Bernstein’s choice of this Yiddish poem alludes, perhaps subconsciously, to his early conflict with his father over his career choice. Like the elders in the poem, Sam Bernstein was initially dubious about his son’s musical aspirations. The poem’s main appeal to the composer had to be its depiction of music’s magical and youthful power to transform hidebound elders into frenzied enthusiasts. As it turned out, the father eventually embraced his son’s music making. Of particular interest is the composer’s commentary in the piano parts. At the words nor a vunder (what a wonder), the organlike piano parts are marked “pp, a vision.” At a lebediker bronem (a living wellspring), the cadence is annotated with the word “amen.” At un dos fidele hot gekusht (and the little fiddle kissed), piano primo is marked “fiddly” against piano secundo’s descriptive “waltzer,” while the last bar carries the indication “ff frantic.”
Sung in Yiddish
Poem: Yankev-Yitskhok Segal (1896–1954)
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin
At my wedding a jolly red-haired musician
Played on the smallest, quietest fiddle.
He played a lament,
An old-time sad song.
Old musicians marveled silently:
Where did he pick up this young redhead?
When, after all, he spends his nights and days in the villages,
Plays at drunken peasant parties,
And, after all, he can barely read a line of Hebrew.
He sleeps on a hard couch,
And he eats wherever he happens to be,
As when a village girl gives him radishes from her garden.
But what a wonder and a dream it was to look at him:
The shoulders and the head, nose and ear
Laughed magically with joy and sorrow.
And his entire thin bony face
Welled up like a spring flowing with life.
At my wedding this youngster played
So that people were lifted from their seats,
Feet wanted to take off,
Ears were sharpened like spears;
And with the little fiddle he caressed, tore, and bit out pieces,
Till it was painful, and it pinched
Into the blood of the taut arteries,
Until the old ones pleaded: “Have Mercy!”
Performers: Jean Barr, Piano; Barry Snyder, Piano; Michael Sokol, Baritone
Publisher: Universal Polygram International Publishing
Poem by Yankev-Yitskhok Segal
Premiere: May 9, 1988, New York City
Mordechai Kaston, baritone; the composer and Michael Tilson Thomas, piano
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