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ClassicsOnline Home » ADOLPHE: Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering / Mikhoels the Wise (excerpt)
Jewish poetry dating back to the time of the Spanish expulsion (1492) is transformed by composer Bruce Adolphe into a captivating song cycle for soprano, guitar, and French horn that revels in Ladino-inspired melodies, exotic new instrumental timbres, and astonishing virtuosity. A complete scene from the opera Mikhoels the Wise includes the haunting “Lullaby of Birobidzhan.” Out of the Whirlwind recalls the unforgettable poetry and songs written by members of the Jewish resistance during World War II, as well as by other victims of the Holocaust.
Bruce Adolphe (b. 1955):
Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering
Mikhoels the Wise (excerpt) • Out of the Whirlwind
About the Composer
Composer, author, educator, and performer Bruce Adolphe was born in New York in 1955. A graduate of The Juilliard School (1976), where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees, he also studied privately with Milton Babbitt, Vincent Persichetti, and Lawrence Widdoes. Adolphe has composed works for such renowned artists and organizations as Itzhak Perlman, Sylvia McNair, David Shifrin, David Finckel, Wu Han, the Beaux Arts Trio, the Dorian Wind Quintet, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the National Symphony, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Chicago Chamber Musicians, and the Caramoor Festival. He has been composer-in-residence of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the 92nd Street Y School Concert Series, as well as at festivals around the United States, including SummerFest La Jolla in California, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Perlman Music Program, the Virginia Arts Festival, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Chamber Music Northwest in Oregon, Music from Angel Fire in New Mexico, Bravo! Colorado, and the Appalachian Festival in North Carolina. Adolphe's music is also frequently performed abroad — in Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Among his large-scale compositions are several stage works, including four operas — the first of which, The Tell-Tale Heart (1978), is based on the well-known story by Poe. His film scores include an overview documentary on the history of anti-Semitism, which introduces the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In addition to the works presented here, his other Judaically related pieces include Rikudim (Dances), which won the Presser Foundation Publishing Award; Troika, based on klezmer clarinet idioms and inflections; and the opera The False Messiah, which is based on the 17th century incident surrounding Shabtai Zvi, the most famous of the self-proclaimed messiahs of that era. Among Adolphe's numerous general works are his comic opera, The Amazing Adventures of Alvin Allegretto, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Guild; Whispers of Mortality, for string quartet; Triskelion, for brass quintet; Body Loops, for piano and orchestra; and many others.
Adolphe is also well known as a teacher and lecturer, and he has served as music and education adviser for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He is especially dedicated to children's music education, and is the cofounder of a firm devoted to devising educational repertoire and materials in a wide range of media for young people. His many compositions for children include Marite and Her Hearts Desire of the Purple Palace; and Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concert, written for the unveiling of the dinosaur at Chicago's Field Museum — among many other such pieces. He has taught at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts (1983–93), Yale University (1984–85), and The Juilliard School (1974–93). Adolphe is the author of several books including What to Listen for in the World, and The Mind's Ear : Exercises for Improving the Musical Imagination. He is also a pianist, harpsichordist, and conductor, and has toured throughout the United States.
Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering
This piece was born as a commission from two of the composer's colleagues. But it also reflects the interest in folklore that Adolphe acquired from his parents, both of whom were professional folk dancers (in addition to being teachers in academic disciplines). He grew up listening to many diverse genres of folk music in his parents' collections, including Ladino folksongs — which made an indelible impression on him at an early age. The texts for this work are derived from well-known Ladino folk poetry. Adolphe, however, retained only the words and discarded the traditional melodies attached to these poems. The music is freely composed, without reliance upon preexisting musical folk material.
Ladino is a hybrid secular Sephardi Jewish language, also known as Judeo-Espagnol, which is a fusion of Castilian Spanish (15th century) and Hebrew dating from the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, after which Ladino became a vernacular among eastern and Mediterranean Sephardi Jews and constituted a major part of their literary and folksong culture as well as a daily spoken language.
The composer has written the following note on this work:
In 1983 Lucy Shelton and David Jolley asked me to compose a work for soprano, French horn, and guitar. The instrumental combination was a bit daunting, for blending the soft-spoken guitar with the deeply resonant horn seemed an acoustic nightmare. Add a soprano, and where are you? However, I soon began to think of the instruments as three of the purest sounds available, and the easy pairing of voice and guitar could perhaps be lent an air of mystery and distance by the evocative tone of the horn. Having just had the premiere of my opera The False Messiah at New York's 92nd Street Y, I was still thinking in terms of ecstatic Sephardi melismas — Shabtai Zvi, the 17th-century "False Messiah", had ended up in Istanbul, after all. The idea that this trio would be well suited to Ladino-inspired music seemed right. The guitar was clearly the perfect instrument for Judeo-Spanish timbres and rhythms, the voice would tell the stories of love and loss, and the horn would provide the mournful echoes and amplify the passionate outcries. And so, with the help of Isabelle Ganz, who had performed and recorded much Ladino music, I selected verses from ancient poems that could have been written yesterday. The work was premiered on 28 November 1984, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, by Lucy Shelton, David Jolley, and David Starobin. Soon after, it was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington by Shelton, Jolley, and guitarist Eliot Fisk, the performers in this recording, whom I thank for their passionate and intelligent virtuosity.
Mikhoels the Wise
An Opera in Two Acts about the Life of Solomon Mikhoels
Music by Bruce Adolphe
Libretto by Mel Gordon
ACT I, Scene 4:
Solomon Mikhoels, The famous Soviet Yiddish actor and Jewish leader – Nathaniel Watson (baritone)
Sin-Cha, A Korean Girl – Erie Mills (soprano)
This is the first of Bruce Adolphe's two operas written for the "Jewish Opera at the Y" program at New York 's 92nd Street YMHA, where it was premiered in 1982. The opera is based on historical accounts of the life, career, and murder of Solomon Mikhoels (1890–1948), the adopted stage name of Solomon Vovsi — one of the greatest serious actors of all time in the legitimate Yiddish art theater and the most prominent figure in the Soviet Yiddish theater during the decades immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution. As head of the Moscow State Jewish Theater (beginning in 1928), he was internationally renowned for many of his roles — including his acclaimed portrayal of King Lear in Yiddish. However, as chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Mikhoels was also in many respects the de facto head of and spokesman for Soviet Jewry during the Stalin years — especially with reference to Yiddish culturally oriented segments of Soviet Jewish society. Because of his celebrity status and position of respect not only within the Soviet Jewish world, but also among left-leaning Yiddish cultural circles abroad, he was conveniently "used" by Stalin as his personal representative to the Jews for as long as it served the interests of the Soviet regime.
Like much, if not most, of the mainstream of post-Revolution Russian Jewish society — Jewish intelligentsia as well as indoctrinated proletarian circles — Mikhoels was for a long time genuinely supportive of and naturally committed to the professed communist ideals of the party and to Stalin. For those Jews, Stalin and the party represented many things: the bulwark against the Fascist threat; the continued advancement of the "new order" against the perceived ills, decadence, and built-in inequities of Western bourgeois societies; and the protection against nationalist regression and alleged plots to undermine the world communist cause and the progress of the Revolution and its unfinished tasks. (The truth about Stalin vis-à-vis Russian society as a whole — as well as the Jews — did not begin to emerge for most of the world until after his death; and then, publicly, only after Nikita Khrushchev's revelations in the 1950s.)
Moreover, Stalin's early policies appeared, for whatever self-serving reasons of Realpolitik, to encourage and even foster secular Jewish — i.e., Yiddish — cultural and educational activity, beginning with his commissariat during the first Soviet government. Those policies were reversed only later, with suppressions, wholesale purges, and liquidations of the bulk of Yiddish cultural institutions — leaving only token remnants, such as the Moscow Yiddish theater, intact as "show" propaganda and public relations instruments.
Once the Soviet Union was at war with Germany after June 1941, Mikhoels and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee provided Stalin with a convenient vehicle for seeking Jewish support in the West (which Stalin and the party perceived as a sinister but now potentially useful pressure on Western governments) for the Soviet war effort and for opening a second front. To those ends, Mikhoels traveled to the United States in 1943 (as well as to Canada, Mexico, and England ) on a publicity campaign for the Soviet Union and its ultimate struggle in its "Great Patriotic War" against Fascism. He appeared at a now famous rally at New York 's Polo Grounds, in which the naïvely procommunist sympathizers, film star Charlie Chaplin and singer Paul Robeson, were also involved. That event is depicted graphically in this opera in Act II, where Mikhoels is not only hailed by a Jewish working-class outpouring but saluted by an American Communist Party singing group ("The Branch Needs You"). He also attempts to recruit disaffected left-leaning American Jews for emigration to the Soviet Union, where they would supposedly reinforce settlement in the Jewish Autonomous Region, be better able to realize the socialist ideals for a "better life", and set an example to the world — at the same time bolstering Soviet Yiddish culture.
After the war, Mikhoels acted as the representative and spokesman for returning Jewish Holocaust survivors and those who had been evacuated to Soviet Asia during the war. He lobbied for their proper resettlement and continued to be an advocate for Jewish culture. By that time, however, despite official party line denials, Stalin had come to perceive any thriving Jewish culture in the Soviet Union as a serious threat, and to view those who had had contact with the West during the war as irrevocably tainted — potential recruitments for espionage against the state. In 1948 Mikhoels was brutally murdered and his body savagely mutilated. The official government position ascribed the murder to criminal thugs or to an accident. Stalin disavowed any connection and even permitted a state funeral in Moscow with elaborate eulogies, which attracted thousands of Jewish mourners. It was, of course, a sham; Mikhoels's tongue had been severed, probably as a warning.
It was subsequently established that the murder had been ordered by the Soviet secret police. Further, it is now suspected that Stalin was not only fully complicit in the cover-up (as acknowledged by his daughter in her book), but was almost certainly involved in the orders for the murder itself. The motivations behind Stalin's self-perceived need to eliminate Mikhoels are still shrouded in some mystery, and they may be connected to Mikhoels's association with the proposal to create a region for homeless Jews in the Crimea — a plan Stalin feared as a security risk.
Apart from discrepancies in factual details, it is generally accepted that the killing of Mikhoels symbolized the inauguration of a new, more intense phase of the suppression of Jewish culture and the organized murder of many of the most famous Jewish poets, authors, artists, and actors during the remaining years of Stalin's life. In fact, Mikhoels was even accused posthumously in the Soviet press in connection with the infamous "Doctors' Plot", where he was called "a Jewish bourgeois nationalist" secretly involved with United States intelligence.
The final scene of the opera recalls Mikhoels's funeral, as the Jews of Moscow not only mourn his passing but lament the demise of Jewish culture and the Yiddish language.
Act I, Scene 4 takes place in 1935 at a railroad station in Birobidzhan, the colloquial name (and capital city) of the Yiddish-speaking "Jewish Autonomous Region" (oblast) in the Khabarovsk territory in the Soviet Far East. Settlement had begun there in 1928 — in part as a Soviet alternative to Zionism, and in part from central Soviet concern for fortifying security in the far eastern regions out of growing fear of potential Japanese or Chinese incursions. During the period of this scene, i.e., after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931–32, the latter consideration had taken on increased significance for the U.S.S.R. (Ultimately, the Birobidzhan project failed for a complex variety of reasons, not least of them the two waves of Stalinist purges, before and after the war.)
Mikhoels has come to Birobidzhan to address the populace there. He is met at the station at midnight by a young Korean telegraph operator, Sin-Cha, who has come from Vladivostok, the Russian port for refugees from the Japanese invasions. To his surprise, she speaks Yiddish, and explains that the Japanese atrocities against her people have led her to sympathy for the plight of the Jews. She has come to Birobidzhan to help the Jewish people build a new socialistic society of their own. She tries unsuccessfully to persuade Mikhoels to remain there permanently as an example, as well as to serve as their leader. More optimistic than she is about the future of Jewry, he insists that he can better serve the cause centrally from Moscow. They are startled by distant flashes from Japanese and Chinese artillery, which interrupt their conversation. Sin-Cha reminds Mikhoels that a welcoming committee awaits him in the dining hall. As he goes off, she remains alone to sing 'The Lullaby of Birobidzhan'.
Adolphe deliberately employed a wide range of musical styles in the opera in order to express various emotions and historical developments — from optimistic projections for Soviet Jewish culture all the way to its demise. In the opening sections he incorporated a "feeling of folk music" in connection with theater-related moments, but he "gradually drained it from the score as the situation worsens for the Jews in the Soviet Union ". By the final funeral scene, he has thus avoided all reference to Jewish musical material, suggesting its obliteration by the regime. Adolphe's stated goal was to have the music reflect the disintegration of Jewish culture within Soviet life. In the scene recorded here — which involves a dramatic situation and the unusual phenomenon of a Yiddish-speaking Korean — he consciously quoted some strains of music with an Oriental flavor, which he integrated into the overall musical fabric. Adolphe also feels that much of his vocal writing throughout the opera reflects an overall cantorial background and approach.
Out of the Whirlwind
Written in memory of the millions of Holocaust victims, Out of the Whirlwind was commissioned by Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Allied liberation of the German concentration camps in Europe. The project was initiated by Simeon Loring, who conducted the premiere in 1984 in anticipation of the actual commemorative year (1945). The six-movement work is scored for mezzo-soprano, tenor, large wind ensemble (wind orchestra), piano, harp, and bass. It is based on Yiddish songs by Holocaust victims — some who survived the camps and German-built ghettos, and others who were murdered.
1. Es brent [Undzer shtetl brent] (It [our town] Is Burning)
This song was adopted after the war as a "Holocaust" expression, even though it was written before the German invasion of Poland — before anyone even anticipated the turn of events that became the Holocaust. Yet it has become one of the most frequently sung songs at Holocaust commemorations and memorial services. It was written by Mordkhe [Mordecai] Gebirtig (1877–1942), one of the last popular European Yiddish folk poets, whose simple but poignant folklike songs were among the best known not only in eastern Europe, but throughout Yiddish cultural circles worldwide. Gebirtig wrote this song following a pogrom in the Polish town of Przytyk in 1938, where the arsonists and murderers were local Poles, not Germans. Following the German occupation of Poland, Gebirtig continued to compose poetry and songs in the Kraków ghetto, until he was shot by Germans in 1942. The sentiments and the words were subsequently to prove prescient, almost prophetic of the Holocaust and the world's indifference: "Our town is burning, and you just stand with your arms folded." Adolphe used both the poem and the melody only as raw material for this movement.
2. Mayn mame hot gevolt zayn af mayn khasene (My Mother Longed to Be at My Wedding)
The original song is by Emil Gorovets (b. 1926), a Soviet Yiddish singer and songwriter who emigrated to the United States after the war. In this song, the bride's mother has been murdered by the Germans and thrown, along with many other victims, into a ditch, or mass grave. The bride, during her wedding, hallucinates that her mother is there with her, singing in celebration, and she keeps turning to the musicians in the band, exhorting them, "Play, [klezmorim] musicians", as if asking them to cause her, for the moment, to forget the horrible truth. In this movement the composer used the complete text, but only parts of the original melody. "It felt a little constraining", he remarked, "but I took the parts that haunted me".
The composer of this melody and the poet are both unknown, but the song was sung in the ghetto of Biala Podlaska. Treblinka was one of the most notorious death camps to which Jews were being transported from their trapped position in the ghettos, which had been constructed by the Germans as holding depots. In the song, the Jews are being made aware of their destination and fate. Only the original words are used in this movement.
4. Rivkele, di shabesdike (Rebecca, the Sabbath One)
Only the melody of this song is utilized for this instrumental movement, almost as an interlude. The words, whose melody is anonymous, are by Peysakh Kaplan (1870–1943) — a writer, composer, music critic, and editor of the Yiddish daily Dos naye lebn (The New Life), in prewar Bialystok. Kaplan was murdered in the Bialystok ghetto in 1943. The song concerns a horrifying incident in the Bialystok ghetto on the Sabbath of 12 July 1942, when 5,000 Jewish men were dragged from the synagogues and shot by the Germans. Women whose husbands had been murdered that day became known as "the Sabbath ones" — or, in effect, "the Sabbath widows".
5. Shtil di nakht (Still the Night)
The composer of this melody is unknown. The poem is by Hirsh Glik (1922–44), a resistance fighter who was a member of Yungvald, a literary group of young poets, before the war. He is probably best remembered for another of his Yiddish songs (words only), Zog nit keyn mol, which became the hymn of the United Partisan Organization in 1943 and then spread to nearly all the ghettos and camps in eastern Europe, and which is now the de facto official hymn of Holocaust commemorations everywhere. Glik wrote Shtil di nakht after a successful raid, during which a young woman, who had just barely learned how to hold a gun, successfully blew up a German ammunition-bearing convoy with a single shot. Glik was later imprisoned in a concentration camp in Estonia, where he was shot by the Germans in 1944. According to Adolphe, this movement is essentially both an arrangement and a "recomposition" of the song.
6. Ani ma'amin (I Believe)
These words are taken from the twelfth of Moses Maimonides' (1135–1204) "Thirteen Articles of Faith" and have been set to different tunes at various times by various composers, This particular version has become especially associated with the Holocaust, since it was frequently sung by Jews in ghettos and camps as they were marched to their deaths. The piece concludes with a solo English horn playing a variant of the tune while, in the composer's own words, "the entire orchestra tries to crush it".
Neil W. Levin
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ADOLPHE: Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering / Mikh...