Tracks

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Track

Time

Ver zenen mir 03:01
Eyner aleyn 03:54
Come to me 02:18
Bombardiers 02:21
My number is 434 01:49
Ich möchte gerne 01:25
Three Vignettes for Children: Kindermärchen 00:44
Three Vignettes for Children: Theresienstädter Kinderreim 01:27
Three Vignettes for Children: Ein Brot 01:22
The Butterfly 02:12
Shlof mayn kind 03:40
Jeu d'Enfants 01:40
Na swojską nutę 01:46
Di eybike trep 01:45
Segen der nacht 02:30
Shplalt zikh himl! 01:44
Má¡j 1945 02:09
Finale ver zenen mir? 01:18
 

Liner Notes

The question arises: Is it possible to write songs about Auschwitz, or, even more important, is it permitted to do so? The answer may be unavoidably dialectical. No, nothing can be written about Auschwitz. Still, one can write about the silence that surrounds the Holocaust: the silence of guilt, the silence of shame, the silence of horror, and the futility of it all.

One can unlock that silence.
One CANNOT write about Auschwitz.
One MUST write—write and write—about
Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
It seems that when we are forced to walk that
corridor between Life and Death, sources of creativity
become readily available, and Life is compelled to
express itself.

Those spontaneous personal and conflicted sentiments were incorporated by Kingsley into his dramatic narration for Voices from the Shadow, a musical-theatrical work. Behind its artistic concept and the impetus to compose it lie a series of coincidental event-related circumstances, to which I am pleased to have had the opportunity to be a party in some minuscule peripheral way.

Long before the genesis of this work, its composer’s name and some of his liturgical pieces were naturally familiar to me—especially from the late 1960s throughout the 1970s, when my own involvement in Judaically related music was taking form and rapidly expanding. In those days, Kingsley and his accomplishments were mentioned frequently among circles interested in contemporary synagogue music. I was present, in fact, at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York for the world premiere of his Shiru Ladonai, and I recall having to sit among an overflow crowd in another room, since the sanctuary was completely filled.

But it was not until 1988 that I first met Gershon Kingsley, in Oakland, California, at an annual convention of the American Conference of Cantors, the professional cantorial association of the Reform movement. I was there to present a lecture on 19th- and early-20th-century German synagogue music, and we suddenly found ourselves without an accompanist for its live cantorial-choral illustrations, which, in the context of the German Liberale tradition, are heavily dependent on the organ parts. In the frantic search for a substitute accompanist, someone observed that Kingsley was at the convention too and that we might ask him—since obviously he could easily sight-read those parts. I was doubtful that a composer and conductor of his stature would indulge us, especially at the last moment. Then too, this was a very conservative traditional repertoire, mostly Lewandowski and his 19th-century circle—hardly the style that Kingsley championed or in which one could have expected him to take much interest. To the contrary, however, he found the proposition intriguing, remarking afterward with nostalgic sighs how vividly it evoked memories of his youthful synagogue experiences in Berlin. So the basis for a musical dialogue between us was established.

A few years later we began a series of frequent discussions about recording Kingsley’s music for the Milken Archive; and to that end I began studying his Jewish works in earnest. Just around the same time, it happened that the Jewish Theological Seminary, in partnership with its cosponsor, Hebrew Union College, was preparing for an international Jewish music conference in New York, devoted to the musical culture of German Jewry. That conference was originally scheduled for 1994, to commemorate the 100th yortsayt (anniversary of a death) of the most famous and influential of all German—and perhaps all Ashkenazi—synagogue composers, Louis Lewandowski. As artistic director of that conference, I had designed one of the several constituent concert programs to feature contemporary postwar works by German Jewish refugee composers from the Nazi era, as well as new pieces based on musical or literary elements connected to the German Jewish cultural legacy. In the course of our recording discussions, I invited Kingsley to write a new work to be premiered at that concert and later recorded for the Milken Archive. We began exploring possible media, subjects, and texts. At that stage we did not, however, even consider any Holocaust-related themes. In fact, our original policy was to avoid focusing on the Holocaust in this conference, since our real purpose was to highlight and deliberate on the extraordinary artistic creativity of German Jewry—which included Jewish-German cooperation—during the centuries prior to the aberration of the 1930s and 1940s. That changed, however, when the conference was postponed until 1997, with new dates that encompassed the anniversary of Kristallnacht, on the ninth of November—which also turned out to coincide with the date of our contemporary composers’ concert. In that case, we felt that it would be inappropriate to ignore this anniversary in the context of any consideration of German Jewry, and that we would even be remiss were we not to give it artistic attention—even though I share (and shared then) Kingsley’s conflicts and concerns about exploiting the Holocaust, even unintentionally, in the name of artistic expression. In that spirit, our discussions turned to poetry that had been written in the concentration camps, or, following liberation, by inmates who had survived. Neither of us knew how much suitable poetic material there might be, apart from the well-known literature relating to the Jewish resistance and Partisan fighters—which was not our primary concern in this project. Nor did we know whether the quality of such poetry would justify a serious musical work. Still, I had suspected for some time that this was one area composers had not yet explored properly.

Kingsley almost instantly seized on that course, seeing its dramatic possibilities and the challenge of subtly and tastefully shaping a work that—from both musical and theatrical perspectives—would provoke and disturb rather than entertain or please its audience. “I am, after all, a theatrical composer,” he confirmed, envisioning from the outset a musical-theater piece. The first task was to assemble a pool of such poetry to study and from which to select, and that same day in New York he telephoned a Jewish bookseller he knew in Munich. It happened that she had quite a number of volumes containing the type of poetry he described, and they were largely unknown or unavailable in the United States. The books were shipped to New York the following day, and Kingsley began mining them for the new project. Once he had selected the poems and had begun to set them (all but one came from those books), I was occasionally shown sketches and treated to his own keyboard demonstrations of individual songs in their working stages along the road to completion of the work as a unified piece.

It was in Munich, however, where at that time he was living and working roughly half of each year, that Kingsley actually began sketching out some of the music, composing in the basement of his home there. He later recalled that he tried to identify with the poets and to feel some sense of what they must have been experiencing as they wrote those words inside the confines of the concentration camps. He became so overcome with emotion and preoccupied with grief that it became increasingly difficult to acquit himself of his artistic task—and at one point he nearly abandoned it. He came to feel some spiritual connection to each poet as he set his or her words to music.

Voices from the Shadow ultimately emerged as much more than a series of connected songs, and its unveiling revealed a truly dramatic stage presentation. Its full live production includes a spoken narration (not included in this recording) that links the songs by their historical, spiritual, and emotional contexts, into which Kingsley also ingeniously interwove summary meanings of those songs that are sung in their original languages. It is thus possible for an English-speaking audience to have at least some understanding of what those texts convey, even without recourse to the complete translations that normally would be found in the concert program booklet. But the spoken parts also create by themselves an important dramatic element, further propelled by calling for the singers to function dually as actors, each of whom assumes the persona of one of the poets—in some cases even offering biographical background in the first person. Live performances therefore require four singer-actors, albeit with classical vocal timbres, as well as a director and theatrical lighting.

There are some composers who—though drawn initially to artistic confrontation with the paradox contained in the mass murder and attempted annihilation of the Jewish people by the most highly educated and cultured nation on earth—eventually succumbed to philosopher Theodor Adorno’s initial reaction in 1949 that no poetry [i.e., art] can be written after the Holocaust (Auschwitz). Perhaps they found it impossible to grapple with the question of whether or not art, in its classical sense of beauty, truth, and imagination, is inherently incompatible with the ultimately repugnant, obscene, and unimaginable. Yet others have been unable to resist the power of art as a vehicle to express the incomprehensible. In this work, Kingsley too has found a way out of that seemingly irresolvable conundrum, and he has created a valid artistic expression in which the very mystery of unalloyed evil appears to have evoked a legitimate musical response. And the listener is in a sense forced to confront that which, ideally, he might rather not.

Any initial misgivings or fears about the dangers of inadvertently trivializing the Holocaust by writing any music about it (“Is it even permitted to do so?”) surely evaporated at the conclusion of the world premiere performance on 9 November 1997 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York, when the entire audience rose to its feet in a unanimous ovation. Indeed, this standing audience included a significant number of Holocaust refugees, survivors, and former camp inmates—some of whom had lost entire families to that bestial orgy of hatred.

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

Sung in Yiddish, German, Polish, Czech, French, and English

VER ZENEN MIR? (WHO ARE WE?)
Sung in Yiddish
Poem: Rivka Basman
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin

Who are we in these dark nights, rejected and despised,
Driven from our homes, abandoned and ridiculed?
Like hurried clouds that cannot catch up with themselves,
Dispersed and dissipated in silence and without aim,
Who are we?

Who are we in these dark nights, forced to appear merry?
To tear our hearts, spill our blood,
Forced to be merry and say, “It is good!”
Who are we?

Clouds of dust obscure the spring around us,
And someplace a heart is beating...a bloom is blooming.
And in the deep, dark night an echo rings,
A cry of lament...silent night surrounds us...
Who are we?

EYNER ALEYN (ALL ALONE)
Sung in Yiddish
Poem: Josef Rogel
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin

Be here,
Be here with me
Until the night shall pass.
With your gentle hand cover the folds of my sorrow,
The folds of my sorrow, in night’s abyss.

Be here,
Be here with me
That I can fall purified into the arms
Of your holy morning prayer.

Bring to me the dark gray shadows
That cradle me with deep longing,
With a deep longing for you.

Why did you leave and hide?
And the night has bolted the door in front of me,
And hung a lock on your entrance.

Scrape away the sorrow
That the night has piled so high on me.

Be here,
Be here with me!
Until the night will pass.
Reach out your hand to me and guide me through the passage of the night
To the gate of your tent.
I am alone,
Lonely and alone.
Alone.

COME TO ME
Sung in English
Poem: Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger
Translated from the German "Schlafied für dich" by Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg

Come to me, I will caress you, still your cries.
Come to me, and I will bless you, close your weary eyes.
Come to me, I will caress you, still your anguished cries.
Come to me, and I will bless you, close your weary eyes.

BOMBARDIERS
Sung in French
Poem: Fania Fénelon
Translation: Louis Bloom

Three dead on the ground,
One yellow, one black, one white,
A big black hole in the ground,
A black hole, a crater.

A sparrow on a branch
Flutters and sings.
The leaves on the branch sway,
And the sparrow dances, sings,
And knows neither why nor wherefore,
Nor anything about the airplane down there
—the huge black sparrow.

Three dead on the ground...

But the leaves on the branch sway
Back and forth,
And the sparrow dances,
Sings, and flutters.

MY NUMBER IS 434
Sung in English
Poem: attrib. Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger
Translated from the German by Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg

In Marie Theresa’s fortress, captive behind the wall,
I dream I am wearing an organdy dress,
for I’m sixteen, at my first ball.
In my hair is a poppy, in my heart a thrill,
in my dream I float on a parquet floor;
then I wake from that dream and I’m still a captive!
My number is four thirty-four.

ICH MÖCHTE GERNE... (I'D LIKE...)
Sung in German
Poem: Erika Taube
Translation: Gershon Kingsley

I’d like to listen again to the sound of the train that takes me to distant places, the sound of the tracks that sing of places far away, again, someday.

I’d like to be a human being again, and to be alone with you just anyplace at all, looking at the sky, the moon, and the stars, watching the stars—not behind these bars.

THREE VIGNETTES FOR CHILDREN
Sung in German
English translation from the German: Gershon Kingsley

I. Kindermärchen (Fairy Tales)
Poem: Fritz Löhner

There once was a dragon who had a big jaw and teeth like a tiger and hooves like a horse.
He was always so hungry that he swallowed the whole town.

Swallowed whole countries and nations and still did not have enough.
He ate and guzzled from early morning to late at night, but after his last bite, he exploded.

II. Theresienstädter Kinderreim (Terezin Nursery Rhyme)
Poem: Ilse Weber

Mercy, mercy me!
We’re riding in a hearse.
Mercy, mercy me!
We’re riding in a funeral coach.
Here and there we stop off to drop off a corpse or two.

Mercy me again!
Everything we had is down the drain.
Mercy, mercy me!
Dead and gone, you see.
Drop another coffin off,
Mercy, mercy me!—to lighten up the coach, you see.

Mercy me, now what a fuss!
Now they have gone and harnessed us.
Mercy, mercy me!
To pull the coach ourselves, you see.
If they loaded our misery on top,
after three paces the coach would stop.
Mercy, mercy me!
Too heavy for the hearse, you see.

III. Ein Brot (Bread)
Poem: Henia Karmel

I wish we had some bread, a big loaf for ourselves alone, still fresh and warm, smelling of caraway seeds, a crunchy crust, so brown and crisp— one loaf of bread!

THE BUTTERFLY
Sung in English
Poem: Pavel Friedman
Translated from the Czech by Louis Bloom

It was the last, truly the last one,
And all its coloring was bitter and blinding,
Like the tears of sunlight striking scattered on stone,
Such was its queer color.
How easily it fluttered,
Soared upward as if to kiss my vanishing world.
It is seven weeks that I am here,
Ghettoized.
My dearest friends have found me here.
Daisies are beckoning to me,
And the white branches of the chestnut tree of the yard.
But a butterfly I have not seen,
That one was truly the very last one.
There are no butterflies here,
In the ghetto.

SHLOF MAYN KIND (SLEEP, MY CHILD)
Sung in Yiddish
Poem: Josef Rogel
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin

Sleep, my child, my precious one, sleep.
Ay, li, li, li, li.
Around your home night has fallen;
Of your brothers—not one, not one remained....

Your mother used to sing songs
About every little flower and blade of grass in the field;
Now only the crow’s song blooms—
As your mother’s song is of homes destroyed.

Your mother would sing
Of golden stars and of the nightingale’s melody.
Now your mother grieves like a bird at an empty nest;
Of your brothers— shadows of mounds of earth remain....
So your mother remains all alone
On the wandering way, pitching her tent;
Every harbor and every shore is fenced off, impenetrable.
And her song—a spider in the eye of the world...

Sleep, my child, my precious one, sleep.

JEU D'ENFANT (CHILD'S GAME)
Sung in French
Poem: Michel Jacques
Translation: Louis Bloom and Gina Genova

The little Polish boy rom bunk number three—befitting his age of eight, plays hopscotch, hopping on one leg over the dead of the previous night, laid out neatly between two blocks.

NA SWOJSKĄ NUTĘ (AN OLD MELODY)
Sung in Polish
Poem: Zofia Karpinska
Translation: Louis Bloom

The night lingers, the dream has flown where the lilacs bloom, behind the seventh, seventh river, where you have your room.

Time stands still over the fields; the night persists.
Confined behind barbed wire and iron bars where not a bird flies by, from Me to You is so vastly far.

From Me to You is somehow close, but my brain is seething, a hammering pounds in my temples, and my lungs stop breathing.

The woods, so far away, are shrouded in fog and dismal gloom, but behind the seventh, seventh river is where you have your room.

I give you my saddened heart, my heavy dreams and fears.
I give you all my restlessness, my suffering and tears.

DI EYBIKE TREP (NEVER-ENDING STAIRS)
Sung in Yiddish
Poem: Rivka Basman
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin

The sun is bright, the sun is different,
Like stairs sunken from pain.
Every stair a wandering step
That drags me day in and day out.

Cemented, cold and gray—
They devour everything with a whiff of joy.
I drag myself, being dragged by my sorrows,
There in the morning, back at night.

All of life winding on stairs,
Like a curse, with no aim.
The snow has long melted.
I still walk on the steps like on the ground.

Will there be one spring when I will be able to
Stand on the last step
And scream from the depths of my heart,
“There are no more stairs to climb!”?

SEGEN DER NACHT (NIGHT BLESSING)
Sung in German
Poem: Georg Kafka
Translation: Gershon Kingsley

I am, beloved, God’s small mirror into which He glances at the end of the day.
My heart is His red signet ring that He stamps upon the evening before it wafts away.
I am, beloved, God’s silver chalice from which He often drinks the ruby wine of sleep.
From its depths, as from a valley on the pale moon, resounds a melancholy song, so sad, so deep.

I once was, beloved, God’s silent mirror; now, from far away, I sing soft lute songs to you as all the stars ascend.
My heart was once God’s sunset-red seal;
Now He speaks to me from the silence of the stars:
“In my garden you shall meet again...”

SHPALT ZIKH, HIML! (SPLIT OPEN, HEAVEN!)
Sung in Yiddish
Poem: anonymous
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin

Split open, heaven, let the sunrays
Brighten us with your spring light,
Let the winter and cold fall away,
Let our faces glow with joy.

Birds are coming, from a distance they’re flying
With a greeting: the spring is already here!
Enough have we suffered from the cold,
Better times are upon us!

“You will live,” the sunbeams tell us.
“You will live; do not lose hope.
With the spring new springs will gush.
Hear my call: it will one day be good!”

Split open, heaven!
One day it will be good!

MÁJ 1945 (MAY 1945)
Sung in Czech
Poem: Dagmar Hilarová
Translation: Louis Bloom

It was May!

And all the blossoms opened; blue swords of lilac wafted their fragrance.
The power of May assumed command; everyone could touch freedom like a blind person touching the face of someone dear to him.

It was May!

Branches had hoisted flags of blossoming buds.
Drunken bees flew around, searching for their hives.
The bitter years were over.
The winds of spring blew the last pain from our breast.

It was May!
And freedom blossomed everywhere!

FINALE VER ZENEN MIR? [REPRISE]

Who are we in these dark nights...


 

Credits

Composer: Gershon Kingsley

Length: 37:49
Genre: Cantata

Performers: Jorge Avila, Violin;  Derek Bermel, Clarinet;  Mary George, Soprano;  Amy Goldstein, Soprano;  Milton Granger, Piano;  Sara Hewitt-Roth, Cello;  Gershon Kingsley, Conductor;  Larry Picard, Baritone;  Liuh-Wen Ting, Viola;  Matthew Walley, Tenor;  Robin Zeh, Violin

Date Recorded: 03/01/2001
Venue: American Academy of Arts & Letters (A), New York, New York
Engineer: Lazarus, Tom
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Project Manager: Lee, Richard

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Kingsley Sound
Based on poems from the German concentration camps of Germany, east central, and eastern Europe, 1939–45

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