Program Notes

January 20th, 2017
American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Allison Voth, director


Weiner and Weill
Lazar Weiner: "A Gebet", "Volt Mayne Tate Raykh Geven", "Der Scholem-Zokher", "Shtile Tener", & "Tsela-Tseldi"
Kurt Weill: Ofrah's Lieder
Weiner: “Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern”, “A Papir Vil Bageyn Zelbsmord”, "Bald Vet Zayn a Regn", "Stile Likht", & "Der Yid mitn Fidl"
Weill: Abendlied
Weill: Maikaterlied
Weill: Four Walt Whitman Songs
Weill: "Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen" from Das Berliner Requiem
Weiner: "Mayn Lid", "Arop un Aroyf", "Mayn Shprakh", "Farbaygeyer", & "Di Dame mit Hintl"
Weill: Excerpts from Five Songs from Huckleberry Finn
Weiner: A Nign

Notes by Allison Voth

Lazar Weiner, who came to New York City from Ukraine in 1915, when he was seventeen, became the most influential and important creator of Yiddish art song in the twentieth century, uncovering in a Jewish folk idiom the literary and musical possibilities that now let the Yiddish art song live in the world of art songs by Schubert, Britten, Debussy and Mussorgsky. Kurt Weill, who fled Germany in 1933 and moved to New York City two years later, followed a completely different path, turning his back on concert music—symphonies, songs, cantatas, chamber music—to embrace and help define the Broadway musical of the 1930s and 1940s. Although these two Jewish composers lived in the same city at the same time, and even though Weiner conducted the first American performance of Weill’s 1922 Zaubernacht, the two men never met. It is the juxtaposition of these two important composers, moving in completely different circles but sharing cultural roots, that inspired this program.

The Milken Archive of Jewish music offers fine biographies of both composers. This picture of Lazar Weiner is excerpted and edited from the archive’s considerably longer version.

Lazar Weiner was born in Cherkassy, Ukraine, where his musical talent was discovered at a very young age. He was admitted to the choir of the prestigious Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev when he was only nine years old. The Brodsky Synagogue had a secular school attached to it, where the young Weiner received a modern Russian elementary education—in addition to exposure to classical liturgical and cantorial repertoire in the choir. By the age of eleven he began singing in the Kiev Opera chorus as well, and then he studied piano with Dzimitrovsky for two years. He supported himself (also covering the balance of his conservatory expenses) as a pianist for silent films. Much of his general music education was furthered by the rich concert and operatic offerings in Kiev, where he had opportunities to hear many of the great artists of the era, and he became familiar on his own with the canon of Western as well as Russian music.

In 1914, in the aftermath of the anti-Semitism that followed the infamous Mendel Beilis blood-libel incident and trial (even though Beilis was eventually acquitted of the fabricated charges of ritual child murder), the family emigrated to the United States. As a seventeen-year-old immigrant, Weiner found his first employment as a piano player in a New York silent cinema house, but he was soon engaged as a pianist for the studio of a well-known voice teacher, Lazar Samoiloff. He acquired a reputation as an expert artistic accompanist and, having gained substantial knowledge through his work with Samoiloff about the full range of vocal literature as well as about vocal teaching techniques, he eventually had his own lucrative coaching studio. He also found work as a pianist and librarian for an amateur community orchestra in Brooklyn, the Mendelssohn Symphony Orchestra, where he learned conducting skills and later became its conductor. During that period he also began experimenting with composition, although his primary ambitions still centered around the piano.

The symphony position turned out to be fortuitous. One of the violinists in the orchestra, Nahum Baruch Minkoff (1893–1958), was one of the coterie of Yiddish poets who espoused a modernist introspective literary approach based on personal experience and who were known as the In zikh poets. Weiner became friendly with Minkoff, who introduced him to his own literary circle and to the world of modern Yiddish literature and poetry in general—to which the young Weiner was instantly and powerfully attracted. The seeds were thus irrevocably sown for Weiner’s subsequent devotion to Yiddish language and culture, an aspect of Jewish culture of which he had not been aware.

Minkoff also brought him to literary-intellectual salon evenings of poetry readings and discussions, where he met some of the significant poets of the older European generation, as well as younger adherents of other, divergent orientations and movements—especially Di yunge, an earlier school of young immigrant writers who had sought to remove Yiddish literature from association with social, political, or moral agendas and ideologies and to free it from restriction to specifically Jewish subject matter. Their focus was more on form than content, with the desiderata of Yiddish literature as pure art for its own value. Those salon evenings also provided Weiner’s initiation into the realm of Yiddish folksong—an entire tradition that had eluded him in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kiev.

An event that ignited Weiner’s Jewish musical interests at the end of the second decade of the century was the North American tour of the Zionist-oriented and inspired Zimro Ensemble. Zimro’s repertoire was largely devoted to sophisticated and classically constructed music based on Jewish folk or liturgical themes and modes. Until hearing this ensemble, Weiner’s own context and associations of “Jewish music” had been confined to either the synagogue or the theater.

At various times Weiner studied with Robert Russell Bennett, Frederick Jacobi, and the theoretician Joseph Schillinger. Weiner’s work with Schillinger, which amounted to a search for technical discipline, helped him go beyond more conventional conceptions by offering experimentation with rational manipulation of the various musical parameters (rhythm, texture, intervals, etc.).

In the 1920s Weiner began his affiliations with Yiddish secular choruses and choral music. In 1923 he was appointed conductor of New York’s nascent Freiheits Gezang Verein (later known also as the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus). Eventually the New York Freiheits Gezang Verein became one of nearly thirty such choruses in as many cities in the northeastern and midwestern states, all loosely federated under the national umbrella of the Jewish Workers Musical Alliance.

In 1927 Weiner made a trip to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to seek repertoire for the Freiheits chorus, and probably out of natural curiosity as well. The reality he witnessed there differed markedly from the idealized perceptions circulating among the American left. Shortly after he returned to New York, he resigned from the Freiheits Gezang Verein and severed all ties to the Jewish Workers Musical Alliance. The reason for that disassociation is not entirely clear. His widow, Naomi, attributed it to his refusal to submit to “the party’s” attempted interference with his artistic freedom, and his resistance to politically based restrictions.

Weiner’s humanistically-related leftist and socialist leanings remained with him, but those could easily be accommodated by other, fully American and patriotic choruses and their parent organizations—most especially the Arbeter Ring, or Workmen’s Circle. Its New York chorus became Weiner’s principal performance vehicle for thirty-five years.

In effect, the Workmen’s Circle also served as a secular alternative to the synagogue. Its socialist and labor orientation, its commitment to progressive causes, and its advocacy for social justice and a more equitable society were pursued well within the context of American liberal democracy. Weiner’s official appointment as conductor of the Workmen’s Circle Chorus commenced in 1931 and was based on two conditions: that he have a full year of rehearsals without concerts in order to rebuild the group according to his musical standards; and that he be able to unify its Yiddish pronunciation and diction according to “high” or literary Yiddish—eliminating other, regional or colloquial, dialects.

He retained a good deal of the chorus’s folk and workers’ repertoire, recasting many of those songs in artistic but appropriately simple arrangements. But with increasing frequency he also programmed works from the classical canon of choral literature by composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, Haydn, and Handel—always in Yiddish translations, for which he pressed into service some of the finest Yiddish poets and dramatists. And of course, his concerts also included many important original works of Jewish content. The chorus came to be considered a part of New York’s general cultural life, and critics from the general press referred to it as one of the city’s best amateur choral ensembles. During the 1930s Weiner also was the consultant to all of the many Workmen’s Circle branch choruses—from New Jersey to Chicago to Los Angeles.

From 1952 until his death, Weiner served on the faculty of the School of Sacred Music, the cantorial school at the New York branch of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. He also taught Jewish art song at the Cantors Institute and, beginning in 1974, at the 92nd Street YMHA.

After Weiner left the Workmen’s Circle Chorus in 1966, he curtailed his work with Yiddish choruses and—although art song was by then his priority—became involved with musical activities of the Reform movement beyond his own post as music director of Central Synagogue in New York. Increasingly, he received liturgical music commissions from synagogues and cantorial organizations.

After his retirement from Central Synagogue, in 1974, Weiner abandoned liturgical music. He had become repulsed by the introduction of pop and other entertainment music in American synagogues since the late 1960s—initially echoing, if unintentionally, some of the lowbrow informal musical parameters that had become fashionable in certain populist churches outside the mainstream denominations and in related broadcast formats, but also imitating Jewish summer camp ambiences. “I want a m’ḥitza (a division—usually referring to the separation between men and women in orthodox synagogues) between the secular and the profane, between the mundane and the spiritual,” proclaimed this Jew who insisted to the world that he was nonreligious, “and I do not want to bring the musical comedy into the synagogue. Each has its place, but...” For the next eight years he dedicated himself almost exclusively to art songs.

Like many of the poets he most admired, he did not treat Yiddish as an ideological or sociopolitical vehicle, as did so many Yiddishists of his generation, but rather as a literary and musical art that took on the passionate character of a mission. Yet he was always conscious of the irony that his devotion to Yiddish—in fact to things Jewish—was an American phenomenon, not a personal carryover from Europe. In an interview only a year before his death, he recalled [Joel] Engel’s response to his first songs: “That letter marked the beginning of my Jewishness,” he mused. “All my life [prior to 1919] it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert....Here in America I discovered the Yiddish song!”

Lazar Weiner created a large body of choral works, many of them for the Workman’s Circle Chorus, as well as a large number of chamber, orchestral, and solo works. He disdained theatre and commercial music, and his mission in life was to uphold Yiddish culture through the elevated art song genre. He chose Yiddish poems rich in musical flow and contextual depth and expression, their subject matter ranging from deeply spiritual to playfully narrative, and dealing with the substance and challenges of life—mostly life as a Jew in an often hostile and difficult world. There are love songs, biblical narratives, songs of Jewish ritual, prayers to and struggles with God, songs about the Holocaust and about suicide. They are about life as seen from a Jewish perspective and told in Yiddish. Weiner understood that all language, but especially Yiddish, was music unto itself. Consequently, he avoided superfluous or indulgent repetitions of the text.

Weiner never borrowed folksong melodies for his song, saying, “If I need a traditional melody, I create my own,” but he cared deeply about the inflective flow of the words and often incorporated traditional chant, dance, and folksong to reflect and complement the text’s flow and meaning. His accompaniments are economical, keenly creative, and harmonically and rhythmically adventurous.

Choosing from Weiner’s more than 100 art songs was a challenge, for they are all wonderful. I hope this evening’s choices will open the listener’s ear and heart to the moving world of Lazar Weiner and the rich Yiddish culture.

Lazar Weiner died in 1982. His son Yehudi is a renowned composer of concert music that includes a rich array of chamber music, songs, and orchestral works. He has also edited for publication many of his father’s Yiddish art songs.

The Milken Archive’s biography of Kurt Weill, a composer whose path is better known, is also excerpted and edited:

Kurt Weill was born in Dessau, Germany, the son of a cantor and scion of a family of rabbis and rabbinic scholars whose Judeo-German roots have been traced to the 13th century. He studied with Engelbert Humperdinck and the legendary Ferruccio Busoni, and became acquainted with the music of some of the composers who would become important leaders of the German avant-garde. During those years, Weill wrote his first stage work, as well as his first symphony, a string quartet, and other concert pieces.

Weill began a collaboration with the left-wing, socially critical, and sympathetically communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht that would yield a half dozen musical theater works, including the full-length opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and the social satire Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), which is based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera and is, to this day, regarded as Weill’s greatest international success.

The social messages and leftist perspectives in Weill’s works were sure to invite contempt from the Nazis and their followers, who considered Weill’s art an example of the quintessential “cultural Bolshevism” that was lethal to German society. When Weill’s sense of artistic isolation drove him from Germany in 1933, it was probably less as a Jew at that stage and more for his unwillingness to reorient his work to an art devoid of social or political dimension. After a sojourn as a refugee in Paris, Weill went to New York in 1935, initially to supervise the production of The Eternal Road, a unique amalgam of biblical pageant, music drama, Jewish passion play, and theatrical extravaganza that attempted to convey the perpetual homelessness of the Jewish people and to suggest an ultimate solution to their suffering and wandering: a return as a national entity to their reclaimed and rebuilt ancient home in Palestine—the Land of Israel.

The “American” Weill focused commercial theater, becoming a leading figure in the revitalization of the Broadway musical and the exploration of a distinctly American musical-dramatic genre. Weill’s first full-fledged Broadway show was Knickerbocker Holiday, followed by other scores including Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars. He was working on a musical based on Huckleberry Finn at the time of his fatal heart attack in 1950.

Although as an adult Weill shed his Judaism in terms of ritual observance or religious commitment, he never disavowed his Jewish roots. To the contrary, he was always proud of his father’s cantorial calling and his distinguished rabbinical lineage, and he bemoaned the difficulty of active Jewish identity outside a communal context. His imaginative setting of the kiddush, commissioned in 1946 by New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue for its annual Sabbath eve service devoted to new music, is today considered a liturgical masterpiece.

For this recital, I have chosen little-known early, middle, and late art songs of Weill to pair with songs of Weiner. With the exception of the Songs from Huckleberry Finn, which are written in a decidedly Broadway style, Weill’s art songs reveal a poignant sensitivity to text, but in a somewhat different style. He composed Ofrah’s Lieder at the age of nineteen, and the songs show the strong influence of 19th-century chromaticism that he was exposed to at the time, as well as the heightened dissonance that many composers were exploring. Even at that young age, he was acutely sensitive to text, and his sense of harmony reflects the text in interesting and inventive ways. The fact that he chose a 10th-century Hebrew text for one of his earliest song sets perhaps reflects the influence of his cantor father.

Zu Potsdam unter dem Eichen (Under the Oak Trees on the Road to Potsdam) was part of a work Weill composed in 1928, while he was still in Germany, and intended to be part of a commissioned work for radio called Das Berliner Requiem—a secular requiem about the fragility and mortality of man. Bertold Brecht’s text for Zu Potsdam unter dem Eichen is a pointed anti-war text that features a coffin and the text “A home for every warrior.” When the poem was written, immediately after the end of the Great War, it would have been widely accepted by all factions, but ten years later, with the rise of the Nazism, it became controversial, and the watchdog committees brought attention to the music’s incendiary text. It was not performed at what was its 1928 scheduled premiere, but Weill eventually orchestrated it and included it in the Requiem. It stands alone as an anti-war protest song with references to Potsdam’s Baroque Garrison Church bell-tower, which chimed Lobet den Herrn (Praise the Lord) on the hour, with the second carillon playing, on the half hour, the widely known secular tune of Papageno’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute. At one point, this Mozart aria, which is played on the carillon in the opera, was given new text proclaiming the virtues of honor and loyalty for the Potsdam citizens and soldiers.

Weill’s Walt Whitman Songs continue to explore the subject of war and were written between 1942 and 1947, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in an effort to support the war effort. These songs set Whitman’s moving poetic reflections on the American Civil War. They speak for themselves, but it should be noted that “O Captain! My Captain!” was Whitman’s tribute to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. The Songs from Huckleberry Finn were a set written just before Weill died in 1950. They were ultimately intended as drafts for a musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with the book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. They are essentially pop tunes, but again, they reflect Weill’s gravitation toward polemical writers and lyricists, lyricists from Brecht to Twain.

As did Lazar Weiner, Kurt Weill always cared deeply about the meaning and integrity of the text. His accompaniments are equally economical, and they often keenly reflect the words’ sentiments. However, true to Weill’s spirit, the music sometimes purposefully contradicts the text, creating a momentary conflict that lends the song even greater impact when the words’ meaning is grasped.