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ClassicsOnline Home » Vocal Recital: Glanville, Mark (A Yiddish Winterreise - A Holocaust Survivor's Inner Journey Told Through Yiddish Song)
A Yiddish Winterreise is a sequence of songs from the Yiddish repertoire devised by opera singer and cantor Mark Glanville, recreating the original, Schubertian journey in a Holocaust context. The singer reflects on the life and world he has just seen destroyed as he flees the Vilna ghetto. Minor-key or modal melodies may evoke a sense of sadness, yet a deep-hearted joy, even triumph, are often equally evident.
By Michael Mark
American Record Guide
A Yiddish Winterreise
A Holocaust Survivor’s Inner Journey Told Through Yiddish Song
Of all forms of human self-expression, music is the most universal. Transcending the divisions of history, culture and race, it speaks from heart to heart and tells of the joys and sufferings which form our common humanity.
As we set out on the Yiddish Winterreise, we enter into a very special world. From the innocence of childhood to the melancholy of old age, from the joys of family life to the bitter desolation of the Vilna Ghetto, the unique Jewish experience is affirmed here with a warmth and vigour which only make more vivid the long centuries of persecution and their terrible climax.
This collection of songs is both a celebration and a cry of anguish. But as an act of self-expression, it is also healing. It reaches out to the world, and offers its gaiety, its pain and sorrow, like a hand of friendship. The music on this recording, so intensely and sensitively interpreted by Mark Glanville and Alexander Knapp, is not only an extraordinarily rich and moving record of Jewish life and culture; it is also a contribution to reconciliation and understanding, and to our shared future.
German Ambassador to the Court of St James’s
Yiddish Folk and Art Music
The roots of Yiddish culture may be traced to the medieval poetry and song of the troubadours. In the Middle Ages, German Jews were forced to seek religious refuge in Eastern Europe. Though they brought very few German musical elements, they did take with them their Judeo-German vernacular language, and this proved to be an immensely important factor in the shaping of traditional Eastern-Ashkenazi song. Many local dialects and pronunciations of Yiddish came into being over the centuries in Eastern and Central Europe, whereas in Western Europe it gradually declined.
From the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, Eastern Ashkenazi Jews were usually segregated into designated areas of habitation, Shtetls, villages in many parts of Eastern Europe and notably the Pale of Settlement in Western Russia, and Ghettos, walled and gated districts in larger cities. Everyday life was harsh: social and economic restrictions were imposed from outside, and these brought oppression and poverty in their wake. As a vibrant expression of the Jewish
experience, and as a therapeutic medium for coping with adversity, Yiddish song preserved an artistic identity that was distinct—in style and character—from the non-Jewish Eastern European folk-music that surrounded it, but with which it nevertheless had many affinities.
Scholars and composers have published extensive collections, in the form of recordings and sheet music, dating mainly from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. Some studies show that songs thought to have come into being relatively recently are in fact very old, possibly predating Jewish settlement in Slavic regions. Conversely, others considered “traditional”, as a result of their wide diffusion and popularity, may have been newly created within the last hundred years. What are their salient musical characteristics?
Melodies are usually simple, implying conventional nineteenth-century German classical harmony. Most songs are in the Western “minor” key, though many are in the Ashkenazi Hashem Moloch, Mogen Ovos, Ahavoh Rabboh, or Mi Shebeirach cantorial modes of the synagogue. Though these melodic frameworks often express an ethos of sadness, many songs are, in fact, jolly and even triumphant. Form and rhythm are mostly clear-cut, though some songs may include one, or more than one, passage in an improvised style. An extremely important factor is the intense and sometimes Eastern Mediterranean voice production, with its associated ornamentation (e.g. the krekhts). Yiddish folk-songs can be either secular or religious, and they can be sung by men and by women—sometimes together, sometimes separately (as in the more strictly observant communities, for example the many Hassidic sects).
In conclusion, a few words from the perspective of the arranger/accompanist. For centuries, and especially during periods of political nationalism, Western composers have not only absorbed general folk elements into their art songs, but have also made musical arrangements of specific, pre-existing folk-songs and dances. It must be emphasized, however, that the original melody is, in every case, respected for its natural beauty and authenticity, and is not in any need of “improvement”
through the application of sophisticated textures and harmonizations. The most the arranger can hope to achieve is to express a genuine, personal response to, and
interpretation of, the tune that is the source of his/her inspiration, and to bring out those musical facets that resonate with his/her artistic personality. The multiplicity of styles thus created by professional musicians serves to enrich an ever-expanding thesaurus of folk-art syntheses throughout the world.
A Yiddish Winterreise
My mother left Berlin for London in 1932 after my grandfather Markus Manasseh, a journalist on Der Berliner Tageblatt, was granted an exit visa in exchange for training the son of a Nazi official. By the time I appeared, around forty years later, she claimed to have forgotten most of her German, but one thing she did remember was Heidenröslein, Schubert’s exquisite setting of the Goethe poem, proof that the people who had murdered her cousin Theo, and whose crimes formed the substance of the Holocaust litany my father recited at meal times, had a better side.
The first classical vocal album I bought was a collection of Schubert settings of Goethe poems sung by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It included Heidenröslein. The sublimely beautiful musical versions of the great writer’s romantic poetry were a palliative against my frustrated adolescent yearnings, and I started to acquire more Schubert Lieder, including Die Winterreise, widely held to be the greatest song cycle ever written. It was this music that inspired me to become a singer in the first place and I would include it in recitals I gave as a student at Oxford University, when my only concern was to communicate the repertoire I had carefully chosen to suit my youthful sensibility. Strangely, I felt able to move audiences more readily then than in later years, when, after five years of obsessing over technique at music college, I emerged with a highly trained bass-baritone voice at my disposal. It was only when I began to introduce Yiddish and Hebrew songs into my classical programmes that I at last found myself able to reach audiences as I had done before learning how to sing. In the ancestral
echoes of the music I rediscovered the joy that had led me to become a singer in the first place.
A Yiddish Winterreise is the child of my love for Yiddish music and its language. The spirit of Yiddish is gentle, the tsartsn gayst of a playful child that revels in a life which has often proved so painful, its view of the world clear and undimmed by the darkening vision of adulthood. There is a directness and simplicity in Yiddish language and music that makes its songs instantly appealing, but the depth and honesty of their feeling haunt one, making one want to return to them again and again. A Yiddish Winterreise reminds me that the culture of the people I was encouraged to reject is also part of who they are, that for every Goering who would reach for his revolver when he hears the word culture, there is a Schubert who set a Hebrew psalm for his friend Salomon Sulzer, the great synagogue
composer who sang his Lieder. It was not only lives that were lost during the Holocaust. Jews had been great contributors to and beneficiaries from German culture, a wonderful symbiosis that achieved its apogee in the music of Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg.
From the outset we have been grateful for and not a little moved by the support our project has received from the German Embassy in London. We ourselves are keen for A Yiddish Winterreise to be seen as a means of recognising and supporting modern day victims of persecution and genocide. The concert we gave for the
victims of atrocities in Darfur is the first of many such endeavours. Besides the German Embassy, we are also indebted to the European Association for Jewish Culture
and Sheep Meadow Press for their generous support for this recording, to Geraldine Auerbach and the Jewish Music Institute for their invaluable help in launching the
project, to Heather Valencia for her learning and expertise as a translator and to Helen Beer for her inspiration and patience as a language coach.
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Vocal Recital: Glanville, Mark (A Yiddish Winterre...