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ClassicsOnline Home » HEGGIE: For a Look or a Touch / SCHWARZ: In Memoriam / LAITMAN: The Seed of Dream (Music of Remembrance)
Based on the true story of two teenage lovers the Holocaust tore apart forever, the dramatic song cycle For a Look or a Touch casts long-awaited light on the fate of gay Germans in the Holocaust. By noted young American opera composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, the work juxtaposes the exuberant freedom of pre-World War II Berlin with the brutal Nazi horrors that followed, while making an eloquent, poignant plea for remembrance. Seattle Symphony’s Gerard Schwarz penned In Memoriam, a beautifully meditative, elegiac piece for cello and string quartet, in honor of cellist David Tonkonogui (1958–2003). From acclaimed American art song composer Lori Laitman comes The Seed of Dream, a powerful song cycle based on five poems written by Abraham Sutzkever during his imprisonment in the Vilna Ghetto. The lyrical intensity of these poems bears witness to the transcendent power of art in resistance to the forces of cruelty. These works were commissioned by Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based non-profit organization dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians through their art (www.musicofremembrance.org).
By Chris Shull
Fort Worth Star Telegram
By David Denton
Jake Heggie (b. 1961)
For a Look or a Touch (Libretto by Gene Scheer)
World première: 7 May, 2007, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert.
Homosexuality had been considered a crime in Germany since the late 1800s, and Paragraph 175—the pre-Nazi legislation outlawing it—remained in effect until 25 years after the war. The Reich considered homosexuality a symptom of “racial degeneracy”, and homosexuals were incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps. The Nazis murdered thousands, and shattered the lives of countless others.
For many years Music of Remembrance had envisioned commissioning a work which would address this tragedy. Our challenge was to find a composer who could communicate its moral and historical importance, and do so in a way that would be intimate rather than didactic. When I came to know Jake Heggie’s music (Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair), I knew immediately that we had found the perfect composer for this work. I am so impressed by the emotional honesty of his writing, and by how expressively his music captures complicated human relationships. Jake Heggie has been a wonderful collaborator, and For a Look or a Touch reflects his heart as well as his genius.
Jake Heggie offers the following remarks:
Because the persecution of gays during the Holocaust is a topic not much recognized nor discussed, Mina Miller decided to take it on in a powerful and meaningful way: through music. When she called and asked me to create a new chamber music composition on this subject, I was deeply moved—and hugely challenged. How on earth could we do honor and justice to this subject?
As an opera composer—a theater man—I told Mina I’d want to include a singer and find a narrative of some kind. But when I looked for poetry or stories from the era, I was deeply upset to discover a vast silence. Because homosexuality was against the law in Germany until 1970—even after the camps were closed, the war over—gays stayed in hiding or got married, fled or tried to blend in. Not until the late 1970s did the literary and art world break the silence (e.g., Martin Sherman’s 1979 play Bent). Even in 2005, when the European Union’s Parliament drafted a resolution regarding the Holocaust, any mention of the persecution of gays was removed.
After visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and reading book after book, I came across Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s extraordinary documentary film, Paragraph 175. It provides testimony from several gay men, survivors of the camps in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, telling stories they never thought they would be able to tell. Surprising, tragic, funny, hateful, shocking stories. Then Mina Miller sent me a link to the journal of Manfred Lewin, a gay Jew murdered at Auschwitz with his entire family.
I had all the elements, just not the story. I needed a librettist. I had just worked with the tremendously gifted Gene Scheer—a songwriter as well as a librettist and lyricist—on a new song cycle, with plans to write an opera together, so I asked him. I shared the research I had done with him; he found books I did not know about. When Gene came across Manfred Lewin’s journal, excited by the beauty of Manfred’s poetry, he called me right away.
Manfred wrote his journal for his lover Gad Beck, who is still alive today. (One of the storytellers in Paragraph 175, Gad has also written an autobiography.) The two teenagers were lovers in Berlin until Manfred and his family were taken. In their love affair, we found our story: an actor would play Gad in the present day, while the baritone would sing the role of Manfred, appearing one night to Gad as a ghost. Through the two of them, we would be able to share Manfred’s poetry and the stories from Paragraph 175.
Manfred’s question “Do you remember?” established the work’s tone. In our story, Gad wants only to forget the horrors he lived through; Manfred’s ghost wants only to be remembered, for Gad to treasure their powerful, timeless love. The play between past and present was, musically, filled with rich possibilities. The tune for “Do you remember?” serves as the anchor of the piece; most of the other material in the piece is connected to it. I chose the instruments in the ensemble for a variety of color (so I could include elements of jazz and swing), for a lyrical as well as gritty instrumentation, and for the percussive possibilities of the piano, including using the inside of the piano. For a Look or a Touch was completed in March 2007.
Gerard Schwarz (b. 1947)
World première: 9 May 2005, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance Concert.
Gerard Schwarz offers the following remarks:
In Memoriam is a work for solo cello and string orchestra (or string quartet), written in memory of a great musician and dear friend, David Tonkonogui. I was thrilled when my son Julian was chosen to be the first recipient of Music of Remembrance’s David Tonkonogui Memorial Award. David meant so much to all of us in our household and was such an inspirational teacher for Julian, fostering his passionate love of music. When Mina Miller, the Artistic Director of Music of Remembrance, and I were discussing what short work Julian would play as part of his prize for the MOR Spring Concert in May 2005, I suggested that perhaps I could write something. Mina embraced the idea, so during the end of March and beginning of April 2005, I wrote this work.
In Memoriam is basically in three parts: the first section is funereal in spirit, reflecting the tragedy of death for someone so young, so gifted, and so remarkable. There is a consistent sadness and poignancy in this opening section. The middle section begins with the string quartet and then the material is repeated and embellished in the cello. I wanted this to be positive in feeling, thinking of all the great accomplishments of this wonderful man, individually and as a father and husband. It has a somewhat otherworldly quality but hopefully the experience is uplifting, a tribute to the extraordinary meaning that David Tonkonogui’s life had for all that knew him. Finally, the coda brings back a little part of the first section in a much shortened version, which is also much thinner texturally, to end on a single note—the lowest or purest note on the cello.
Lori Laitman (b. 1955)
The Seed of Dream
World première: 9 May 2005, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance Concert. Poems written in the Vilna Ghetto by Abraham Sutzkever (b. Smorgon, near Vilna, 1913). The Seed of Dream was composed for baritone Erich Parce. It is dedicated to Music of Remembrance’s founder and artistic director, Mina Miller.
Pre-World War II Vilna (‘Vilnius’ in Lithuanian) was often described as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’. For centuries it was one of the great Jewish cultural centers, contributing important Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and giving shape to the birth of Zionism and the Jewish Labor Movement.
Germany’s invasion of Vilna in June 1941 was followed immediately by a series of anti-Jewish decrees. Within a month five thousand Jews were rounded up and taken away. In August and September, eight thousand more Jews were taken to the nearby forest preserve of Ponary and shot. By the end of 1941, the Nazis had already murdered 33,500 of Vilna’s 57,000 Jewish residents, and imprisoned the remaining Jews in its two ghettos.
The Vilna Ghetto, even under Nazi rule, did not betray the city’s rich cultural heritage. A welldocumented artistic life, including musical events and the Ghetto Theatre, attests to the courageous resilience of a decimated community in constant danger of total destruction. Within the Ghetto walls, poetry took on a special importance.
The great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever was imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto with his wife and mother. He joined the Vilna Ghetto Underground, smuggled weapons and taught Yiddish poetry. As a member of the “Paper Brigade”, he risked his life to smuggle out hundreds of rare books and manuscripts. Sutzkever escaped the ghetto in 1943, and joined a partisan fighters unit. He survived Nazi anti-guerrilla offensives by taking refuge in the forest and freezing waters of Lake Narocz. In 1944, following the Soviet Army’s liberation of Vilna, he was airlifted to Moscow.
In the midst of personal and communal tragedy, Sutzkever wrote poems of classical meter in perfect rhyme, making aesthetic resistance the subject of his verse. Sutzkever’s ghetto poems responded to tragedy and human suffering with “lyricism laced with lamentation”.
Lori Laitman offers the following remarks:
Scored for baritone voice, cello and piano, The Seed of Dream was composed between March and October of 2004. Four of the five poems were translated by Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams; Beneath the Whiteness of Your Stars was translated by Leonard Wolf. Poet Abraham Sutzkever wrote these first-person accounts between 1941 and 1944.
Written on 30th August, 1941, in the Vilna Ghetto, I Lie in This Coffin is based on Sutzkever’s own hiding from the Germans in a coffin. The song begins sparsely, then the texture grows as the cello enters, and the vocal line becomes more plaintive as the singer cries out, appealing to the spirit of his dead sister. (Sutzkever’s sister died when they were children.) Buoyed by the presence of her spirit, the music assumes a happier character, before returning again to the opening pathos.
A Load of Shoes was written in the Ghetto on 1st January, 1943, when Sutzkever glimpsed his mother’s shoes a year after her death. Sutzkever has described this poem as the most macabre of “death dances”. This poem is indeed chilling, particularly the line “but the truth, shoes,/where are your feet?” The song has the feel of a slightly off-kilter Jewish folk-song.
To My Child, written after Sutzkever’s son was murdered, contains some of the most horrific images and some of the most beautiful. This longer song is divided into distinct sections. The opening is conversational in nature, with silence punctuating the vocal line. After a variation of the opening theme, a quieter, lullaby section ensues. These musical sections alternate as the poem alternates between emotions.
Beneath the Whiteness of Your Stars (Vilna Ghetto, 22nd May, 1943) combines my setting of Sutzkever’s words with the beautiful melody composed in the Vilna Ghetto by Abraham Brudno (? - 1943) for the same text. Just like Sutzkever’s spirit, the opening music is depleted of energy, but prayer-like, beautiful and simple. Here, the beauty of the natural world is contrasted against the world of Sutzkever’s pain and horror. Brudno’s melody appears in the first instrumental interlude. Afterwards the melodies alternate and intertwine. A glittering accompaniment suggesting the firmament sets the stage for the final rendition of Brudno’s tune, sung in the original Yiddish.
In keeping with Sutzkever’s belief that words and nature would help to heal tortured souls, I chose to end the cycle with his poem of hope, No Sad Songs, Please, written in the Narocz Forests on 5th February, 1944. The song ends with the voice repeating the words “No sad songs, please”, ending the cycle with a plea for understanding and hope.
I wish to thank Mina Miller who commissioned this work for Music of Remembrance.
The sung texts can also be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/559379.htm.
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HEGGIE: For a Look or a Touch / SCHWARZ: In Memori...