Understanding Yiddish Performance by Zalmen Mlotek, Music Editor


Just as there is no definitive way of performing any piece of music, the same situation applies to Yiddish music. 

There are performers of Yiddish music who opt to sing this material acapella. There are others who will sing it accompanied, ranging from a single guitar to larger musical ensembles. The klezmer revival has brought the Yiddish repertoire to broader audiences and to an increasing number of performers, some of whom have little knowledge or experience with the wide range of this material. I had the privilege of growing up in a home where this music was not only listened to, but constantly performed. Musical soirees took place in my home during my childhood with the major Yiddish song interpreters of their generation. Evenings with artists like Sidor Belarsky, Mascha Benya, Ben Bonus, Mina Bern, Ruth Rubin translated into vivid musical memories for me with strong, specific musical guidelines. I was also present at my father’s musical gatherings in our home with his childhood friends from Warsaw, where folk and street songs were recalled with relish. In my home, moreover, my grandfather loved to sing the older songs of Abraham Goldfaden, Eliakum Zunser, Velvel Zbarzher, Berl Broder and the songs of the early Yiddish theater. I often attended concerts and theatrical performances during my childhood and youth— I was present at the choral recitals of Lazar Weiner, Samuel Bugatch, Vladimir Heifetz and others, stood at an early age behind Sholom Secunda as he conducted a special benefit performance of Goldfaden’s “Shulamis.”

I had the opportunity to experience the broad spectrum of Yiddish music and found myself in a position to serve as a link between the old, traditional, and newer generations. In the Yiddish summer camps, Hemshekh and Boiberik I regularly directed and taught hundreds of children Yiddish songs which I put in a contemporary musical context that they could relate to, growing up in the 60s and 70s. It has been my experience with performing Yiddish music that this material is so rich that it can withstand divergent approaches and treatments. The composer Stefan Wolpe once said “When using the folklore material for creative purposes the composer strives to reveal and to remold in a novel fashion the traits which nobody but himself is able to detect in it. Such creative interpretation of the age-old “national” material may be compared to the type of variation which expands the original features of a musical subject by presenting  them in different perspectives, as it were. It thus preserves and transforms the subject at the very same time.”*It would be beneficial for newcomers to this material to be aware of a few basic points.

Thus Point One: the performer should be conversant with the text and implications of the song.

The most obvious point is to know the meaning of the words that are sung in order to be able to communicate them as naturally as possible. I don’t only mean a word-forward literal translation. The text may contain idioms and specific phrases; it may reflect a lifestyle, observances, like the Sabbath or holidays. 

Point Two: I suggest that in order to really comprehend a song, one must learn about the life and work of the author and composer.

Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies take on a whole other dimension when performed by musicians who have studied his life. Similarly, a new dimension is acquired, for instance, in knowing about the Polish-Yiddish folk poet Mordecai Gebirtig (b.1877—perished in the Cracow Ghetto in 1942), whose two new books in Italian and Hebrew translations will soon be published. His songs, like the one in this anthology “Ver der ershter vet lakhn”’ (Who Will Be the First to Laugh) were sung throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. They are simple, folklike, with a gentle and wry humor, and should be approached with simplicity in the arrangement which is given to them. Piano arrangements of some songs were made later. All we have of Gebirtig’s songs are the melody lines. No piano parts or chords were ever found. His song written in 1938 “Es brent, brider, es brent” (Our Town Is Burning, Brothers) which forecast the destruction of the Jewish world, the “‘shtetl,” has been treated to a variety of interpretations, from the simple, to a stark, tragic, dissonant cry of anguish. In this instance there are and had to be extreme differences in interpreting the writing of the same poet. The singer’s task, on the eve of the 21st century, when most of the audiences will be deficient in their knowledge of Yiddish, is a different one from that of singers who performed for audiences in the 1940’s through the ’70s. The audiences that came those years to hear Yiddish music were fluent in Yiddish and were familiar with the songs and ambiences of their authors and composers.

Point Three: Singers interested in the performance of Yiddish music today should be familiar with the varieties of song types:

Holocaust songs as distinct from traditional folk, popular, theater, operatic, art, Hasidic, semi-liturgical, mixed-language songs.

Point Four: Arrangements of songs today might contain more complex arrangements with inner voices, syncopated rhythms and discordant harmonies, reflecting contemporary musical styles. 

In some cases of repetitive or concatenated-chained strophes or strophic songs, modulations of certain verses might be a device, when used to highlight the text and the intent of the songs, like “Brontshele,” “Lomir Onheybn Tsu Derklern,” or “Fun Dem Sheynem Vortsl Aroys” in this book. There may be an addition of two or more polyphonic voices. Repetitive melodic phrases can likewise be rendered in a variety of ways—with embellishments, dynamic shading, like in the songs, “Di Sapozhkelekh,” “Amol Iz Geven A Yid,” “Shnirele, Perele Gilderne Fon.” A blending of two songs may also be an interesting way of dramatizing an effect, like the songs “S’falt A Shney” with “Shnel Loyfn di Reder;” “Khalutsim Gikher” with “In Mitn Veg Shteyt A Boym.”

I have often been asked for new piano arrangements of Yiddish songs. My own settings of songs, written or arranged for shows or concerts, offer new treatments, polyphonic parts, new rhythmic styles which are. always guided by the individual performer’s interpretation of the song as well as my close personal connection to the text. The role of the accompanist on the piano or other instrument is to enhance the performance of the vocalist, to complement the musical thoughts of the composer and the writer. Hopefully, additional contemporary piano arrangements will one day be forthcoming.

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