Jan. 24, 2015

Program, to be announced from the stage, will include

Moyshele, Yankele, Reyzele   Mordecai Gebirtig (1877-1942)

Papirosin   Herman Yablokoff (1903-81)

Adio Kerida   anonymous/Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Charlemos   Luis Rubistein (1908-54)

Symphony #1, Third movement: Feierlich und gemessen   Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Sora the Schnorrer   Cab Calloway (1907-94) et al.


Tickets are now on sale at the Honolulu Museum of Art front desk, and online here.

NOTES by Sasha Margolis

Mordecai Gebirtig, “Moyshele,” “Yankele,” “Reyzele”

We tend to think of folksongs as ageless and authorless. The music of Mordecai Gebirtig is one interesting example of an alternate model. Gebirtig’s songs, despite being the work of an individual artist, so perfectly captured the ethos of Yiddish culture that they came to be considered, during his own lifetime, as folksongs, belonging to everyone. The three songs heard here share two basic features: melodies cloaked in a naïve and nostalgic haze, and lyrics that blend tenderness with bitterness. A man bumps into his old schoolmate Moyshele, and reminisces over old times, including the way the teacher used to beat them. A mother tries to sing her child Yankele to sleep, and chides him for being old enough now not to give his mother such trouble. A young man courts Reyzele, who tells him that her mother doesn’t want him coming around whistling anymore, since, after all, Jews don’t whistle–that’s what those other people do.

Herman Yablokoff, “Papirosin”

“Papirosin,” on the other hand, is an example of an anonymous folk song being given a new name and words, and turned into a theater tune. The words are by Herman Yablokoff, written for a Yiddish Theater musical also called Papirosin. (“Papirosin” means “cigarettes” in Yiddish and Russian.)

A cold night, fog and darkness everywhere. A sad young kid stands looking around.
His only shelter from the rain a wall, he’s got a basket in his hand
and his silent eyes beg all who pass:
‘I don’t have any strength left to walk the streets
Hungry and ragged, wet from the rain, I shlep around from dawn.
Nobody gives me a cent, everyone laughs and makes fun of me
Buy my cigarettes! Dry ones, not wet from the rain
Buy real cheap, buy and have pity on me. Save me from hunger now
Buy my matches, wonderful ones, the best, and with that you’ll save an orphan.
Otherwise my screaming and running will be for naught
Nobody wants to buy from me. Probably, I’ll die like a dog’

-anonymous/Giuseppe Verdi, “Adio Kerida”

And then there is “Adio Kerida,” a true folksong, but one of recent vintage. The words of “Adio Kerida” are in Judeo-Spanish, but the song originates not in Spain, from which Jews were expelled in 1492, but most likely from Salonika, Greece or Izmir, Turkey, where many Sephardic Jews subsequently settled. The clue to its recent origins lies in the song’s middle section, which is clearly borrowed from Act III of Verdi’s La Traviata (1853.) The opera’s heroine, Violetta, nearing death, sings “Addio del passato,” a goodbye to the past and the possibility of future happiness. The lyrics of Adio Kerida take leave in a different way:

When your mother delivered you and brought you into the world,
she did not give you a heart with which to love another.
Goodbye, goodbye beloved, I don’t want to live. You made me bitter.
I’ll go look for another love, knock on other ports in hope for another passion,
because for me you are dead.
Goodbye, goodbye beloved, I don’t want to live. You made me bitter.”

Luis Rubistein, “Charlemos”

There’s a well-known saying in Argentina: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks he’s French, and would secretly like to be British.” This may explain why a vast majority of Argentine tango composers, among them Astor Piazzolla, have Italian surnames–they were part of a vast wave of immigration from Italy. At the same time, there was also a vast wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants to Buenos Aires, and a few of them wrote hit tangos, too, including this one from 1940:

Belgrano 60-11? May I speak to Renée? She doesn’t live there? Wait, don’t hang up…
Could I talk to you? Don’t hang up! The afternoon is dreary, I feel sentimental. I already
know there’s no Renée… Let’s chat, you’re just the same.
Chatting makes me happy… life’s short… Let’s dream together in the gray rainy
afternoon… Let’s talk about a love affair, we’ll be Her and Him. And your voice can
lighten my cruel anguish.
Let’s chat, nothing else. I’m captive of a dream so fleeting I can barely live it.
Let’s chat, nothing else. Here in my heart, hearing you, I feel another emotion beating …
What’s that you say? Try to see each other? No! Let’s continue with this charade, talk
without meeting, heart to heart … I can’t see you … It’s painful, I know… How I’d want to
love you! I’m blind… Forgive me…

Gustav Mahler, Symphony #1, Feierlich und gemessen

The works of Gustav Mahler, long since and firmly ensconced in the constellation of classical music masterpieces, occasioned great confusion and controversy when they first appeared. This was on account of their tendency to blend musical elements of widely varied origins: classical music in the tradition of Beethoven, Wagner, and Bruckner, military marches, folksong, popular tunes, and Jewish and other ethnic musics. Musicologist Timothy Freeze has described the extraordinarily regimented and loaded way in which various musics were classified in the nineteenth century. Pure Austro-German music was a “fine art and autonomous philosophical pursuit in its own right,” Beethoven was “the quintessential example of the higher autonomous artwork,” while Rossini’s operas “represented the lower class of music intended merely to entertain.” Folksong was “a direct articulation of the spirit of the people, having its origins in the Volk at some point in the distant past,” while popular song was “new, fleeting, and morally inferior.” Mahler’s music, defying this kind of categorization, left critics at a loss.

The explanation for Mahler’s new approach has often been traced to biographical details. Mahler grew up as part of a Jewish minority among a German-speaking minority in Czech-speaking Bohemia. His career then took him to Hamburg, Vienna, and New York. Later in life, he would write that he felt himself “thrice homeless – as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Always an intruder, never welcomed.” Shortly before his death, Mahler went for a psychoanalytic consultation with Sigmund Freud, during which he remembered an incident from childhood: as his parents were arguing (his father may have been beating his mother), Mahler ran out into the street, where an organ-grinder was playing a popular tune, the sound of which transfixed him. To this incident, he attributed a need to undermine his melodies, at climactic emotional moments, with what amount to non-Classical elements.

Whatever the biographical influence, the end result is a music of extraordinary flexibility and eclecticism. There is no better example than this third movement of the first symphony. Mahler employs three distinct kinds of material, beginning with a minor version of the folksong “Bruder Martin, schläfst du?” known in the English-speaking world as “Are You Sleeping?” He follows this with what sounds very much like klezmer music, before moving on to an excerpt of one of his own Wayfarer songs, classical music written in German folksong style (with the voice part distributed, in the symphony, among orchestral instruments.)

In our version, we give the Wayfarer song back to a singer, who, taking the part of a spurned and heartbroken lover, sings: “On the road there stands a linden tree, and there for the first time I found rest in sleep! Under the linden tree that snowed its blossoms onto me – I did not know how life went on, and all was well again! All! All, love and sorrow and world and dream!”

Sleep here is a stand-in for death (one of Mahler’s obsessions throughout his life.) And the idea of death extends to the sleep in “Are You Sleeping,” recast as it is in minor: Mahler claimed that this movement was inspired by a lithograph called “The Hunter’s Funeral.” Whether or not the mournful klezmer-like music is to be heard as funeral music, the movement as a whole seems to be a meditation on death, made broader, deeper and richer by the variety of source materials which came naturally to this homeless, Bohemian-Austrian Jew.

Cab Calloway et al., “Sora the Schnorrer”

According to Jewish law, support for the needy is not only the stuff of good deeds, but a matter of moral obligation. One result of this, in traditional Jewish communities, was that begging, and especially begging outside of a synagogue after services, became a common practice. Some of the beggars, or “schnorrers” in Yiddish, became particularly known for their boldness; the brazen beggar, ever ready to upbraid a rich man for not giving enough, or giving in the right way, was immortalized in the novel The King of the Schnorrers by nineteenth-century British author Israel Zangwill.

Despite the fact that Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” famous for its “Hidey-hidey-hidey-ho” call-and-response, is beloved by mainstream American audiences, its subject matter deals with early twentieth-century drug culture. Our drug-free “Sora the Schnorrer” shifts the setting to Eastern Europe: the rich Sam Goldenberg and poor Schmuyle are borrowed from Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, while Benya is the gangster Benya Krik from Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories.