"Any great song must be of greater magnitude than either the words or music alone."
It may seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget that the meaning and impact of a good song depends largely upon the delicate interdependence of music and words. Melody and musical "accompaniment" carry and nuance a text’s meaning, and words can influence how we hear the music to which they are paired.The Art of Jewish Song presents a collection of evocative Yiddish and Hebrew poems set for voice and piano that follow in the tradition of lieder, or art songs.
The specifically Jewish tradition of art song emerged in the early 20th century and can be traced to the emergence of the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Founded in St. Petersburg in 1908, the Society for Jewish Folk Music collected and preserved Jewish folk music and advocated for the creation of a "national" Jewish music based on those folk traditions. Neil W. Levin observes in the introduction to this volume that composers affiliated with the Society "began the road from folk to art song by fashioning artistic piano accompaniments to well-crafted arrangements of Jewish folksongs that were known throughout large swaths of the Pale of Settlement."
From these beginnings emerged a mode of musical-poetic expression that was transported to America along with the "huddled masses" seeking refuge from violence, oppression, and hostility. It was here that the genre would reach its zenith, primarily through the work of one individual.
That individual was Lazar Weiner, easily one of the most important figures in the history of Jewish music in America. Born in the Ukraine, Weiner immigrated to the U.S. at age 17 and first played piano for silent movies. Through a violinist at a community orchestra where Weiner worked in Brooklyn, he became involved with a group of Yiddish poets and was immediately taken by their work. He would later turn many of their poems into songs. (See Neil W. Levin’s extensive biography of Weiner for an in-depth look at Weiner’s life and work, which extends significantly beyond his art songs.)
Among the other composers featured in The Art of Jewish Song are Maurice Rauch, Sholom Secunda, Solomon Golub, Max Helfman, and Yehudi Wyner, the Pulitzer Prize-wining son of Lazar Weiner. The topics of the poems run the gamut from shtetl life and the immigrant experience to existential questions about the human condition and one’s place in the world. The English translations reveal their meaning, but they must be read in Yiddish (transliterations provided) to truly appreciate their poetic quality.
Goethe has written that we should spend at least a portion of each day in the presence of music and poetry "in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful that God has implanted in the human soul." The songs presented here provide the perfect opportunity to heed Geothe's words, while also opening the door to a little known and under appreciated period of Jewish musical history.