Music by Mark Zuckerman
Now available on Centaur Records CRC 2611: The Year in Yiddish Song.
The pieces on this CD (except for the first) are arrangements: adaptations for four unaccompanied vocal parts of existing Yiddish songs.
I call this CD “The Year in Yiddish Song” because the sequence of songs reflects the calendar (more or less) of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America.
1. We begin with Mir zaynen do tsu zingen (We’re Here to Sing!) which I wrote as a musical mission statement:
We’re here today to sing for you. We’re singing music both rhythmic and rich; and all in Yiddish, the language of the Jewish heart, with songs both beautiful and tender. In our songs lives the pride of our people and tradition. We’re here to bring this heritage to your hearts through our voices. We hope you enjoy our harmonious gift. Perhaps you like our song. Who are we? We’re here today to sing; the Yiddish word should sound loud. We hope you’re ready. Our name is: Di Goldene Keyt!
2. Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrates the Maccabees’ victory against the invading Syrians. In rededicating the Temple, which had been defaced by the Syrians, one day’s lamp oil miraculously burned for eight days, commemorated since by lighting candles on each of the eight days. Lituanian-born Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923) wrote poetry from the age of 15, which he published in socialist and anarchist Yiddish periodicals, earning a living as a sweatshop tailor and a reputation as a sweatshop bard. He emigrated to London in 1882 and New York in 1886, but it wasn’t until 1898, when his work appeared in English translation, that he became well known. In his O, ir kleyne likhtelekh (O, You Little Candles) the Chanukah candles evoke a bittersweet contrast between the Chanukah story and the plight of Jews in the Russia of Czar Alexander III:
O, you little candles: you tell tales, endless stories. You tell about bloody battles, heroism, and courage: wonders of once upon a time. When I see you sparkling, a vision comes twinkling; an old dream talks. “Jew you have fought once, you won once. Ah, one can hardly believe it.” O, you little candles: your stories awaken my pain. Deep in the heart, something stirs and asks, through tears, “What is going to happen now?” [Translation by Miriam Goldberg]
3. Vladimir Heifetz (1893-1970) was born in Russia, but was an active composer, pianist, and conductor in the New York area for almost fifty years, with an output that includes film scores, oratorios, cantatas, and numerous Yiddish songs and arrangements. His Fayer, fayer has been adapted to celebrate one of Chanukah’s favorite foods: Fire, fire, oy! it’s hot! Hot latkes!
4. Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl (I am a Little Dreydl), by Mikhl Gelbart (1889-1966), celebrates the four-sided top children spin in a Chanukah game. On each face is a Hebrew letter: nun, giml, hey, and shin, standing for Nes gadol haya sham (A great miracle happened there), referring to the Chanukah miracle.
5. In the refrain of Mikhl Gelbart’s Purim song Urim-burim the name of the holiday occurs four times, with the first letter replaced by successive letters of the alef-beys:
Everyone have fun today on our Purim holiday. Urim-Burim-Gurim-Durim: sing a little song of Purim! Giving gifts upon this date reminds us all to celebrate! So let’s sing and let’s be gay and whirl the grager all the day.
6. After immigrating to America in 1908, Sholom Secunda (1894-1974) composed for the Yiddish theater. Many of his songs -- like Bay mir bistu sheyn (the fifteenth song on this CD) and Dona, dona, which he wrote in 1940 with fellow immigrant Aaron Zeitlen (1898-1973) for Zeitlen’s play Esterke -- became part of American popular culture.
In a wagon lies a crying calf bound securely with a rope. In the heavens flies a swallow, full of song and full of hope. “Hush,” says the farmer, “No one told you to be a calf. You could be that bird up yonder, free to fly and free to laugh." Calves are bound and dragged to slaughter without hope that they might be saved; birds are free to fly unfettered, never to become enslaved.
7. When Avrom Reisen (1876-1953) settled in the United States from Russia in 1914, he already had an international reputation as a Yiddish writer. Because many of his poems have the character of folksongs, a number of them have been set to music. Zog, Maran (Tell Me, Marrano), as set by Shmuel Bugatch, is perhaps the best known Yiddish Passover song. Reisen’s holiday poetry tells a story, and uses the story’s setting to evoke the spirit of the holiday. In Zog Maran, Reisen adds to the Pesach rituals a dimension the holiday assumed for Jews since the beginning of the Common Era: the festival that most set Jews apart, and, in times of overt anti- Semitism, made observant Jews most vulnerable. The story is told using a rhetorical pattern: in each verse, the poet asks the Marrano a question about how he secretly observes the holiday rituals (making a seder, making matsoh, keeping a Hagode, and, finally, what would happen if the anti-Semites heard the seder in progress). The Marrano answers and the poet repeats the answer.
8. Yom HaShoah traditionally follows Passover, although it was Erev (eve of) Pesach that the Germans started their liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (figuring the residents would all be at seder and have their guard down). The first of the three Holocaust songs on this CD, Dolye (My Fate) is by Itsik Manger (1901-1969). Manger was known as a troubadour who typically coupled a deceptively simple folk ballad surface with deep and complex poetry. While Reisen conveys the elements of his story using a rhetorical device, Manger does it by shifting the narrator’s vantage point. The first verse is like a birds’ eye view (“Over the ruins of Poland lies a head with blond hair”). In the second verse, the view is still outside, but is personal (“Under the ruins of Poland I feel pain seeing the head of my girl”). In the third verse (“Pain sits at my writing table and writes a long letter”), we are hearing the poet’s soul in anguish. The fourth verse brings in the image of a funeral bird, while the last verse reflects on what the bird represents to the narrator, taking the image of the bird out of the context of time.
9. Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010), a descendant of rabbinic and Hasidic families, is widely regarded as one of the greatest Yiddish poets. Born in Belorussia, he moved to Vilna in 1920 and was in the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust, escaping to join the partisans. After testifying at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, he settled in Palestine in 1947. From 1949 until his death in 2010 he edited the Yiddish literary quarterly, Di Goldene Keyt. Unter dayne vayse shtern was set to music by Avrom Brudno, who is known for this and other Holocaust songs, and who was sent to his death at a German concentration camp in Estonia when the Vilna ghetto was liquidated in 1943.
Under your white starry heaven offer me your pale white hand. All my words are flowing teardrops, I would place them in your hand. Gone the luster from their brightness, seen through morbid cellar view, and I no longer have my own space to reflect them back to you. My devoted God I offer everything that I possess, as the fire that I suffer fills each fiery day I pass. Only in the holes and cellars with deadly rest my days I share. I run higher -- over spire searching where are you, oh where? I am chased by phantom beings; stairs and courtyards goad me too. There I hang a broken bowstring and I sing once more to you: Under your white starry heaven offer me your pale white hand. All my words are flowing teardrops, I would place them in your hand. [Translation by Rosalyn Bresnick-Perry]
10. Published in 1935, Vilne, with words by A. L. Wolfson (1867-1946) and music by Alexander Olshanetsky (1892-1946), reportedly was sung at the start of almost every musical program in the Vilna Ghetto.
Vilna: city of spirit and innocence. Vilna: conceived in Jewish ways, where prayers murmured soft nocturnal secrets. I often see you in my dreams, my dearly beloved Vilna: the old Vilna ghetto in a foggy glow. Vilna: our hometown, our longing and desire. How often your name brings a tear to my eye! Vilna streets, rivers, forests, mountains and valleys...Something gnaws at me, makes me yearn for days of long ago. I see the Zakret forest, enveloped in its shadows, where teachers secretly slaked our thirst for knowledge. Vilna sewed the first thread in our flag of freedom and inspired its children with a gentle spirit.
11. Although not on the traditional Jewish calendar, May Day is celebrated here to honor the Jewish immigrants’ connection to the labor movement. Representing this holiday is one of the most popular Yiddish worker songs, In kamf (In Struggle), written in America in 1889 by labor poet Dovid Edelshtat (1866-1892).
We are driven, despised, tortured and persecuted because we cherish the poor and the weak. We are shot, hanged and robbed of our lives and our rights for we demand truth and freedom for downtrodden slaves. Cast us into iron chains, tear us apart like bloody beasts – you can kill only our bodies, not our spirit. Murder us, tyrants, but new fighters will come and we will fight on until the whole world is free.
12. Springtime is also courtship time. We segue with Morris Rosenfeld’s Mayn rue-plats, the archetypal sweatshop love song:
My love, don’t seek me where myrtle grows, where birds sing, where fountains spray. Where lives wither by machines, where slaves’ chains clang, where tears flow and teeth gnash: that is my resting place. So if you love me truly, come lift up my heart and sweeten my resting place.
13. O kum shoyn shtiler ovnt, adapted from an adaptation by Daniel Charney (1888-1959) celebrates the calm of twilight:
Oh come, quite evening, and rock the fields to sleep. How quiet it has become; the air is turning cool. The nightingale has ended its song; the white birch stands alone in the field.
14. Tum balalayke is a popular folksong where a young man poses a series of riddles to the girl he is courting:
Can you tell me what grows without rain, what yearns without tears, what burns forever? Silly boy, a stone can grow without rain, a heart can yearn without tears, and love can burn forever.
15. Sholom Secunda’s Bay mir bistu sheyn (I Think You’re Terrific), with Yiddish lyric by J. Jacobs, was transplanted from the Yiddish theater into mainstream American popular culture with an English lyric in a rendition by the Andrews Sisters. This arrangement pays homage to both.
(He:) If you were black as a Tartar, if you had eyes like a cat, and if you limped a little, had wooden legs, I tell you: It wouldn't bother me. And if you had a silly smile, and if you had the wisdom of Vayezuso, if you were wild like an Indian -- even if you were a Galitsyaner -- I tell you it doesnt bother me. (She:) Tell me how do you explain all that? (He:) I'm about to tell you why: I think you're terrific. In my eyes, you have charm. In the whole world, you're the one for me. I think you're good. To me, you have "it." For me, you're more dear than money. Many beautiful women wanted me. And of them all, I chose only you.
16. Immigrants were eager to adopt the secular holidays of America, especially July Fourth, commemorating their own struggle for freedom as well as their new country’s. The Jewish immigrants often translated the American holiday songs into Yiddish, as with Samuel Ward’s famous hymn “America the Beautiful” (Amerike di prekhtike).
17. Akhtsik er un zibitsik zi (Eighty He and Seventy She) celebrates an anniversary of a more personal kind: the golden wedding anniversary of an idyllic couple. This song is by Mark M. Warshawsky (1848-1907), who earned his living as a lawyer while composing Yiddish poetry and songs. Thanks to the efforts of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, who discovered Warshawsky’s work and helped promote it, many of these songs -- like Afn pripetshik (At the Fireplace), which was in the sound track to the movie Schindler’s List -- became part of the Eastern European Jewish folk tradition.
It’s exactly 50 years since the old couple married. How well they’ve aged; God has blessed them with honor and riches. Never once did they quarrel; they spoke to each other only with endearments. The celebration becomes lively, with everyone in a circle and the aunt on one knee. The bobe gets tired and goes to sleep (her dream I’ll tell you another time...).
18. Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman is a well-known Yiddish poet from a prominent Yiddishist family living in New York City. Her Harbstlid (Autumn Song) comes from a collection of her songs, Zummerteg (Summer Days).
See, it’s fall, and all that greened has yellowed, withered. See, it’s fall, and all that bloomed is gone. And I who thought that spring would last forever, and in my hand I hold Eternity. Oho, falling leaves! Oho, flying days! Oho, how will I wander now when thick fog settles on my way... Sadly cawing birds say “Good-bye!” At the window the moaning, wailing wind: “I wish that I could get away from here to a shore where there is still spring.” Driving rain gallops on a wild horse, whispers secret love into my ear: “Why do you wait for springtime, when autumn offers baskets full of gold?
19. Poet Moshe Leib Halpern (1886-1932) was born in Galicia and emigrated to New York in 1908, where he was a frequent contributor to the communist Yiddish daily Frayhayt. This arrangement of his song Di zun vet aruntergeyn -- with music by Ben Yomen (1901-1970) -- was written in memory of Yiddish activist Avram Kahn, who loved this song as he loved Yiddish causes.
The sun will soon set beneath the hill; silently Love will come upon Loneliness that sits weeping upon a golden stone. The golden peacock will come and take us all to the place for which we yearn. Night will come and lull us all into eternal slumber.
Recorded by the Goldene Keyt Singers on MSR Classics MS 1146.
1. I wrote Because in honor of my wife, Judith, on our first wedding anniversary. I presented it to her with the help of the Gregg Smith Singers at their summer workshop in Saranac Lake, New York, close after the actual event. This piece continues a tradition begun at our wedding, for which I wrote Grow Old Along With Me (the third piece on this CD). Because sets the Sonnet XXXIX of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her collection of forty-four Sonnets from the Portuguese. She wrote these in secret, presenting them to her husband Robert in 1847. Although she never meant them to be published, she was, fortunately, persuaded to put them in print. According to Louis Untermeyer (the editor of The Love Poems of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, currently published by Barnes and Noble):
The title was something of a mystery; it was a modest, and misleading, attempt to conceal the unimpeded confessions of an impassioned heart. The poems were obviously not translations; the title was merely one more token of domestic intimacy. At first Mrs. Browning suggested “Sonnets translated from the Bosnian.” But the title finally chosen was another homage to Browning; it was an acknowledgment of her husband’s playful way of calling her his “own little Portuguese” because of her olive skin.
Because is heavily influenced by the music of Lili Boulanger – in particular her Psalm settings – which captures with great sensitivity and dramatic awareness every nuance of the text.
Because thou hast the power and own'st the grace
The title, Because, comes from the first word which is repeated twice in key positions within the poem and distills the thrust of the text.
Within the poem’s rigorous Sonnet structure lies a wealth of dramatic and contrasting images and thumbnail sketches evocative of deep feeling and long experience. Consequently, Because shifts moods rapidly along with changes in the text and imagines the emotional foundation for each declaration.
2. Laughing Song is a setting of the flirtatious poem of that name from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence:
When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
3. I wrote Grow Old Along With Me in honor of my wife, Judith, to be sung at our wedding. This piece is actually a joint effort, since we both selected the text. It was Judith’s idea to use Robert Browning, and she chose as our theme the famous first lines from Browning’s poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra. We then read through several volumes of Browning’s work until we discovered Any Wife to Any Husband, the second stanza of which we felt captured exactly how we felt about each other. In the resulting composite text the lines from the first poem frame the excerpt from the second, a relation reflected in the music.
Grow old along with me!
4. Ani L'Dodi V'Alay T'shukato (I am my Beloved's, and his desire is towards me.) is another piece from our wedding. The Hebrew text is from Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs).
5.-8. Proverbs for Four at Fifty got started when my friend, Bill Gross, asked me to set a verse from Mishle (the Book of Proverbs) as a present to his wife, Cheryl, on her fiftieth birthday. As I worked on the piece, it struck me how very apt it was to pick a Biblical quotation for this kind of celebration, especially considering the Biblical exhortation – in Vayyiqra (Leviticus), Chapter 25 – to make a jubilee of the fiftieth year. I found other proverbs to commemorate other fiftieth birthdays that were meaningful to me; so Oz V’Hadar L’Vushah, Cheryl’s proverb ([Chapter 31:Verse 25] “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles confidently at the future.”), begat:
L’Khah Nirveh Dodim Ad HaBoker ([7:18] “Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us delight ourselves with love.”), which I wrote to mark my own fiftieth birthday and my all-time best birthday present: my wedding, which occurred just the week before.
D’rakheyha Darkhey Noam ([3:17] “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of her paths are peace.”), which was composed in honor of my wife Judith’s fiftieth birthday, “with love and appreciation for her good counsel.” That the text, which refers to the Torah, also appears in the liturgy is very appropriate for Judith, who is deeply interested in Jewish ritual and observance.
Reyshit Khakhmah ([4:7] “The beginning of wisdom is, Get wisdom: therefore use all of your means to acquire understanding.”), was written for the jubilee celebration of Town and Village Synagogue, where Bill, Cheryl, Judith and I are members. T & V is a special place for me, since it was through the synagogue that I met my wife, and we were married there. This text captures succinctly what I feel is a prominent ideal shared by our synagogue community.
These pieces are meant for general audiences. The texts carry a universal message. The texts are all in Hebrew, since I wanted to convey their message in the language that would best convey their meaning to the people for whom these pieces were composed. Hebrew is also authentic for these texts; perhaps this is why they sound so glorious in Hebrew. Hebrew is remarkably compact: compare Uvkhal kinyankha kineyh vinah with “Therefore use all of your means to acquire understanding”; the English has half again as many syllables, more than twice the words, and four times as many letters. And the Sephardic pronunciation (the way Hebrew is spoken today in Israel and therefore the way Jewish liturgy is pronounced in houses of Jewish worship around the world) has an extraordinary rhythmic vitality, suggestive of syncopation, asymmetrical meters, and the like: stuff that energizes a composer.
9. I wrote Kol Dodi for my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, using verses (in Hebrew) from Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs). The counterpoint suggested by two expressions of the same sentiment (“My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feeds among the lilies.” [2:16], and “I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine: he feeds among the lilies.” [6:3]) is the idea behind the recurring refrain that opens the piece. Between occurrences of this refrain are declarations of love. The first is by the men (“Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant.” [1:15], “Thou art all fair, my love...” [4:7], “How fair is thy love, my sister, my bride!” [4:10]), which is answered by exclamations from the women (“The voice of my beloved!” [2:8]). The second is by the women (“His mouth is most sweet: and he is altogether lovely; this is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!” [5:16]), and the third by everyone (“Many waters cannot quench love...” [8:7]).
10. When Avrom Reisen (1876-1953) settled in the United States from Russia in 1914, he already had an international reputation as a Yiddish writer. A Socialist, Reisen’s work frequently expresses sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. Because many of his poems have the character of folksongs, a number (like the Chanukah song Borukh Ato and the Passover song Zog, Maran) have been set to music. Doyres fun der tsukunft (Future Generations) is a setting of the first stanza from the poem of that name; it issues a warning and a plea:
Future generations, brothers still to come, don’t you dare be scornful of our songs. Songs about the weak, songs of the exhausted in a poor generation, before the world’s decline. [Translation by Leonard Wolf]
11. Initially a bootmaker by trade, Mani Leyb (1883-1953) was the leading figure of Di Yunge, a group of New York Yiddish writers. According to the editors (Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse and Khone Shmeruk) of The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, Leyb’s Shtiler, shtiler (Hush), written in 1914, was “...read as an aesthetic call for modulation against the fervid oratory of the earlier Yiddish labor or sweatshop poets. It invokes, also the classic posture of the diaspora Jew, eternally poised in expectation of the Messiah.” His inspiration for the poem reportedly came as he heard Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) prayers emanating from synagogues in Brooklyn as he walked past.
Hush and hush—no sound be heard. Bow in grief but say no word. Black as pain and white as death, Hush and hush a hold your breath. Heard by none and seen by none Out of the dark night will he, Riding on a snow-white steed, To our house come quietly. From the radiance of his face, From his dress of shining white Joy will shimmer and enfold; Over us will fall his light. Quieter—no sound be heard! Bow in grief but say no word. Black as pain and white as death, Hush and hush and hold your breath. If we have been mocked by them, If we have been fooled again And the long and weary night We have waited all in vain, We will bend down very low To the hard floor, and then will Stand more quiet than before, Stiller, stiller and more still. [Translation by Marie Syrkin]
12. Avrom Reisen’s Gebet (Prayer) has a timeless and transcultural message:
Teach me, teach me how to deal with the world, O Lord! And how I may transform evil into good. If a wild beast lurks in our humanity, let me turn it to a mild humility. I’ve seen a trainer in a circus tame a tiger; seen him defang a snake. Lord, let me be wiser. Bless me with patience, too, and make me iron hard, that I may show mankind at least such wonders, Lord. [Translation by Leonard Wolf]
13. Grant Us Peace was commissioned to honor the late Rabbi Leonard Poller’s long and distinguished service to Larchmont Temple. The text is Rabbi Poller’s favorite prayer from the Reform Jewish Liturgy: the English version of the Shalom Rav. This choral setting follows liturgical practice, where the Cantor sings a portion of text which is repeated by the congregation. In several sections these repetitions form rounds.
Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its borders, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.
Recorded by Peter Vinograde on Phoenix USA PHCD 149.
About the Piece
On the Edges goes by in six sections contrasting in pulse and energy. The first section is a toccata with two-handed arpeggios gradually turning into chords that get thicker and thicker before returning to the opening arpeggio motive.
A dialogue follows where slow-moving chords are in counterpoint with quicker, arpeggiated figures derived from the toccata’s opening figure.
Then there’s a quiet lyrical reflection – again based on the opening motive – eliding into a cadenza with arpeggiated figures that increase in range and intensity before dissolving into a trill.
The next section turns the toccata’s opening motive into the subject of a four-part invention, the first in a series of three linked by thematic rotation: the counter-subject of one invention becomes the subject for the next. This cycle completes as the subject of the first invention becomes the counter-subject of the last, and ends as the three subjects are combined, segueing into an extended return of the opening toccata.
About the Musical Materials
On the Edges uses the symmetrical, or octatonic, scale (e.g., C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C). If played as a scale, it sounds a lot like the familiar minor scale – you can build it by taking the first four notes of the minor scale and then transposing them by a tritone.
On the Edges treats these notes more as a collection than a scale, exploiting the relationships between complementary groups of notes, that is, groups that taken together contain all the notes in the scale without repetitions. This is similar to much twelve-tone music, which is based on relationships among complementary parts of the chromatic scale.
In the symmetrical scale, the most symmetrical complementary relationships occur between complementary four-note collections (tetrachords) that are themselves symmetrical. There are three of these symmetrical tetrachords, including the “diminished seventh chord” familiar from tonal music, and they form the basis of the melody/harmony of On the Edges. The most angular of these (C-C#-F#-G) is expressed as a motive in the first measures of the piece, and is used thematically throughout.
The most symmetrical tetrachord, the “diminished seventh,” is the generator of the symmetrical scale since it can combine with either of the other two transpositions of itself to form the scale. This means that there are three different collections of notes that form a symmetrical scale, which taken together exhaust the chromatic scale with each note occurring exactly twice. The larger scale structure of On the Edges exploits this: each of the first three sections uses a different collection, while the last three each use all three, and the switching from collection to collection grows closer to the foreground in each successive section.
About the Rhythm
While On the Edges’ pitch structure is based on symmetries, the rhythmic structure is asymmetrical. With each new section comes a metrical change; yet all meters in On the Edges use seven subdivisions to the measure, grouped 3+4 and 4+3. When the unit note value is very short the effect is like a measured rubato; when it’s slightly longer what you hear is each measure divided into two lopsided beats (somewhat like dancing with a broken leg); and when it’s long the groupings sound like measured changes in tempo.
Recorded by Joel Eric Suben and the Seattle Sinfonia and the Momenta Quartet on MSR Classics MS 1223.
Introduction and Fugue was written for the C. Milton Wright High School Orchestra in Bel Air, MD to help mark the 25th year of service by the music director and program founder, Sheldon Bair. The C. Milton Wright Orchestra has performed much of the music on this recording.
Introduction and Fugue – like Y’hi Ratzon and Out of the Wilderness – uses the octatonic collection (e.g., C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C). If played as a scale, it sounds a lot like the familiar minor scale – you can build it by taking the first four notes of the minor scale and then transposing them by a tritone. Each of these pieces employs different features of the collection. Introduction and Fugue is most apparently octatonic by its melodic constructions. Its principal harmonic sonorities sound like major and minor triads, although they function in ways different from what you might expect in tonal music. Although atonal, Introduction and Fugue is an interpretation of Baroque models both in form and aesthetic ideal.
Shir Kinah: Elegy for victims of terrorism
Shir Kinah: Elegy for victims of terrorism is an arrangement for string orchestra of the second movement of my string quartet. The title is Hebrew for “Elegy.”
About the Music
Out of the Wilderness presents a range of emotional experiences grounded in a single idea, imagining the Israelites’ wanderings through the Wilderness. The musical journey is more a distillation of the whole than a portrayal of the event sequence set forth in the Bible, although there are sections that conjure up seminal episodes, like the Scherzo (the Golden Calf) and the Coda (Moses denied entry to the Promised Land). In this light Out of the Wilderness is more a metaphor for the continuing trek of the Jewish people than an illumination of a Biblical story.
Out of the Wilderness adapts as its constructive framework forms from the Baroque and Classical periods. The underlying structure is derived from the passacaglia, a Baroque form rejuvenated in the 20th century. From this vantage point, Out of the Wilderness consists of a theme and 31 variations in which the theme appears as an ostinato: sometimes at the forefront, sometimes in the background (and sometimes switching in between), but always present. In Out of the Wilderness the variations are grouped into movements that mimic the movements of a Classical symphony.
About the Musical Materials
Out of the Wilderness uses the octatonic collection (e.g., C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C). If played as a scale, it sounds a lot like the familiar minor scale – you can build it by taking the first four notes of the minor scale and then transposing them by a tritone. You also can build an octatonic scale by combining two “diminished seventh” chords (e.g., C#-E-G-Bb and D#-F#-A-C). Since there are exactly three different diminished seventh chords, there are exactly three different octatonic scales. Each diminished seventh chord belongs to two octatonic scales; a melody starting on the same pitch in each of these maintains the same contour but exchanges whole and half steps. This presents the opportunity of relating these scales as modal variants, analogous to the relationship between major and minor modes in tonal music. Out of the Wilderness exploits this by presenting the ostinato in both modes.
Out of the Wilderness also treats the octatonic scale as a collection, frequently exploiting the relationships between complementary groups of notes, that is, groups that taken together contain all the notes in the scale without repetitions. This is like twelve-tone music based on relationships among complementary parts of the chromatic scale.
Many of the variations employ a harmony drawn from the octatonic scale where the chords sound like major and minor triads, although they function in ways different from what you might expect from tonal music.
Out of the Wilderness uses duple meter, although the two beats are different sizes. The meters in Out of the Wilderness use five subdivisions to the measure, grouped 3+2 (long/short) and 2+3 (short/long). The ostinato has one version for each grouping; so there are four versions in the piece (mixing meter and mode).
About the Piece
The variations are presented in eleven groups comprising five movements. In each group the members are related by musical process and affect. Italian, the traditional language of affect in music (and an affectation in this piece), denotes the affect of each variation:
In the expository first movement, Andante (Continuous), there are two groups each of four variations that explore harmonies associated with the ostinato. The first group – Oscuramento (Darkening), Misterioso (Mysterious), Irrequieto (Restless) and Giocoso (Jocose) – presents the ostinato alone and then punctuated by a series of harmonies derived from the ostinato. The second group uses triadic harmony and increasing fracturing of the ostinato among different parts to support an intensifying of affect – Tranquillo (Calm), Marcato (Marked), Ritmico (Rhythmic) and Esultante (Jubilant).
Largo (Broad), the slow and lyrical second movement, consists of one group of three variations: Cantabile (Songlike), Mesto (Sad) and Grazioso (Graceful). The metrical element is twice as long as in the first movement (quarter notes as opposed to eighths). The outer variations weave embellishments around the slow ostinato; these surround the middle variation, which develops slow-moving harmony.
The metrical element changes to sixteenth notes in first half of the third movement, Scherzo (Joke), for a group of four variations – Leggiero (Nimble), Scivoloso (Slippery), Spiritoso (Witty) and Vivace (Brisk) – and returns to eighths (although the rhythmic impetus remains the sixteenth) for a group of two variations, Energico (Energetic) and Stringendo (Pressing). The movement begins and ends with pizzicato.
The last two movements are played without pause. Finale (Ending) consists of three groups each of three variations. The variations in the first group are canons increasing in density and intensity: the first, Spiccato (Distinct), has three voices, the second, Con fuoco (With Fire), has four and the third, Furioso (Furious), five. The second group – Sonoro (Sonorous), Arrabiato (Angry) and Pesante (Heavy) – continues the mood trajectory with increasingly dense dissonances built with triads. The third group – Sognatore (Dreaming), Cantante (Singing) and Pacifico (Peaceful) – each use pedal points and bring the level of tension down. In support of this, the ostinato in this group is varied by exchanging perfect fifths and tritones.
In the Coda (Tail), the two groups of three variations follow a parallel course. The first group, which begins and ends with soloists on each part, uses gestures that feature homonyms of appoggiaturas and cambiatas (non-harmonic tones in tonal music).
In the last of the three variations – Dolce (Sweet), Ominoso (Ominous) and Molto espressivo (Expressive) – the ostinato is broken to highlight the climax.
The variations in the second group successively reduce the ostinato to its essence. Tempo giusto (Regular Tempo) resumes the ostinato as part of a spare three-part counterpoint. Semplice (Simple) puts the long/short ostinato in counterpoint with the short/long version starting a beat later. As with the last variation of the first group, Un poco tratto (Stretched) breaks the ostinato, stretching the last phrase to bring the piece to a soft landing.
Out of the Wilderness is dedicated to my parents, Claire and Irving, whose faith and encouragement spur me to continue growing as a composer and whose generosity made this recording possible.
Shpatsír is one of the two tonal pieces on this recording (the other being Theme Song). The title is Yiddish for “stroll.”
About the Piece
Theme Song is a tonal piece, the last in a succession of versions of essentially the same work. The first incarnation was Sound Byte, for xylophone solo, written for Mike Horowitz. Sound Byte was expanded to become an a cappella choral piece, Mir zaynen do tsu zingen! (We’re Here to Sing!), which became the signature piece of Di Goldene Keyt, The Yiddish Chorale. This, in turn was arranged for brass quintet (Festive Fanfare) and string orchestra (Theme Song).
Theme Song is dedicated to Fred Steinhardt, whose courage, tenacity, and upbeat outlook in the face of life-threatening circumstances was an inspiration to everyone around him.
The String Quartet – a tribute to Milton Babbitt on his 90th birthday – comprises four movements, each of which can stand alone as an individual piece.
Sonata, the first movement, is modeled after the classical sonata allegro. In the first section (exposition), there are three distinct ideas contrasting in character: the first is heavy-handed and relentless, the second, sweet and lyrical, and the third, jocular and bouncy. The succeeding section (development) follows the same thematic trajectory as the exposition, with each of the thematic ideas developed with flights of fancy, commentary, and variation. The final section (recapitulation) brings back the exposition, with the thematic ideas extended in regular patterns.
The second movement is an elegy, In memoriam September 11, 2001. Shir Kinah is a transcription of this movement for string orchestra.
Scherzoid, the third movement, is structured something like a folksong or dance. A rambunctious tune is handed off from one player to the next, over an accompaniment punctuated by pizzicato (plucked strings). This idea is repeated, giving way to a more subdued, but equally flighty section, which, in turn, segues back to the original idea.
The fourth movement, Small Fugue, pays homage to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue), using the masterwork as a model. The same thematic idea is developed contrapuntally in three sections: the first is serious and frowning, the second is more somber and reflective, and the last, playful.
About the Poet
Poet Robert Desnos (1900-1945) was an important figure in the French surrealist movement.
His Chantefables pour les Enfants Sages (Librarie Gründ, 1944), the volume in which these texts originally appeared, was the last work Desnos published before being arrested by the occupying Germans who deported him to Buchenwald. He was later force-marched to Terezin where he died of typhus just days after the camp was liberated by the Allied armies.
La Fourmi, La Sauterelle, Le Léopard, L’Hippocampe, Le Zèbre, and Le Ver luisant from Chantefables et Chantefleurs by Robert Desnos, ©Editions Gründ, Paris. Used with permission.
Raritonality was commissioned by the Rutgers University Wind Ensemble as a musical salute to Rutgers University.
The opening fanfare is built on the notes C#-G-F#-F#, a representation on the chromatic scale of 1766, the year Rutgers was founded. This gives way to the chorus of “On the Banks of the Old Raritan,” the Rutgers alma mater, which undergoes a series of adaptations and transformations as it is combined with the opening fanfare in various ways, both melodic and harmonic, before returning to the opening.
Composition of Raritonality was assisted by an Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Beside the Still Waters was commissioned by the Rutgers University Symphonic Band. The idea was for a piece whose musical challenges came from ensemble playing rather than technical difficulty.
Beside the Still Waters imagines a setting for the title, excerpted from the King James translation of the second line of Psalm XXIII. Perhaps a more precise translation from the original Hebrew would be “tranquil” rather than “still.” This conjures the image of a slow-moving spring or stream whose waters are clear and sweet: life-sustaining – especially precious in the desert surroundings of biblical stories – as well as peaceful. The music follows gentle eddies and swirls drawn from the brief song heard in the piccolo once near the beginning and again near the end. Fleeting disturbances in the brass and percussion, heard near the end, dissipate calmly into ripples carried away by the inexorable yet delicate current.
Composition of Beside the Still Waters was assisted by an Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Jersey Sure was written for the New Jersey Saxophone Quartet. The NJSQ is equally at home in both classical and jazz genres and Jersey Sure exploits this versatility.
The opening riff, which recurs periodically, adapts a jazz idiom. This is developed using approaches drawn more from classical traditions, like contextual harmony, melodic transformations, and imitative counterpoint, while maintaining the jazz-like character of the opening material.
Composition of Jersey Sure was assisted by an Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
In addition to paying homage to the American concert band music I played in high school, Hoboken Vignettes is a tribute to the mile-square northern New Jersey city situated on the Hudson River between the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.
Hoboken Terminal is a major transit hub, connecting three rail systems (commuter, light rail, and PATH), buses, and ferries. Rush Hour at Hoboken Terminal is inspired by the crush of purposeful bustle where a multitude of separate paths cross in patterns of both coincidence and avoidance.
Castle Point, a bluff overlooking the Hudson and home to the campus of Stevens Institute, is the highest spot in Hoboken. Sunrise Over Castle Point pictures the sun emerging over the skyscrapers of Manhattan on a clear day, illuminating the horizon with a spectacle of both direct and reflected glow.
Spring Sunday in Sinatra Park imagines a stroll along the esplanade and public spaces built along the Hudson waterfront and named for Hoboken’s perhaps most famous son.
One of Hoboken’s charms is its unique combination of small town and city. Nothing captures this more than its public celebrations. Festive Day on Washington Street portrays the holiday atmosphere of a civic parade down Hoboken’s main street.
Hoboken Vignettes might well be subtitled "Adventures With Triads," since triads are the underlying sonorities in all four movements. However, the triads don't function as they do in tonal music.Composition of Hoboken Vignettes was assisted by an Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Four Pieces After Rooseveltians for the Roosevelt Arts Project is a set of pieces, each dedicated to the memory of a friend and neighbor in Roosevelt, NJ, my hometown of 30+ years.
Caprice is dedicated to the memory of Sol Libsohn. From the first, I was taken with Sol’s work – both his photographs and his abstract paintings – by their composition as well as their subjects. I was fascinated by the strength of interest in both foreground and background, so that I was encouraged to shift my focus back and forth. Sol was boyishly exuberant about everything. I remember also many visits to Sol and Bess, listening to Sol’s collection of early jazz recordings, about which Sol was a major enthusiast, and discussing everything from politics to bread machines (Sol and I were both bread machine devotees at the time). Caprice’s overall shape is ABA, meaning there are 3 roughly equal sections where the last section closely resembles the first. In the A sections there’s a underlying rhythmic pattern, sort of a distorted tango, over which there are flighty melodic gestures that have difficulty finding a place to land. The effect is off-beat (literally) and recalls the ensemble work of small jazz groups of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The B section takes the A material and turns it inside out, at one level exchanging foreground and background.
I got to know Judy Trachtenberg when I was editor of the Borough Bulletin. At the time, the Bulletin was transforming itself into a non-profit corporation, and Judy, with her experience at the NJ Center for Non-Profits, was generous with expert advice and time-saving contacts. Judy was like that with many other groups in town, especially RAP, which benefited greatly from her devotion and energy. She exhibited a straightforward reserve in our conversations, yet gave way to joyous abandon when she sang. Intermezzo is dedicated to Judy’s memory. Like Caprice, it has an ABA structure. The A sections are chorale-like; a hint of melancholy in the simple harmony of the first becomes more dense – a bit more pointed and unsettling – in the second. In the middle (B) section, the A melodic material becomes transformed into an idyllic dance.
Ed Schlinski was a builder, artist, and philosopher. Whatever the subject, Ed appeared to have a ready opinion, and a strong one. I remember one occasion where he held forth – at some length – on the perfection of the classic spoon and how modern attempts to update the design merely screwed it up. Ed could debate with the best of them and, in my experience, rarely hesitated joining an argument when one was going on. He was not shy about displaying hard edges, in both his speech and his work. Bagatelle is dedicated to his memory. Its compound, asymmetrical meter gives rise to an edgy surface. The phraseology is structured much like an argument, with tit-for-tat give-and-take. Like the previous two pieces, Bagatelle has an ABA structure. In the B section, the harmonies in the A sections become melodic figures, and the rhetoric more drawn out.
Finale is dedicated to the memory of Bernarda Bryson Shahn. Bernarda was the first person I met in Roosevelt. I was looking for a quiet place away from Princeton to write my dissertation and she was looking to rent her attached house (which had an upright piano) to musicians. When I came out to meet her, Bernarda was sporting a cast on her arm. She told me told me it was the result of an encounter with a charging ram she had tried to vault at an archeological dig in Turkey – remarkable for anybody, but particularly astonishing for a woman then in her seventies. It was the time of the Ervin hearings (1973) and since Richard Nixon had been a fascination of mine, dating from a paper on Alger Hiss I wrote in high school, we had our first of many political discussions. During the time we lived next door to each other, we had frequent long, far-ranging conversations, fueled by coffee so strong I suspected she needed a special license to serve it. She had an elegantly succinct way of talking and a seemingly endless capacity to absorb and to listen. She was always alert to every detail, a characteristic I found reflected in her art as well. Finale is a rondo, which is, in a way, an extension of the ABA structure in the other pieces: ABACADA. This is the most highly structured piece of the set. Even though the ideas are apparently simple, their construction is tightly constrained and the manner they weave together is intricate. The result is a complex yet upbeat fabric, reflecting for me a salient feature of Bernarda’s persona. The “A” theme has a number of symmetrical details, each of which invites combining the theme with itself, as heard throughout the A sections. Themes in the B, C, and D sections contrast with the A theme but also combine with it and with each other, so that each successive A section is an accumulation of all the preceding material.
Composition of Four Pieces After Rooseveltians was assisted by an Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Randabout was a commission of the American Music Center's Live Music for Dance program for a new piece by choreographer and fellow NJ Arts Council Fellow Randy James. As the commissioned composer, I had to satisfy the requirements of two artists – the choreographer and the soloist – as well as my own musical sensibilities. I’d never worked with a choreographer before.
I visited a number of rehearsals of the Randy James Dance Works to get a sense of how Randy and the dancers worked. Although I was interested in discovering what concepts went into their work and the kinds of evolutions that emerged from their processes, I particularly wanted to get a feeling for what they responded to in music and how they incorporated it into their expression. I had extensive conversations with Randy and the dancers about what they heard in music and how they responded to it in dance.
I also met with Bart Feller, the flutist who would perform the work. I knew that Bart and Randy went back a long way; in fact, Bart had been president of Randy’s board of trustees, so he already had been fairly deeply involved in Randy’s work. But I also needed to determine his musical preferences and sensibilities and arrive at a design for the music that Bart found involving, one that would give him the kind of opportunities he most enjoyed on his instrument.
In the end, we decided on having Bart play four different instruments: piccolo, flute, alto flute, and bass flute. The initial concept called for an unaccompanied solo work with Bart switching off among the instruments. I wrote a draft and ran it by Bart. After incorporating Bart’s suggestions, I sent a synthesized version to Randy. He said the solo instrument wasn’t sufficiently evocative to him and came back with the idea of using a flute ensemble instead. The only way we could accomplish that was to have Bart play accompanied by a recording of Bart. I wove material from the original draft into a 21-minute ensemble piece – a concertino for assorted flutes accompanied by an ensemble of assorted flutes – and sent a synthesized version of this to Randy. He suggested some judicious cuts, bringing the piece down to about 15 minutes.
After making the final changes I came up with a set of parts for Bart to record and Bart and I went into the studio. We paid for the studio time from what we had originally budgeted for renting a bass flute for the performances; instead, Bart borrowed a bass flute for the recording session and all the bass flute parts were in the recording. The recording process relied on Bart’s unerring intonation, since we recorded each part separately and I mixed them together afterward. Although the piece is designed to use a live performer, as a result of the recording session we had a completely recorded version as well.
Thereafter it was out of my hands. I sat both fascinated and helpless as in front of my eyes a dance majestically yet mysteriously evolved to the music I had written until, gradually, the dance melded itself to the music in my mind.
I saw my contribution as creating music whose elements would provide different kinds of opportunities for Randy and the dancers to respond, within a musical construct that was convincing on its own and idiomatic for the flute. Based on my contact with Randy and the dancers – as well as the constraints imposed by the recording process – those elements are gestural, thematic, timbral, and textural rather than the kinds that generally underscore classical ballet: rhythmic devices or constructs that evoke a story.
Recollections was written for trumpeter Jean-Christophe Dobrzelewski and his trumpet ensemble, Tromba Mundi. It was later adapted for trombone quintet.
The title has two connotations. The first is the common language meaning: after the very beginning, everything that happens recalls something that has already happened. The second is a pun, more appropriately spelled "re-collections," since as the piece unfolds, the collections of musical elements ― instrumental couplings as well as melodic fragments and harmonies ― are constantly being redistributed and reinterpreted. The two main melodic ideas form a good example of this: the second, a staccato, loud, fanfare-like figure is actually an upside-down version of the first (introduced by an unmuted trumpet following the muted introduction), which is slow, soft, and lyrical. The trumpeters are encouraged to position themselves far apart from each other (surrounding the audience, if possible), which enhances the "re-collecting" effect.
Keepsake is a memento for solo flute or saxophone.
Renewal was written for trumpeter Jean-Christophe Dobrzelewski and organist Guy Whatley.
Renewal came about because Jean-Christophe emailed me to say he was interested in a piece for trumpet and pipe organ that somehow integrated Jewish material. Because of the acoustic properties and sacred nature of likely performance venues, I thought it more appropriate to find the Jewish elements in religious practice than in Jewish secular culture (e.g., klezmer). I immediately thought of the similarities between the trumpet and the shofar (ram's horn), which has a critical role in the liturgy of the Jewish High Holy Days. I became intrigued by the challenge of fusing this with the long-standing tradition of trumpet and organ music, which is closely associated with the Baroque.
Renewal is a mingling of cultural influences. The opening idea in the trumpet is drawn from the sounding of the shofar at Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, inspiring the title. This idea is contrasted with the following trumpet and organ duet, which recalls a Baroque trumpet voluntary. The two ideas play off each other throughout the piece.
Presented with so many passion-arousing, troubling challenges, eras like ours call out for fanfares to confront the moment. Fanfare for an Uncommon Time navigates unsettling harmonic terrain with a determined motive built on the substance of its surroundings. Its title pays homage to Aaron Copland’s 1942 classic, Fanfare for the Common Man.
Two Emily Dickinson Settings was commissioned by Tales and Scales, a four person troupe – flute, clarinet, bass trombone, and percussion – that combines music, drama, and dance in programs aimed at young children. The Dickinson Settings are concert pieces providing musical contexts for readings of two poems by Emily Dickinson. The readings are integrated with the music and performed by the instrumentalists.
Festive Fanfare is one of a succession of versions of essentially the same work. The first incarnation was Sound Byte, for xylophone solo, written for Mike Horowitz. Sound Byte was expanded to become an a cappella choral piece, Mir zaynen do tsu zingen! (We’re Here to Sing!), which became the signature piece of Di Goldene Keyt, The Yiddish Chorale. This, in turn was transcribed for orchestra and string orchestra (Theme Song), concert band (Festive Flourish), pipe organ (Here to Sing!), and brass quintet.
I wrote Marche Comique during my senior year at Ardsley High School and conducted its premiere with the Ardsley High School Band at my last concert before graduating.
Marche Comique is dedicated to Joe Greco, director of the Ardsley High School Band, one of the finest musical organizations I’ve been privileged to join. Joe is one of those rare, stimulating teachers who had a profound and lasting effect on all of his students. His encouragement, support, and example inspired a number of us to pursue rewarding musical careers.
The title of Suite!, winner of Southern Utah University’s first annual Hal Campbell Composition Competition, is a pun on a modern slang expression, but the piece itself is grounded in two time-honored musical traditions. The use of instruments and overall demeanor come from the nearly century-old tradition of modern concert band suites. The structural transparency and rhetoric – the use of themes, phrases, and thematic development – stem from the classical era. Moreover, the outer movements are based on classical structures, in a deployment resembling a classical symphony. The first movement is an adaptation of the classical sonata allegro, with a thematic exposition, development, and recapitulation; the last is adapted from the classical rondo, where a recurring theme alternates with contrasting material. The influences of these antecedents, however, are far from solemn: the attitude is decidedly modern and playful, not taking itself too seriously.
Four Freedoms is a work for a cappella mixed chorus on a text adapted from
(reproduced below) of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of
the Union Address
that articulates Four Freedoms which he believed were universal human rights
and the core of
America’s commitment to the world. Uttered less than a year before the
United States’ entry into
World War II, already being fought at the time of the speech in Europe and
Asia, The Four Freedoms
proposed a vision for a postwar world worthy of the war’s desperate struggle
and terrible sacrifice.
They remain worthwhile goals today.
This site was last updated 04/22/18