

Questo ed altro ci veniva in mente
Mentre continuavamo a cantare;
Ma erano cose come le nuvole,
E difficili da spiegare.

V. Congedo (Parting)
Anguillara, December 28, 1974

Si e fatto tardi, cari;
Cosi non accettero da voi pane ne vino
Ma soltanto qualche ora di silenzio,
I racconti di Pietro il pescatore,
Il profumo muschiato di questo lago,
L'odore antico dei sarmenti bruciati,
Lo squittire pettegolo dei gabbiani,
L'oro gratis dei licheni sui coppi,
E un letto, per dormirci solo.
In cambio, vi lascero versi nebbich come questi,
Fatti per essere letti da cinque o sette lettori:
Poi andremo, ciascuno dietro alla sua cura,
Poiche, come dicevo, si e fatto tardi.



Composer: Simon Sargon

Length: 19:51
Genre: Chamber

Performers: Bonita Boyd, Flute;  Kenneth Grant, Clarinet;  Carol Meyer, Soprano;  Stefan Reuss, Cello;  Simon Sargon, Piano

Date Recorded: 05/01/1999
Venue: Kilbourn Hall/Eastman School of Music (J), University of Rochester, New York
Engineer: Dusman, David
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Project Manager: Lee, Richard

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Transcontinental


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