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ClassicsOnline Home » JEWISH OPERAS, VOL. 1
Timeless Jewish legends and unforgettable dramatic characters come to life in these opera scenes composed by 20th-century American masters. Ellstein’s The Golem retells the ancient tale of a clay-made creature, brought to life by kabbalistic spells, who ultimately threatens the very people he was intended to serve. Strassburg’s Chelm, a series of vignettes from a “village of fools,” includes a portrayal of a hapless newlywed couple who conduct a hilarious search for an ideal wedding present. Tamkin’s The Dybbuk transforms an age-old story of demon possession into a compelling drama wherein the fate of two star-crossed lovers becomes a mystical allegory for the Jewish People and Israel.
By Jerry Dubins
"I really enjoyed this disc, and if the opportunity presented itself, Id gladly go to see any of these operas staged and complete. As excerpts, they whetted my appetite to hear more, so Im pleased to note that this is labeled Jewish Operas, Volume I. Recommended."
JEWISH OPERAS, Volume I
Among the major names associated with the heyday of the American Yiddish theater as songwriters, composers, orchestrators, and conductors, Abraham Ellstein (1907–63) was the only one born in America. He is generally considered one of the "big four of Second Avenue ", along with Sholom Secunda, Joseph Rumshinsky, and Alexander Olshanetsky. Ellstein, though he may be remembered most widely for some of his theatrical "hit" songs, went further than the others in the classical realm, and he considered his theater career only part of his overall artistic contribution.
Ellstein was born on New York's Lower East Side — one of the most concentrated eastern European Jewish immigrant areas — and as a boy chorister in local synagogues, he sang with some of the most accomplished cantors of the time. He received his early musical training at the Third Street Settlement House, sang in the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus, and began composing while still a young child. He is said to have written a short opera at the age of eight. At only thirteen he conducted a boy choir in John Barrymore's Broadway production of Richard III.
Ellstein was later awarded a scholarship to The Juilliard School. He studied with Frederick Jacobi, Reuben Goldmark, and Albert Stoessel, after which he made his debut as a theater composer with music for B. Epelboym's play Gerangl (Struggle), performed by the Vilner Truppe, followed by music for Beynush Steynem's Baym toyer at the Artef, and Mendel Elkin's Bum un dreydl. These were the first of thirty-three scores for Yiddish theater, although his subsequent scores were more directly associated with the popular — so-called Second Avenue — vein. By the 1929–30 season he was engaged as resident composer and music director at Ludwig Satz's Folk Theater, where he wrote the scores for Zayn vaybs lubovnik (His Wife's Lover), which was later made into a film, and Az der rebbe vil (When the Rebbe Wants), referred to as a "Hassidic operetta". Ellstein then moved to the Public Theater as resident composer and director for the 1930–31 season, where he wrote the score for the comedy Der berditchever khosn (The Bridegroom from Berdichev), among others.
Ellstein wrote new music for Molly Picon's performances of Goldfaden's Shmendrik, and for the "operetta" that once played on Second Avenue, Oy iz dos a meydl (O, What a Girl!). He also added new musical numbers to shows such as Dos tzirkus meydl (The Circus Girl), Hello Molly, and Molly Doll y. His "Hassidic musical revue" was performed in Argentina. Ellstein also later wrote two film scores — Mamele and Yidn mitn yidl — for Molly Picon, which became "Jewish box-office hits". Among his many other successful theater scores was A bisl mazl (A Bit of Luck), which featured Menashe Skulnick singing his famous rendition of "The Scotchman from Orchard Street".
Active for many years in Yiddish radio, Ellstein had regular programs on WEVD, where he presented a variety of Yiddish folk as well as theater music and cantorial selections. He directed a weekly broadcast of liturgical music, The Song of the Synagogue, and he also wrote and arranged for Broadway, general radio and television, as well as "pop" concerts and even some British and American film shorts.
He was in great demand as a pianist, arranger, and conductor for cantorial concerts and recordings for such great cantors as Yossele Rosenblatt, Leib Glantz, and Mordecai Hershman. His cantorial orchestrations in particular are considered the most stylistically classical in that genre. He conducted synagogue choirs for many years, especially for holy day services, for which he wrote a good deal of traditional cantorial-choral music, most of which remains unpublished, and two modern Sabbath services.
Ellstein always aspired to classical expression, and he seized such opportunities whenever they arose. His 1958 one-act opera, The Thief and the Hangman, with a libretto by Morton Wishengrad (1913–62), based on a Yemenite folktale, was televised nationally on ABC in a program sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary for the series Directions, and was then shown to delegates from more than 100 nations at the World Music Congress at the Salzburg Festival.
In addition to The Golem, among Ellstein's other important classical works are two oratorios: Ode to the King of Kings — televised on CBS and sung subsequently by Jan Peerce — and Redemption, based on the Hanukka story; the Negev Concerto for piano; a piano suite; and Haftorah for violin and piano (with a string orchestra version). Apart from his actual synagogue music, his concert cantorial settings remain popular and are frequently performed.
Ellstein: The Golem
Libretto by Abraham Ellstein and Sylvia Regan
Based on a story by Halpern Leivick, adapted by Joseph Buloff
Abraham Ellstein's lifelong ambition to write a full-length opera on a Jewish subject materialized when the New York City Opera conductor Julius Rudel took an interest in the idea and helped secure a City Opera commission under a Ford Foundation grant. The result, The Golem, was premiered at City Opera in the spring of 1962, conducted by Rudel.
Ellstein had been interested in the golem subject ever since he first visited Prague about thirty-five years earlier on a European concert tour as accompanist to the world-renowned cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He had visited the attic of the Altneuschul, one of Prague's oldest synagogues, where the Prague version of the golem legend — and the particular story used for the opera — is placed. He was immediately inspired to create a major work. "Something in the atmosphere of that old room got to me", Ellstein recalled on the eve of the premiere, "and I've been aiming at this opera ever since".
The golem, a mysterious mythical creature, has been the subject of one of the most persistent legends in western and Central European Jewish folklore — one that has been recycled and reinvented frequently since the Middle Ages. Although anything even approaching humanly wrought magic is clearly prohibited in Judaism, the long path of Jewish history has not been without the emergence of natural human inclinations toward folk superstitions and magical beliefs. Indeed, it has often fallen to responsible rabbinic leadership to eradicate such notions.
Generically, a golem (also homunculus) is a creature, usually quasi-human — i.e., made artificially through the magic of holy names, a phenomenon common to the magic lore of various ancient cultures. The development of the golem idea in Jewish contexts derives from the magical exegesis of the mystical work sefer y'tzira (Book of Creation) and from mystical ideas about the creative power of speech, of words, and even of particular letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The holy name involved in most Jewish golem legends is, of course, that of God — an unpronounceable tetragram of His actual Name. The word golem derives from its single mention in the Bible (Psalm 139:16), which led to the Mishnaic description of it as a fool and to the talmudic use of the word as an unformed and imperfect entity — in philosophical terms, matter without form — which it acquired only in later versions. It might simply signify body without soul, but the deeper connotations in early talmudic and Midrashic legends often concern secret powers of intuition derived from primordial clay — the earth, from which a golem is artificially fashioned.
In the medieval conception, certain transformations and reorderings of certain letters could contain secret knowledge of creation on an internal level. Although in the early medieval period some saw in this a hidden guide to magic procedures, in the later Middle Ages the idea of a golem creation became more metaphorical. In the 12th and 13th centuries, there arose among the Pietist sect hasidei ashkenaz the notion of the golem creation as a mystical ritual. Yet that was also the beginning of the perception of the golem as an actual creature, even though the mystics insisted on its exclusively symbolic meaning — spiritual experience of ecstasy without practical benefits or consequence. In fact, none of the early sources contain any reference to practical benefit being derived from a golem.
In the ensuing centuries, the concept of the golem solidified as a creature whose animation depended upon the "holy letters" in physical contact with it — in a particular secret order. The golem also took on the character of a creature who could serve its creator in practical terms, but could also be vaporized by removal of the life-giving letter(s). Kabbalistic opinions on the nature of the golem — whether it could have power of speech or intellect — vary.
By the 17th century, golem legends were commonly known, and they had certain features in common: 1) Some type of life could be ignited in the creature by placing the four letters of God's name in its mouth or on its arm, the removal of which would cause its death; and 2) The golem may serve its creator, but once created, it can develop quasi-independent powers and can wreak havoc, especially by continuing to expand in size, to the point where it must be disintegrated back into primordial dust by removing either the tetragram or one of three letters that had been placed on its forehead. (The three letters spelled truth, but removal of the first letter spelled the word dead.)
The most recent and best-known golem legend is connected to 16th century Prague, where the fashioning of the creature is ascribed to Rabbi Judah Lowe ben B'zallel, known as the Maharal. The Prague legend has no historical basis vis-à-vis the Maharal. The story developed only after his death, and according to some estimates, its attribution was transferred from Elijah of Chelm to the Maharal possibly as late as the second half of the 18th century. Later golem legends endowed the creature with powers of protecting Jews from persecution — especially from the fallout of accusations of ritual murder. But that role is an invention of the modern era.
The Prague golem was said to have been fashioned out of clay, into which the Divine tetragram was inserted — making it obedient to the Maharal's will. Eventually it grew to menace the entire city and turned its destructive force on the very people it was supposed to protect. The Maharal was thus forced to destroy it. The Prague legend has inspired plays, ballets, poetry, novels, abstract compositions, films — and operas.
Ellstein's opera is based on the play of the same title (1921) by the Yiddish dramatist and writer H. [Halpern] Leivick (1886–1962), which was produced initially in Hebrew, in Moscow, by Habima. A studio of Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre, Habima is regarded as the foundation for modern professional Hebrew theater, and it later became the National Theatre of Israel. Ellstein's opera was a close collaboration with his wife, playwright Sylvia Regan, who wrote the libretto to Joseph Buloff's adaptation of Leivick's play. In creating her libretto, Regan did not confine herself strictly to Leivick's play. Together with Ellstein, she scoured many other sources for variant golem legends, eventually incorporating some of those elements in a composite product.
In determining his musical approach, Ellstein realized that much of what was popularly considered "traditional Jewish music" in America — Hassidic-type tunes, klezmer band inflections, eastern European modes and motifs, Yiddish folksong, and cantorial chant — is in fact of relatively recent origin, dating to the 19th century with sometimes wishful perceptions of greater age. He became convinced that those musical elements could not appropriately express a 16th century story with medieval roots. Therefore he chose instead to rely — albeit very conservatively — on 20th century techniques and harmonic idioms as a more universal approach.
In the first act the Maharal creates the golem by deciphering mystical formulas in the Kabbala and deriving God's preeminent name (shem ham'forash), believed to be the secret of all creation, and then injecting it into the skull of the clay creature in order to animate it and enable it to protect Prague's Jews against their persecutors. Soon afterward, the Maharal is warned that a fanatic monk, Tadeus, is preparing to launch a new "blood libel" and ritual-murder accusation against the Jews by planting as evidence the corpse of a murdered Christian child. That infamous "blood libel", which surfaced periodically in Europe from the time of the Middle Ages even into the 20th century, maintained that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the preparation of matza for Passover. The death or even disappearance of a Christian child could instantly provoke a pogrom leading to wholesale slaughter of Jewish communities. In an attempt to forestall such an event, the Maharal decides to use his newly created golem rather than to rely on the conventional paths of beseeching God through fasting and prayer.
In the single-scene second act, only the finale of which is recorded here, the golem almost evokes sympathy as a lonely and shunned creature with no consciousness of its identity. But hints and warnings of its darker side begin to emerge and will play out in the third act, when the golem develops powers too great for the Maharal to control, becomes confused and bewildered, turns on the Jews and commits murder, and must be destroyed by its creator.
The scene here takes place just outside the Prague ghetto in a desolate, ruined castle inhabited by the city's Jewish beggars — who chase and mock the golem. As this excerpt begins, the Maharal has just emerged from a vision in which Elijah the Prophet has appeared in disguise and offered to usher in the Messiah. The Messiah, however, would be able to raise the dead, but not prevent Tadeus's murder of the Christian child or the ensuing massacre of Jews. The Maharal has therefore declined Elijah's offer, rejecting dependence on messianic redemption in favor of the golem's protection, choosing strength over supplication.
The golem enters and pleads with the Maharal to help him in his existential crisis: "Why did you bring me here to be alone, always alone?" The Maharal explains that the golem's mission is to wait alone until needed. After the Maharal ascends to the castle's tower, his orphaned granddaughter, Debora, appears in search of him. The golem asks her, too, for help in understanding his identity, and he wonders why the townspeople chase him and call him a "golem". When he resists her explanation that people simply fear strangers, she concludes that the golem, too, must be an orphan, because he neither recalls his parents nor even knows what parents are. Momentarily appeased, the golem assumes that Debora must suffer from similar loneliness. But she explains that her mood is the opposite, especially in anticipation of her impending marriage, and she invites the golem to her wedding. Since the golem has no idea what a wedding is — nor of anything else human or earthly — Debora demonstrates typical wedding joy by dancing, and the golem begins to dance with her. As he gets carried away, he pulls her into a violent embrace, and she struggles in his grasp. Hearing her screams, the Maharal and his disciples — Isaac and Debora's betrothed, Yaakov — rush to her aid. Furious that the golem has touched his bride, and foreseeing the eventual danger of its power, Yaakov warns the Maharal: "He is evil, Rabbi — put an end to him before he puts an end to us".
The Maharal, however, merely reprimands the golem for its inadvertent excess and aggression, and reveals to it the purpose of its existence. He asks God to bestow supernatural powers on the golem so that it will be able to "see all without being seen". He then hypnotizes the golem and — without telling it of Tadeus's scheme — instructs it to discover and reveal any secret plans of the Jews' enemies. With its newfound clairvoyance, the golem foresees the murder of a child, its corpse hidden in two sacks that have been planted as culpatory evidence in a tunnel under the castle. The Maharal realizes that his prayer has been granted: the golem has been endowed with the requested powers. He instructs it to retrieve those sacks — i.e., to prevent the blood-libel accusation, or perhaps the entire incident, in advance. As the golem disappears into a cloud to do the Maharal's bidding, the Maharal rejoices in triumph over the success of his newest creation: a golem that not only has life but also obeys his commands in the service of Jewish protection: "A miracle blessed by Thy holy Name, O God!"
For many decades Robert Strassburg (1915–2003) figured prominently in the general musical life and in Jewish cultural circles in the Los Angeles area. Born in New York, he studied and worked with Igor Stravinsky, Walter Piston, and Paul Hindemith — with whom he studied at Tanglewood on a Boston Symphony scholarship. After bachelor studies at the New England Conservatory, he received his master's degree from Harvard, where he was the recipient of a fellowship in composition. Later, he earned a doctor of fine arts degree at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Strassburg was always dedicated to teaching. He was chairman of the composition and theory department at the Philadelphia Music Settlement School (1943–47), he lectured at Brooklyn College (1947–50), and he was on the inaugural faculty of the Brandeis Camp, directing the music program at its branch in Hendersonville, North Carolina, in 1950. He was also an artist-in-residence and taught at the Brandeis Arts Institute, a subsidiary program of the Brandeis Camp, for five summers (1951–55) in Santa Susana, California, where the director of musical activities was the conductor and composer Max Helfman (1901–63), one of the seminal personalities in Jewish musical creativity in America. That institute brought together college-age students and well-established Jewish and Israeli composers and other artists in an effort to broaden the horizons of young American artists and to introduce them to new possibilities inherent in modern Jewish cultural consciousness and artistic developments in the young State of Israel.
In 1960 Strassburg moved to Los Angeles. He served as assistant dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Judaism until 1966, when he became a professor of music at California State University (Los Angeles). There, he also established and directed the Roy Harris Archives and published a catalogue of Harris's works. Strassburg composed in nearly all classical media, and his own substantial catalogue includes many Judaically related works, secular as well as sacred. During his tenures as music director at various synagogues — first in Florida and then in Los Angeles — he developed a particular interest in liturgical music, and he composed numerous prayer settings. Among the best known of these are two Torah services, many individual prayers for Sabbath and High Holy Days, various Psalms, and liturgically related solo songs. Liturgical as well as Jewish historical themes also informed a number of his instrumental pieces, including Festival of Lights Symphony for string orchestra; a Torah Sonat a for piano (with a version for string quartet, Tropal Suite); Terecentenary Suite for viola and piano; Patriarchs, four biblical portraits for string orchestra; and A gilgul fun a nign (Migrations of a Melody), on a text by Yehuda Leib Peretz, for baritone, narrator, and chamber orchestra.
Apart from Judaic subjects, Strassburg's lifelong passion for the poetry of Walt Whitman found its expression in many of his secular works. He was cochairman of the Walt Whitman Centennial events, held at California State University. He also composed more than forty documentary film scores and wrote incidental music for such theatrical productions as King Lear, The Rose Tattoo, Anne of a Thousand Days, and The House I Live In. He was an active poet, and he published nearly twenty books of his own poetry during his lifetime.
A Comic Folk Opera in One Act
Libretto by Cantor Raymond Smolover
In 1955 Cantor Raymond Smolover founded the Opera Theatre of Westchester, in White Plains, New York, a northern suburb of New York City. Inspired by the success of such intimate stage works in the general operatic realm as Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Old Maid and the Thief, Smolover saw analogous operatic possibilities in Jewish lore and literature, but he realized that no single opera program yet existed to champion that cause. The new Westchester County project was intended to encourage both the creation and the performance of chamber operas on Jewish themes on a regular basis. After initial performances there, the productions might go on tour to various cities on the Eastern Seaboard and even in the Midwest. All productions were thus required to have casts of no more than five people; sets that could fit into one station wagon; and small instrumental ensembles, with alternative piano accompaniment for those situations where further instruments were unavailable.
Robert Strassburg's Chelm, a one-act comic folk opera, was one of the first two chamber operas commissioned by the Opera Theatre in the year it was founded. Smolover invited Strassburg, who was then living in Florida, to compose a work to a libretto in English that the cantor had already written. It was based on Yiddish folktales and had an eastern European Yiddish folkloric character. Strassburg was intrigued by the opportunity to express musically and dramatically that Yiddish lore and also to draw upon the Yiddish folk melos. Chelm received its New York City premiere in 1956 at the 92nd Street YMHA, paired with Frederick Piket's Isaac Levi (with a libretto also by Smolover), a one-act opera about the 19th century Hassidic master and folk hero Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. Since then, Chelm has been presented at least forty times on the East Coast and often elsewhere in the United States.
The very mention of the city of Chelm can evoke laughter, owing to a large body of humorous folktales connected to its mythical former Jewish inhabitants. Since at least the 19th century, generations of eastern European Jews and their émigré descendants have been entertained by those sometimes satirical, sometimes nonsense stories mocking Chelm's population of fools — known sarcastically in folklore as khelmer khakhomim — the "wise men of Chelm". Although it is often erroneously assumed to be a completely fictitious town, Chelm [khelem in Yiddish] is actually a small city in Poland, southeast of Lublin, with a centuries-old Jewish history. Its Jewish community, virtually extinct since the German deportation and slaughter of the Jewish population in 1942, is thought by some to be one of the oldest in Poland — possibly of medieval origin. (It numbered approximately 15,000 Jews in 1939, but only 15 of the handful left behind by the Germans survived to be liberated by the Red Army in 1944.) The earliest documented evidence of the city's existence dates to 1442. Early in the 19th century, a local Hassidic dynasty was founded there, after which the city's rabbis were Hassidim. At its peak, the Jewish community — probably about fifty percent of the total population at the time of the 1939 German invasion — boasted the typical communal and religious institutions: a yeshiva (talmudic academy), an orphanage, an old-age home, a secondary school, two Jewish weekly periodicals, and synagogues (one of which may have dated to the 13th century). All were destroyed by the occupying Germans between 1939 and 1944.
Chelm's comic notoriety stems from the perception of its residents as naïve and sometimes childlike simpletons, unable to separate theory from practice; incapable of deductive reasoning, logical understanding, or problem solving; and prone to silly conclusions and confusions. Those perceptions eventually acquired the status of folklore throughout Poland and other regions of eastern Europe — much as jokes or comically derogatory anecdotes about stereotypical daftness have characterized inhabitants of Gotham, England, or certain regions or rural parts of the United States, however unfairly.
Typical stories about the "wise men of Chelm" concern senseless solutions to dilemmas and portray a community mentally overwhelmed by ordinary as well as self-created problems and befuddled by questions requiring even a modest degree of practical wisdom. Many Chelm tales and their variants are found in published collections.
For his libretto, Smolover compiled a selection of Chelm anecdotes and vignettes and fused them into a central plot. The story revolves around David's wedding gift to his bride, Leah; the problems he confronts; and his interactions with the town "wise man" and the local seductress. There are ten scenes in all, of which four (scenes 2–5) have been excerpted for this recording. In scene 2, David has just brought his bride home. After a mutual declaration of love, he confesses to her that he has forgotten to buy her the wedding gift he has selected. Leah protests that no gift is necessary and that it would be better to conserve their funds. But David insists, and Leah agrees that perhaps he could buy her a she-goat — something practical that she has always wanted. David consults Berel, the wise man, regarding where he might find a she-goat and how he can determine both the gender and the quality of the animal. Berel advises David to visit Khaya, for she has goats to sell. In scene 3, a comical debate ensues between the two men over whether the head or the feet should be the determining factor in selecting a young goat that will grow into a healthy and productive animal. Scene 4 opens with Khaya both bemoaning her unmarried state and proclaiming its advantages at the same time. Her conversation with David is peppered with double entendres and innuendo in reference to the gender of the goat he seeks ("What would you want with a he? You need look no further: I am a she".) Scene 5 — in which David reports to Berel on his success in finding and purchasing the goat — shows the two men engaged in a disputation over obvious explanations for natural phenomena: from how to identify gender (again, with a sexual innuendo) to why days are longer in summer than in winter. To the latter question, David proposes the "obvious, scientific" answer: that summer days are longer because heat causes expansion!
For much of the melodic material, Strassburg drew upon actual Yiddish folksongs as well as fragments of ubiquitous folk tune motifs. Scene 2 is based upon a well-known folksong, Papir iz dokh vays (As Sure As Paper Is White), about a young man's yearning for his beloved. However, the tune is not merely arranged or quoted. It is used as a foundation for the composer's improvisation, and it is developed through fragmentation and extension. The other scenes here contain melodic references to archetypal Yiddish folksong phrases and motives.
At some point during the 1970s or 1980s the orchestrated score and parts were lost when the composer moved. The present orchestration — for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, cello, and harp — was reconstructed expressly for this Milken Archive recording.
David Tamkin (1906–75) was a highly successful and prolific Hollywood film composer, arranger, and orchestrator who also had an abiding interest in opera. He was born in Chernigov, the Ukraine, but his family emigrated to Portland, Oregon, when he was less than a year old. He began violin lessons at an early age and was eventually in a class — taught by Henry Bettman (a Ysaÿe pupil) — with Louis Kaufman, the future distinguished concert and sound-track violinist who became Tamkin's lifelong friend and was later instrumental in promoting and garnering support for The Dybbuk.
Tamkin studied composition with Francis Richter and then with a number of teachers in New York, after which he was a student at the University of Oregon. He also worked for a brief time with Ottorino Respighi, as well as with Ernest Bloch, before settling in Los Angeles. In 1949, Universal Pictures made most of its music staff redundant, and Tamkin was retained there as an arranger and an orchestrator. Between 1947 and 1960 he worked on nearly forty films, including Swell Guy with Ann Blyth, The Fighting O'Flynn with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., You Gotta Stay Happy with Eddie Albert, and Singapore with Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner; and he orchestrated most of the film scores of Dimitri Tiomkin. In 1968 he was the orchestrator for award-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith for the film 100 Rifles, also for Universal. In addition to The Dybbuk, Tamkin's works of Jewish interest include a second opera, The Blue Plum Tree, based on the biblical story of Jacob and Esau; and an orchestral version of Joseph Achron's Stempenyu Suite.
Tamkin: The Dybbuk
Libretto by Alexander Tamkin
Based on the play by S. An-Ski
David Tamkin's opera The Dybbuk, with a libretto by his brother, Alexander, is based closely on the immortal classic Yiddish play of the same title by the celebrated author, playright, and folklorist S[emyon Akimovitch] An-Ski [Solomon Zainwil Rapaport] (1863–1920). Tamkin was first struck by its operatic possibilities when he saw its American production as a young man. Indeed, a learned essay following the opera's premiere observed that An-Ski's play itself was in effect a sort of "opera without music", with the inflections of language, the implied melos of Jewish and Hassidic folk life, and the rhythm and hum of its rituals providing a type of music. But it was not until 1931 that Tamkin and his brother commenced work on the opera.
An-Ski, who was born in Belarus, separated himself from his traditionally religious background and surroundings to join the Haskala (the Jewish enlightenment movement) in Russia, and he wrote mostly in Russian until about 1904, after which he returned to the Yiddish language. He became attracted to social revolutionary circles, as well as to the populist narodniki movement, which embraced Russian peasant roots and values. After a thirteen-year exile in western Europe (mostly in Paris), he returned to Russia in the year of the 1905 Revolution and joined the Social Revolutionary Party. His involvement in the Jewish Labor Bund was internationally echoed in his Bund anthem, “ Di shvue” (The Oath). After the 1905 Revolution, An-Ski also developed an intense interest in Jewish folklore, and he headed the watershed Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1911–14 (later informally referred to as the An-Ski expedition) throughout significant regions of the Russian Empire — notably Podolia and Volhynia — financed by Baron Horace Guinzbourg, which collected folklore, artifacts, music, and other documentation of Jewish life in those villages and hamlets. The fruits of that expedition were brought back to St. Petersburg, where they would be available for scientific and scholarly study and artistic use. An-Ski's play The Dybbuk provided a new window to a world of superstitions among Jews in areas of eastern Europe that had yet to be subdued by westernization and the Haskala. An-Ski used this particular tale as a framework for depicting the mysterious world of Hassidic Jewry. He wrote the play originally in Russian, but translated it himself into Yiddish for its production in Vilna (Vilnius) in 1920 by the famous Yiddish theatrical troupe the Vilner Truppe. For its production in Berlin in the 1925–26 season by the Habima troupe from Moscow, it was translated into Hebrew by Chaim Nachman Bialik — the leading figure of the modern Hebrew cultural renaissance, avatar of modern Hebrew poetry, and Israel's poet laureate. That Berlin production marked Habima's entry into the European theater world, and it was received there as a cultural revelation. A non-Jewish critic for a Berlin newspaper was mesmerized: "Of course, I could not understand one word of it", he wrote, "but I could hear that this elegant Hebrew must have been the language in which God spoke to the ancient Israelites when He was in His best mood!"
In that interwar period, An-Ski's drama about demonic possession evoked a very real way of life that was still being played out — not so far geographically from Berlin, but light-years away culturally. It bespoke a world in which daily lives were still governed by centuries-old folk beliefs, archaic rituals, medieval magic and mysteries, and outdated perceptions of good and evil. That immediacy appealed to Berlin critics and contributed to the play's general success — almost as if lifting a veil on an utterly foreign world, so near and yet so far. Chemjo Vinaver, the distinguished musician, critic, and scholar of Hassidic music who had come from a Hassidic environment but was living in Berlin, reacted to the play less as a conventional drama than as "a loosely woven dramatic legend based on Hassidic lore and Jewish folkways".
Incidental music for the 1922 Moscow production of The Dybbuk (also used for the Berlin Hebrew production) was composed by Joel [Yuli Dimitrovitch] Engel (1868–1927), one of the seminal figures of the Jewish national art music movement. Engel had also headed the music division of An-Ski's ethnographic expedition, and both he and An-Ski are said to have been inspired to artistic expression of this folktale when they heard it together from an innkeeper's wife in 1912. Since An-Ski's construction of the play relied on a question posed as the principal motif in a Hassidic song (perhaps also learned during that expedition), Mipnei ma? (Why did the soul descend from the supreme height to the deep pit?), the tune of that song was used in the Vilna premiere, and Engel incorporated it into his incidental music along with other authentic folk and Hassidic melodies. In 1926 he published the score as an independent concert piece, Dybbuk Suite (Suite hadibbuk, op. 35).
In the 20th century there have been many artistic treatments of the dibbuk theme, and the play itself has inspired many works. An opera by the Italian composer, Lodovico Rocca, entitled Il Dibuk, was premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1934, and an orchestral prelude by Bernhard Sekles, Der Dybuk, was published in 1929. There is a dibbuk ballet score by Max Ettinger (1947), and there are several operas in addition to Tamkin's, the most recent of which is Shulamit Ran's Between Two Worlds, which was premiered in Chicago in 1997. A well-known Yiddish film version of the An-Ski play was made in Poland in 1937, starring Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, and a Hebrew film was produced in Israel in 1968.
The story concerns an archetypal demon in Jewish folklore, the dibbuk, an evil spirit that enters the body of a living person and cleaves to his soul — speaking through that person's mouth as an independent and foreign personality and driving the inhabited victim to madness. A similar phenomenon is found in talmudic as well as kabbalistic literature, where the reference is simply to "evil spirit". But the term dibbuk is not found in literature until the 17th century, in the Yiddish of that period, and it is actually an abbreviated form of the Hebrew, dibbuk m'ru'ah ra'a (cleavage of an evil spirit), or dibbuk min hahitzonim (dibbuk from the outside). Initially, a dibbuk was perceived as a type of devil or demon that entered an ill person. A later dimension concerned a dibbuk as the spirit of a dead person who had not been laid to rest properly, which thus became a demon — a belief also found in other folk cultures. In the 16th century this dibbuk conception became intertwined with the mystical idea of transmigration of souls (gilgul). In that belief, a dibbuk could be perceived as an exposed soul that, because of it serious sins, was not permitted to transmigrate and therefore sought refuge within the body of a living person. At the same time, however, the new living host was considered to have committed some secret sin that invited a dibbuk to enter. Such notions were composites of folk beliefs from surrounding non-Jewish cultures and from kabbalistically oriented mysteries. In still other versions, the dibbuk could be simply the soul of one who dies unfulfilled and then wanders in search of a new vessel. From the latter half of the 16th century on, until as late as the early 20th century, there are many accounts and types of dibbuk incidents, and even descriptions as well as instructional literature on exorcisms.
In the opera, as in An-Ski's play, the spirit of a dead young man — his marriage to his beloved having been thwarted — enters her body as a dibbuk. Hanan [Channon], a poor but brilliant Talmudic student in the town of Brainitz, and Leah, a wealthy man's daughter, were in love. But her father, Sender, arranged a "more appropriate" match for her, with a yet-to-be-identified wealthy man's son. In a desperate effort to gain the riches that would make him acceptable to Leah's father, Hanan turned from Talmud to the study of the Kabbala and mysticism in order to learn the dangerous secret of how to invoke the "evil spirit" in the service of his wish. That pursuit caused his death.
Following local custom, on Leah's wedding day a separate feast is given for the town's beggars, who dance with the bride. In his introduction to his libretto, Alexander Tamkin saw those dancing beggars as enacting "the suggestive role of the souls of the dead returned to dance at the wedding", and he envisioned their movements working up to a "frenzied milling which sweeps the senses clear for that horrible, mad-minded incident so soon to come — the entrance of the dibbuk Channon into the body of the bride".
Also following a prenuptial tradition, Leah visits her mother's grave to invite her presence under the marriage canopy. While at the cemetery, she also sees Hanan's grave, and she mourns for him while shrinking from the thought of the loveless marriage that lies ahead. Later, as the bridegroom places the veil over her face prior to the ceremony, Hanan's spirit takes possession of her body.
In the third and final act, Sender takes his daughter to a reputed "wonder-working" rabbi, Azrael, for exorcism. Azrael summons the spirit of Hanan's long-dead father, Nissan ben Rifke, who accuses Sender of having broken the agreement that their two children would marry when they reached the appropriate age. In a climactic scene, Hanan's dead father's claim is adjudicated by a rabbinical court, which finds in his favor. Sender is required to acknowledge his betrayal and to accept the court's judgment: he must give half his fortune to the poor and for the rest of his days pray for the souls of Hanan and Nissan. Azrael proceeds to exorcise the dibbuk from Leah, pronouncing it "excommunicated from all Israel". That accomplished, Azrael calls for the wedding to proceed. Now emptied of Hanan's spirit, Leah is unable to sustain life. She calls to Hanan — to his soul — and his soul calls to her in response, paraphrasing the expressions of love in the biblical Song of Songs. She expires, following him into death, to be united with him eternally. As the curtain falls, the mysterious words of the old Hassidic song Mipnei ma?, with which the opera opens, are repeated by the same messenger: "Why, from the highest height to deepest depth below, has the soul fallen? The Fall contains the resurrection."
With a commitment for a fully staged production still not secured, Tamkin extracted certain portions of the opera and reworked them into a concert version in eight movements, for tenor and orchestra. That suite was premiered in Portland, Oregon, in 1949, sung by Jan Peerce with the Portland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Janssen. The full opera in its original version received its premiere by New York City Opera in 1951 in a fully staged production, conducted by Joseph Rosenstock.
The present recording draws upon excerpts from both versions. Track 6 contains an excerpt from the opening scene of Act I of the actual opera. A distraught elderly woman and two children rush into the synagogue and study house in Brainitz late at night, where a few remaining Hassidic and Talmud students are lingering, following their discourse about a Hassidic rebbe (rabbinical-type Hassidic leader) who once ruled against a rich man in favor of a poor one, and then upheld his ruling — foreshadowing the final scene of the opera. The distraught woman beseeches God to spare the children's mother, who is unconscious and on the verge of death. The beadle suggests that those in the synagogue might form a minyan (prayer quorum of ten) to recite Psalms, as a traditional means of solace and an expression of faith; and he asks that she offer them the usual customary token of charity in return — in the name of the children's mother. When she is able to offer only a single kopeck for each of them, the beadle reflects on the poor lot of the pious, intoning an old ironic song: "If I sold [burial] shrouds, then no one would die…" Annoyed by his delaying and his sarcastic dissatisfaction with her tokens, the woman summons the children to find another prayer house.
Track 7 contains an instrumental excerpt from the first movement of the concert suite, which is titled "Wedding Chorus". But the music is drawn from the later wedding festivities scene in the opera.
Track 8 is an excerpt from the second movement of the concert suite, titled "Under the Earth's Surface" in reference to a passage in Act I of the opera libretto. Hanan has entered the synagogue (beit midrash). In response to a fellow student, Chenoch [Hanokh], who has reprimanded him for neglecting Talmud study in favor of kabbalistic fantasies ("The Talmud is not in your hand"), Hanan extols the mystical and spiritual attributes of the Kabbala over the rational and earthly focus of the Talmud ("it [the Talmud] binds you to earth, it forbids the attempt of heights; but the Kabbala wrenches your soul and throws you to loftiest heights").
Tracks 9 and 10 contain instrumental excerpts: the prelude to Act II, which is the fifth movement of the concert suite; and the "Dance of the Beggars", which is its seventh movement.
The final excerpt here (track 11), "The Song of Israel", was written specifically for the concluding movement of the concert suite; it does not appear in the opera. It only loosely corresponds to Hanan's singing of the biblical love song (Shir hashirim) toward the end of Act III of the opera, in the sense that some scholars interpret the Song of Songs as a metaphor for God's love for the people Israel rather than as the romantic love poetry suggested by its erotic images. But here the new lyrics, by Jack Brooks, a motion-picture lyricist associated with Universal, form an overtly Zionist expression, referring to the new Jewish state as the Jewish people's ultimate refuge. The concert was premiered during the euphoria that followed the establishment of the State of Israel, which had occurred less than a year before, at a time when the national consciousness of Jewish war and Holocaust refugees was immediate and acute. But these lyrics appear to have been written prior to the actual date of Israel's declaration of statehood (May 14, 1948), since the fifth line in the printed score reads "Oh, give them now their homeland". For that 1949 performance, with Israel already an independent sovereign nation, the line was altered accordingly: "Oh, now they have their homeland".
In his review essay following the New York City Opera premiere, Chemjo Vinaver was gratified by the reception of the subject matter by a contemporary American audience:
It is consoling to think that there are still people capable of being carried away by the image of so irrational and mysterious a world as that of this play, and one wonders whether after all there may not be the possibility in this country for a Jewish culture above the borscht-and-bagels level that some of our entrepreneurs of culture seem to have decided is all we can take.
Neil W. Levin
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JEWISH OPERAS, VOL. 1