Performed by Nienke Oostenrijk-soprano and the North-Holland Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn
I composed Zey… , for soprano and chamber orchestra, in 1994 for Nieuw Sinfoniëtta Amsterdam. The three Yiddish poems used in this piece allude to three important moments in recent Jewish history: the flourishing and the subsequent banishment of the Jewish community in Spain in the 11th and 12th century, the blossoming and extermination of the Eastern European Yiddish culture, and the consequent post-war revival of that culture, particularly in the United States.
Zey… is a lament for a culture that had almost been wiped out, but just like the poetry used in the piece, the music is not mournful. The first poem, by the Polish poet Zishe Landau, compares the disappearance of people with the disappearance of the stars at dawn. The poem Zey… by the Ukranian poet Mani Leib, has the character of a sad sigh. Yam-lid (Song at the Sea), a Yiddish translation of the Hebrew poem by the same name by Yehuda Ha-Levy, links departure with happiness.
The poem Zey… has a central function in the work, its first line (‘There were, O God, so many, so many’), rather like a motto for the entire composition, is placed – before the first poem is sung – at the beginning of the composition. The melody of this line of Zey… is moreover employed as a recurrent musical theme.
Zey… makes use of Jewish melodies: two Eastern-European versions of Kaddish (a prayer used among other things during periods of mourning) and Kol Nidre (the opening prayer of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement). Much of the French horn line (a reference to my own past as a horn player) is based on these melodies.
Shtil lomir ale farshvindn
by Zisha Landau (1889–1937)
Shtil lomir ale farshvinden,
koym nor der ovnt dervakht
goldik di shtern zikh tsindn,
forn avek mit der nakht.
Lomir zayn glaykh tsu di shtern,
shvimen mir ale avek.
Shtil, es zol keyner nit hern—
shtarbn dokh kinder fun shrek.
Softly let us all vanish
just as the evening awakes;
stars glow golden with light,
riding away with the night.
Let us be like the stars,
then we will all swim away.
Softly, lest anyone hear—
children still die of fear.
translated by Sarah Zweig Betsky
by Mani Leib (1883-1953)
Zey zenen dort, oy Got, geven a sakh, a sakh,
Azelkhe lebedike un azelkhe brave,
Azelkhe shtaltne, berdike un kutsherave—
Un mit a vunderliker oysterlisher shprakh
Un zingen ﬂegn zey fun unter yedn dakh
Azelkhe hoferdike lider un tshikave:
Fun melekh eli-melekh un der sheyner pave,
Mit mayver-sidre-trop un tsimblen fun tenakh.
Nor iber zeyer kop—di zun hot nor gezen
Di roye gvald, dem kaltn meser baym retseyekh,
Vi er iz iber zey arop, mit vildn koyekh,
Un s’ara merderay iz dort geven!
Itst zenen zey a zekher nor fun yener gvald:
A tsvey–dray beymer fun an oysgehaktn vald.
There they were many, O God, so many,
Such vital ones and unafraid,
Such noble ones, with beard and braid—
And talking in a marvelous strange way.
And under every roof they would sing—
With Torah chant and scripture cymbals—
Such rare songs, proud and boastful:
Of the golden peacock and Elimelekh the king.
But above their heads only the sun in its stare
Saw the raw fury, the killer’s cold blade,
How with wild force it descended,
And what massacres were there.
Now they are but a trace of that fury:
An axed forest, a couple of trees.
translated by David G. Roskies
and Hillel Schwartz
by Judah Ha-Levy (1075–1141)
translated from Hebrew into
Yiddish by Chaim Nachman Bialek (1873–1934)
Kh’hob fargesn ale libste,
Kh’hob farlozt mayn eygn hoyz;
Kh’hob dem yam zikh opgegebn;
Trog mikh, yam, tsum muters shoys.
Un du, mayrev–vint getrayer,
Trayb mayn shif tsu yenem breg,
Vos mayn harts mit odler–ﬂigl
Zukht shoyn lang tsu im a veg.
Breng mikh nor ahin besholem,—
Nokh dem ﬂi zikh dir tsurik,
Grisn zolstu ale libste
Un dertseyl zey fun mayn glik.
I have forgotten all my loved ones,
I have left my own home.
I’ve abandoned myself to the sea:
Carry me, Sea, to my mother’s bosom!
And you, loyal West Wind,
Drive my ship to that shore,
Where my heart on eagle’s wings
Has long been seeking a path.
Bring me there unharmed
And then ﬂy back again.
Give greetings to all my loved ones
And tell them of my happiness.
translated by Eleanor Gordon Mlotek and
Transcribed according to the rules formulated by the YIVO Institute. With thanks to Mira Rafalowicz for her assistance in research, transcription and pronounciation. The composer has done his utmost in contacting the family of Mani Leib regarding permission and copyright, thus far in vain. Should any person feel that his or her copyright has been infringed upon, please contact the composer: jeff [at] jeffhamburg [dot] com
Photo material taken partially from “A Vanished World” by Roman Vishniac and “Chassidische Legenden” by H.N. Werkman