Yiddish – A new viewpoint
When we were approached by harmonia mundi to think of a concept for a ‘different’ album, an album that would challenge our standard repertoire, we took great care to find a subject that we had a natural connection with, but that would be interesting for the general public. Naturally we gravitated to Jewish music.
It is quite fashionable today to revive cabaret music from the Weimar Republic. But the Jewish connection to this music is rarely underlined. We feel that the irony, the word games and the interest in ‘lowbrow’ subjects reflect a direct influence of Jewish culture, which until 1919 was mostly barred from integrating with general German culture. This inspired us to create a project highlighting Jewish culture as an important influence on much of today’s western culture as a whole.
Until 1939, Poland was the centre of the Jewish world. It housed the world’s largest Jewish population, with a thriving cultural scene that included theatre, literature, music, opera, and even one of the biggest film industries of the time. After the Second World War, few Jews remained in Poland. Worldwide, Yiddish was replaced by Hebrew, and the few institutions dedicated to Yiddish culture now treat it mostly in a historical sense. For us, Yiddish is the language our grandparents spoke behind closed doors, and Yiddish music is something that exists in the deep background of our childhood.
This program sets out to show that Yiddish culture did not die in the Holocaust, but rather spread and influenced much of wider western culture. For example, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe transformed Vaudeville into the Broadway we know today, and Hollywood was largely founded by Jewish immigrants and refugees.
To symbolize this, we chose five songs as the heart of our album. The songs were written by different composers/lyricists and would have been performed in Poland between the wars in a cabaret setting. Together, they come together to paint a picture of Jewish street life in Warsaw between the wars. We aimed to create a ‘current’ viewpoint on this music, not one through the lens of the calamity that followed. To set these songs for soprano and string quartet, we approached Leonid Desyatnikov, whose innovative writing for strings captured our imagination.
To frame these five songs in a broader context, we picked two wonderful pieces by composers who are emblematic of Jewish artists and their general cultural contribution. Erwin Schulhoff was Czech, but was highly successful in Germany between the wars. As a communist and a Jew, he was deported to a concentration camp where he died of tuberculosis. His Five Pieces for String Quartet is in its own way cabaret music. Erich Wolfgang Korngold perhaps represents German and Austrian Jews who chose to assimilate with the general culture. He was invited to Hollywood to write film scores and ultimately became the foremost film composer of his time, which saved his life.
We dedicate this program to our grandparents.
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Five Pieces for String Quartet
Erwin Schulhoff was born to a Jewish family in Prague in 1894 and showed musical talent from an early age. The composer Antonín Dvořák advised him to pursue a career in music. Schulhoff began to study at the Prague Conservatory in 1904, continued to take piano lessons in Vienna from 1906, and from 1908 studied composition in Leipzig with Max Reger and subsequently in Cologne with Fritz Steinbach. In the meantime, he had laid the basis of a career as a pianist. In 1918 he was already known as a composer and received the Mendelssohn Prize for his Piano Sonata Op. 22.
His music up to the First World War had shown influences ranging from Brahms and Dvořák to Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin. Following his service in the Austrian army, he adopted a more radical stance both artistically and politically. In the next few years, he composed in a more expressionistic idiom he had learned from Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. In addition, he was influenced by the radical style of the Dada school espoused by Georg Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz was to find its way into much of Schulhoff’s music from that period.
During the late 1920s, Schulhoff managed to create a rapprochement between these competing aesthetics which can be seen in a number of his chamber works and concertos, the First Symphony, the ballet Ogelala, the ‘jazz oratorio’ HMS Royal Oak and his opera about Don Juan entitled Flammen (Flames), which was a failure at its Brno premiere in 1932. In that year he also composed his Second Symphony in a clear-cut neo-Classical style. Soon after, he composed the cantata Das kommunistische Manifest (The Communist Manifesto), in which he expressed his political beliefs, setting texts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the socialism and communism. Looking to the Soviet Union for a solution of the political and economic problems in central Europe, he focused on the symphony as the best medium through which to communicate his ideology and emotions. Schulhoff composed six more symphonies between 1935 and 1942, though the Seventh and Eighth remained unfinished. He lived in Prague during most of the inter-war period, working as a pianist in theatre productions and radio broadcasts, but found himself without any means of support after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. Having taken Soviet citizenship, he was arrested before he had completed the process of emigration to the Soviet Union and was then reported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg where he died in August 1942.
Schulhoff was no stranger to the string quartet medium, having written a Divertimento in 1914 and a full-length Quartet Op. 25 some four years later. His official String Quartet No. 1 was composed between the years 1920 and 1924 and was a great success. Schulhoff had been encouraged to write another work for string quartet. This is how the Five Pieces for String Quartet were composed in 1923. The work was first performed in Salzburg on 8 August, 1924. Although the work follows the outlines of a Baroque dance suite, each of the pieces is a self-contained miniature that emulates a particular dance style in a manner which unashamedly recalls the popular music of the era.
Yiddish – 5 Songs for Voice and String Quartet
The Five Songs for Voice and String Quartet is a piece based on Yiddish songs that were performed in Poland between the two world wars. The composer Leonid Desyatnikov chose five songs representative of Yiddish cabaret style, which portray the lives of Jews in urban Poland, their joy, their suffering and hope. Jewish musicians and performers were dominant in popular music in Poland and collaborated in composing Polish and Yiddish songs. Their works influenced cabaret music throughout Europe as well as Hollywood film music and Broadway theatre music in the United States.
Desyatnikov chose these songs to commemorate the life of Jewish cities before the Holocaust. As he writes: ‘Yiddish – 5 Songs for Voice and String Quartet – are based on the material of cabaret songs that circulated in Warsaw and Łódź between the two world wars. “My cycle is a series of free transcriptions of such songs. Usually, this type of music is assigned to the “lowbrow” area. It is the eclectic culture of the assimilantes, the lumpenproletariat and the outsiders, the culture of cheap chic, and at the same time – in its best forms – a brazen, talented culture full of self-irony and latent despair. The strict, staid sound of the string quartet transforms this music into an exquisite gravure.”
The first song is a nostalgic paean to the city of Warsaw, and the second a parody of an American song that relates the fate of a Jewish prostitute. The third and fifth songs are from the repertory of Yiddish ‘thieves’ songs’, reflecting marginal groups of the Jewish underworld. The fourth song is a duet between a man, Yosl, and a woman, Sore-Dvoshe, who live in poverty but dream of having a large family and enjoying life in the big city.
Yiddish was a vernacular and literary language of the Jews of Europe from the twelfth century onwards. We know of Yiddish folksongs as early as the fourteenth century. During World War Two, hundreds of songs were composed and sung, but many were lost forever. After the Holocaust, Yiddish did not continue to be a living language of Jewish communities in Europe, and became an academic, historic language. Thus the song cycle, in its new and sophisticated arrangement, brings together ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ cultures of language and music with a bitter smile and humanity.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
String Quartet No. 2 Op. 26
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in 1897 in Vienna, the second son of a high-ranking music critic, Julius Korngold, who wrote for the Viennese newspaper Die Freie Presse. Erich’s prodigious musical talent placed him and his family at the centre of high art society at a time when a parallel avant-garde society of cabaret, film and small theatre was growing in popularity and prestige. Both societies expressed disquiet over the future of their cultural heritage. The means of their expression would prove indicative of where the fissures within that culture lay.
Korngold’s life spanned the two world wars, which proved for some to be an undeniable force for radical change to the artistic idiom. Composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith and Krenek became absorbed in creating and promoting new tonalities which could be aligned with older traditions. Korngold was one of many exceptions in that he remained true to his contemporary idiom, described by himself as an extension of natural evolutionary processes. Initially promoted by his father as the only truly natural use of tonality, Korngold’s musical style is attributed equally to his unique character and to his musical mentors, Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss. Erich never wavered from his belief that music should cope with the horrors of his time by serving to elevate the soul rather than drag it down. When the possibility of delineating creative development into early, middle and late styles was still an officially recognized measure of the true artist, Korngold’s musical style merely matured while remaining intact, essentially romantic, effusive, luxuriant and, most significantly, harmonious.
In 1934 Korngold was invited by Warner Brothers to compose music for the film A Midsummer Night’s Dream in America – in retrospect, this proved to be the lifeline that saved him and his loved ones from the gas chambers in occupied Europe. Behind this invitation stood his friend the theatre and film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), who later also emigrated to the United States. Korngold went to America in 1934 but returned to Europe in 1937 to conduct and resume his career as an art music composer. However, within a few months he received another invitation to compose a film score; his acceptance of this offer actually saved his life and those of his family in 1938, just before the German occupation of Austria.
Korngold composed many film scores for full symphony orchestra and became one of the pioneers and leading exponents of film music. He won two Academy Awards. After the Second World War, in 1949, he attempted to resume a European career but this was not a success, and after a few concerts and premieres he returned to Hollywood in 1951. He died a few years later, at the age of sixty, believing that he had been forgotten in Europe.
Korngold is most closely associated with large-scale works, his operas and film scores, but throughout his career he composed chamber music and an impressive collection of songs. In February 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, he began to look for a country of residence in Europe. During this year he conducted operas and composed chamber music, including his four-movement Second String Quartet Op. 26, which was premiered by the Rosé Quartet in Vienna on 16 March 1934, just before he left for America.
Though far less known than the First Quartet (1920-22), the Second presents a self-assured composer who knows how to combine Schoenberg’s expressionism with Romantic sonorities, and a complex chromatic language reminiscent of Richard Strauss with his own confident handling of timbre, colour, and a broad emotional range which is characteristic of his musical language. In this quartet the music of the countryside of Korngold’s native Austria is expressed in ripe Viennese sensuality.
– Gila Flam