Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Bill Long 3/23/06
Songs from Jewish Folk Poetry (Opus 79)
On the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich's birth (which actually will happen on Sept. 25 of this year), the Willamette University music faculty and students put on a concert of five works of the master spanning 40 years of his productivity (1934-1975). Though each work had its alluring appeal, I was drawn to the pathos and apparent joy of the Songs From Jewish Folk Poetry. These were 11 songs composed by Shostakovich in 1948 just when his personal popularity with the Communist party was at its lowest ebb (he had just been forced to repent of the "formalistic" and "anti-Democratic" tendencies in his music by the cultural authorities of the Party and had been relieved of his teaching duties at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories).
Most scholars agree that these 11 songs, with words derived from a collection of folk poetry Shostakovich had bought, are really divisible into two cycles, consisting of eight and then three songs. The first eight were completed by August and emphasize the pathos of life, the pain of separation and the desperation of a mother watching over a sick child in Winter. The last three, completed a few months later, strike a different tone, with # 11 ("Gluck"--"Happiness") seemingly ending on an upbeat note. However, as most have recognized, the optimism of the final song seems not only to belie the tenor of the first eight but to be belied by its very words. The purpose of the remainder of this essay is to review some of the lyrics of these memorable folk songs. First, however, a preliminary thought.
Shostakovich and the Jews
It takes a person who either sees himself as an outsider or has deep sympathy with outsiders to understand Jewish people. Only then can one perceive the peculiar combination of ambition, accomplishment, self-hatred, mixed humor and lack of sentimentality characteristic of many Jewish people. Out of the tension created by these conflicting themes arises Jewish music. Shostakovich, though not a Jew himself, felt the same kind of loneliness, persecution and exclusion they experienced and was thereby drawn to their music. In an oft-quoted passage, cited by Professor Ian Scarfe in his introduction to the Jewish Folk Poetry songs, Shostakovich says:
"There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a joly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? because he is sad at heart. Jewish music can appear to be happy when it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears."
Another quotation dealing with the same subject, which I found on the Internet, is here. Shostakovich writes:
"Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. It is multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic ... This quality ... is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music."
Let the last sentence of the first quotation ring in your ears. Jewish music is "almost always laughter through tears." Beginning with the sad history of slavery in Egypt, and continuing through Exile from the Promised Land, medieval persecutions, nineteenth century pogroms and then the Holocaust of the twentieth century, the Jewish experience is laced with so much despair, sadness and irony that it makes understandable the following Jewish joke. A prominent rabbi dies, goes to heaven and is questioned by God. He complain bitterly about the oppressive conditions faced by Jews in history. God says, "Well, you are my chosen people." To which the rabbi replies, "Next time, choose someone else."
This sense of sad irony is important to understand when listening to the Songs from Jewish Folk Poetry. The first song, translated from the German by Professor Scarfe, is entitled "Lament for the Death of a Small Child." It runs:
"Sun and rain!
Oh light! Dark night!
A thick fog fell,
the pale moon awoke.
"To whom did she give life? This child, this child.
What was his name? Moischele, Moischele.
How did one rock Moischele? Hush, shh!
What did the boy eat? Brown bread and onion.
Where was he put to sleep?
In the grave!"
"Oh, the child in the grave,
In the grave, Moischele,
In the grave!
When the soprano sings "Weh, das Kind im Grabe," and then repeats the "Im Grabe" near the end, it brought to mind the tremendous wailing that David uttered for Absalom after he was killed. "Oh Absalom, my son my son Absalom. Would that I had died instead of you, o Absalom, my son, my son." No shriek is more penetrating, no pain more doleful than that of a parent bereft of child. Shostakovich probes that emotion, and the eerie "Im Grabe" still rings in my ears.
Ending on an "Up" Note
The sheer despair of many of the first eight Songs (though not all), makes it difficult to understand how "Gluck" ("Happiness"), the last Song, is a true expression of joy. Here are the relevant words:
"I took my husband's arm in mine,
though I am just as old as my cavalier.
Thus we went into the Theater
and took our seats in the parquet.
There we sat throughout the evening,
enjoying everything, filled with joy.
How wonderful things are for us!
Am I really the wife of a poor Jewish shoemaker?"
This tone continues until the end of the Song. Though the music has a fulness to it, a sort of sprightliness, and though it ends with a seemingly joyful "HA!," the lasting impression on me of the Songs is that they are written by a person acquianted with deep grief.
And so our joys are mingled with our griefs, yet we live and keep singing. Dmitri Shostakovich can teach us how to do both. The Willamette music faculty and students are to be commended for showing us this truth.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long