Celebrating Jewish Music at Yale, Apr 12 - 13, 2003
With what some of us considered ill-timing, Yale University held a one-day symposium on Jewish music, the Sunday before Passover this year. The program was first rate, and despite low attendance (thank goodness for a record crowd from the Jewish-music mailing list), a good time was had by all. I am trying to reconstruct based on incomplete notes, so if anyone e-mails me with corrections, I will be glad to render this more accurate, or to link to additional materials.
Conference Opening: Brave Old World
The conference was opened Saturday night by Brave Old World, one of the most interesting and innovative ensembles to come out of the Klezmer Revival. Showcasing much of their newer work (new album due out in Germany in the next couple of months; in the US in the Fall), the group fascinated and entertained the one large audience of the conference. As usual, the band was stupendous, and the music was exceptional. One of the highlights of the performance came after intermission when Alan Bern played several klezmer compositions from a child's piano exercise book from Germany in the early part of the twentieth century. Not only did the pieces work musicially as Bern played them, with the the band following each recitive with modern ensemble arrangements, but as Bern noted (I paraphrase from memory and hope I get the gist right), "musicologists are going to have to do some rethinking if this music - klezmer - was in a German Jewish child's exercise book," because it is generally believed that German Jews didn't do klezmer, and certainly, are known to have distanced themselves from Eastern European Jewish culture in general.
Jewish Theater Music
Really, this could have been called "Jewish popular music" - Mark Slobin's talk, in fact, was called "Early Jewish-American Popular Song", Hankus Netsky spoke specifically about the odyssey of Philadelphia's Jewish Musicians, "From Catering Hall to Concert Hall and Back," and Rachel Bergman gave a talk about a fascinating Jewish theater piece composed in Thereisenstadt.
All in the Family: Early Jewish-American Popular Song"
by Mark Slobin, Wesleyan University
For the first decades of last century, popular music was theatre music. This was a period when Jews became "at home" in America. The story is that Jews turn their lives on Jewish tradition (? culture?) and "became American". At the same time, even as Jewish embraced American culture, the music to which they listened demonstrated a conservatism and represented the continuity of Jewish culture from this period. The image of the Jewish home and the Jewish family form one layer of this repertoire.
Slobin plays a cassette of a recording of an example, written in 1897, in NY, as part of a popular show. The recording was (made?) released in 1917. It must have sounded old-fashioned by then, but apparently was still thought to be popular enough to sell. "Dovid's fiddele" (David's Violin). It is a climactic song of a review with an interesting leitmotif--one brother is the pillar of the community and has messed everything up. The second brother, who has left the village and become a famous fiddler, comes back and straightens things out. Even as the "pshat" (simple interpretation) would seem to be how wonderfully the modern world enabled the fiddler brother to make things better, the music (not the words, which talk about having to move with the times and doing things in new ways, "altes geh shlofn), itself, expresses quite conservative values.
Another song of this same year is played. Jews are being called for the first time to serve their country and to fight the relatives in Europe. "Uncle Sam". Interesting in that it starts off very Yiddish theatre, and then switches to quote from popular American patriotic songs.
It took Eastern European Jews a while to get to nostalgia. With the end of mass immigration in 1924, things started to shift. Molly Picon, here (Slobin plays selection), plays conservatism and nostalgia against being American and "with it". Sings tune "the way grandpa sang it," then "the way they sing it in the 'New' Russia," then, "we're in American here" and closes "but it's still the same song. But, says Slobin, of course it's not.
Cut to "A Yiddishe heim in America". Scene set in an American home. Daughter comes in. Has boyfriends, they want to play jazz. Father is doing the "what is this" shtick. Makes them back him up on tune from Yom Kippur Service--but they can do it, these '20s kids, with their ukelele. It gives the older generation some authority, while also showing off the confidence of the youth in their new culture.
In a (similar vein?), Slobin shows a clip from "The Cantor's Son" in which son of cantor leaves old country, becomes a big success, and eventually goes back to Belz, a success, meets his childhood sweetheart and stays in Belz.
The idea of a more progressive outgoing style, and a more conservative family style, is still very much alive in American Jewish entertainment today--look at Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddle as a conservative element, in particular, vs. say, American swing instruments. Or, for instance, the album by the group "Klezical Tradition" album with mother's voices interspersed in the text as another example of this same conservatism.
From Catering Hall to Concert Hall and back: Philadelphia's Jewish Musicians, 1915-1960
by Hankus Netsky, New England Conservatory
Hankus describes the ways in which the career paths of Philadelphia musicians changed over time. Such careers are always affected by many circumstances. Communal and family functions have provided both a home base, and a launching pad.
By 1881, a large group of Jewish musicians made their way to Philly, then America's 3rd largest Jewish community. Some musicians came from klezmer families; others from military bands. Most Philly Jews came from Ukraine and originally settled in N. Phil. but then migrated to S. Philly.
Hiring a hometown band was not only a way to preserve continuity, but it could be enforced. If you didn't hire the hometown band, they may well show up anyway! Disruption could ensue.
The local Jewish musicians also found work for weddings in other ethnic groups: gypsy, Ukrainian, etc.
Netsky describes some of the different paths taken by members of the Hoffman family. Morris Hoffman was known mostly for playing weddings. His brother Jake hit the entertainment circuit--vaudeville, touring with D'Oyly Carte Opera Company (an English troupe specializing in Gilbert & Sullivan) and with Kandel's Orchestra. According to daughter Elaine, Jake wanted to transcend Jewish work and swore off it in 1925. Yet, in a recording made with his daughter in the 1960s, he can still be heard playing klezmer freilachs.
The social standing of the klezmer was so low. The klezmer was both admired for talent and scorned for lifestyle--their status was as the gypsies of the American Jewish community. The myth was sometimes off, but sometimes not.
Over time, the variety and liveliness of Jewish wedding music changed. By the 1930s, the wedding sequence had become "all the same". Same sequence of songs in same order all the way through. These guys knew what they knew, and nothing else. It was like a ritual to some; to others it was provincial stagnation. Eventually, this was supplanted by more modern musicians who dressed right, incorporated other music, and even invented the "theme celebration". By next generation, "we weren't klezmer musicians. we were more professional working musicians." Some joined jazz bands or classical orchestras.
Hankus then highlighted the transition away from klezmer into classical music by mentioning a study of orchestra membership in 1933. Study discovered: Nearly 50% of violin virtuosii were Jewish, despite Jews being only 3% of population at the time.
Finally, however, he noted that through the 1990s, when the last of those early generations of Philadelphia musicians stopped playing, they were still at home with klezmer, regardless of their cultural aspirations.
Creativity in Captivity: Viktor Ullmann's 'Der Kaiser von Atlantis'
by Rachel Bergman, Yale University
This material was new to me on almost every level. I feel a strong need to know more about Ullman and his music, and about other music composed in the camps. ari
Viktor Ullmann was an Austrian composer, killed in the Holocaust. This piece was written in Theresienstadt before he was transported to Auschwitz.
In pre-war culture, attending cultural events was a way of life--not a fad, or passtime. This helps explain why cultural activities thrived in the camp.
Ullman actually composed more in Theresienstadt than before the war. He no longer had to struggle to earn a living. In effect, this was because his life was being ended.The piece is scored for 7 singers, 13 instrumentalists, reflects resources available in T. The libretto, written by (?) was written on the back of German transport lists.
Ullman's struggle to make sense of his impending death is played out musically and textually.
The music is powerful. Even more powerful is the way that Ullman has interwoven themes from composers banned by the Nazis, and from German-Czeck musical heritage. "Deutschland uber Alles" is used as a theme to introduce Emperor "Overall" (Uberall). This opera is very much a statement about Theresienstadt, defiant, and acknowledging impending death.
Opera first performed in Amsterdam, 1975. In Theresienstadt, the composer and most musicians were transported before it could be performed. Some have theorized that the Nazis objected to the opera and to the resemblance to Hitler of the Emperor.
I was unable to plug my computer in while listening to these talks, so am relying entirely on memory. As a result, I will summarize a few lines about each talk, rather than write down the likely "invented" memories that have seeped in since. ari
Music of Worship and Celebration among the Abayudaya (Jewish People) of Uganda
by Jeffrey Summit, Tufts University
The Abayudaya come off as a modern Khazar tribe. In this case, though, the ending is (so far) happier, as a new generation of Abayudaya are now better educated in Jewish law and tradition, and have created new songs and traditions as the community continues to evolve. The music is wonderful, but very, very different from anything I have heard in a Jewish context before (to state the obvious). If I remember correctly, Summit illustrated with both slides and sound recordings.
Sephardic Liturgical Music: Diversity and Uniqueness
by Mark Kligman, Hebrew Union College, NY
Kligman's talk focused on the Syrian Jews amongst whom he has spent a lot of time. It is a wonderful description of how not only nusach, but the types of song selected for prayer and for song can change from community to community. Lots of samples, somewhat complicated by the day's usual incomplete communication between the sound techies and speakers.
The Styles of East-Ashkeanzi Jewish Liturgical Music: Between Written and Oral
by Judit Frigyesi, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
Frigyesi's talk focused on the prayer leaders at various minyanim in Budapest and the variants in how the various people stuck to "nusakh" in some senses, but more often used a wide variety of uncategorizable, personal ways to vary the melody from day to day, and in which to express their own prayer.
Concert of music from the Wallersteiner Collection
Performed by students from the Music Department, the selections were varied, fascinating, and superbly sung. Languages varied from Polish to Russian to Yiddish, if I remember correctly. It was a welcome interlude in the talks and made clear the diversity of the material just donated to Yale.
Celebration and Community
Bringing the Bride to Tears
by Craig Harwood, Yale University
First explains how a good badkhn could reduce audience to tears during this ceremony.
The wedding was central to Jewish life in Eastern Europe. But there was also sadness. Brides would be marrying someone they hardly new and perhaps even moving to a new town. Weddings are often referred to as the "Yom Kippur of your life". Parallels include the groom wearing a kittel and fasting on the wedding day.
The Badkhn trod a difficult line. Sometimes they stepped over and there would be legal procedures and perhaps the badkhn would be prohibited from acting as a badkhn.
Reducing the bride to tears is part of her atonement, as it were. When Jews migrated to America, recordings were made, emphasizing the most outrageous of verses and the loudest possible wailing.
One point Craig made was that the kale bezetsn is generally in freygish mode, and is structurally quite different from the doina, which is generally in a different mode, and has a very different structure.
Maintaining Jewish Communities Through Music
by Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Harvard University
Maintaining Jewish Communities through Music, and the Case of Women in the Syrian Jewish Sebet
Sebet's celebrate life passage events, including singing of pizmonim (religious poems set to popular music) and consumption of food. They are Saturday afternoon songfests, following services. Only men are allowed to sing at such events, due to "kol isha" and "tzniut".
In what ways do Syrian women celebrate the Sebet? Although Syrian women couldn't sing during the Sebet in public, when a sebet was just the family, women would often participate.
The songs sung at the Sebet were often compared to food. Preparing the ritual food was a critical part of the Sebet.
The importance of Jewish culinary traditions to Syrian Jewish tradition is very obvious. "Food was the cornerstone of hospitality and celebration."
Women, therefore generative; men performative. By constantly playing recordings in the home, at the beach, etc., women also helped make particular secular tunes popular, which led to their inclusion as melodies to which pizmonim would be set.
The Modern Odyssey of the Judeo-Spanish Folksong
by Edwin Seroussi, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Today, most often called "Ladino".
Seroussi would say that use of Judeo-Spanish is an important social marker with regard to communities that can be regarded as Sephardic. The language sprang out of 15th century precursors to Spanish--Aragonian, Castillian, etc., and is, in fact, quite related to French.
Today, most of what we know of this field are commercial recordings, not folk singing. When he interviews old ladies in israel, always have to take into consideration that their mothers and grandmothers were already exposed to commercial recordings.
When the songs are mediated, and we buy the songs on CDs from Tower Records, these are usually accompanied by texts, which often invest songs with meanings that are the product of 20th century actions by specific individuals involved with the production of these songs.
So, Seroussi will focus on one song and show how this goes.
"Las Horas de la vida" (The hours of the day)
Plays song accompanied by Spanish guitar. Joaquin Diaz, sort of like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez together, in Spain. From 1960s on, Diaz, himself, as many distinguished Spanish artists, fascinated with Jewish Spanish heritage, and performed such songs. In the early 1970s the Ministry of Culture issues a double cassette with a book of him performing Sephardic songs. Informative and scholarly notes. The cassette therefore became one of the main venues of exposure of Spaniards to this heritage. Diaz says, "my first exposure to Sephardic song was from another record", an LP produced in 1958 by Folkways. (Madame Gloria Levy, daughter of Emilie Levy who immigrated to US in early 1930s from Alexandria, Egypt--family from Turkey. She was an active singer in her community.) The daughter was asked by the mother to learn the songs and record them for Folkways. The guitar accompaniment was improvised on the spot in the studio. Mandolin played by Emy?)
The song goes: "At 1:00 I was born, at 2:00 I grew, and 3 I took a lover, and at 4 I was married." In each version of the song, except for the opening, each verse is different (typical of Sephardic song). But, Joaquin Diaz' version is exactly the same as Gloria Levy's, except for one verse about the young man going to war? He had seen a printed song collection by Isaac Levy. He published four collections--one in 1959 in London; another 3 in the 70s in Israel and learned from that printed collection.
Note that Levy was not a professional musicologist. He had his own ideological bias. And many transcriptions were done by Rubin Academy students, not by him.
Now, Seroussi plays a version by Fortuna, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She relies on previous recordings. The arrangement--pay attention to semiotic content--lots of clacking castanets! sings text from Isaac Levy and acts a long melisma of her own invention.
In 1907, one of the first Jewish music recordings was made by Haim Effendi. In 1995, the recording was re-published w/French booklet, attributing this to Andalusia in Medieval Spain! Yet, elements of this recording are very tied to Ottoman style. But, this particular song is a 19th century Spanish song--not a Jewish song. And, in fact, the Haim Effendi version shows that it is not a Jewish song, but a Spanish song--reference to being baptised! And, in fact, Seroussi finds it documented in a collection of 19th century spanish songs. The Spanish version had 8 lines; the Jewish version was truncated to 4 lines. The Haim Effendi recordings were distributed all over. And a majority of "traditional Judeo-Spanish song" come from the Effendi catalog, not from the Middle Ages!
Seroussi ends with a recording of the "Sephardic" version of a song because it is allegedly older--wonderful paradox.
Side note: Iraqi and Yemenite Jews do not consider themselves Sephardic. But, today, Israeli government grups them w/Sephardic.