Zun mit a regn / Sun and Rain
Jewish Songs and Chamber Music by Mieczyslav Weinberg, Veniamin Basner and Dmitri Shostakovich
From folklore to subversive musical language
“Zun mit a regn” (Sun and Rain) is the opening line of Shostakovich’s song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry in the original Yiddish version. It is a metaphor for “laughter through tears” and an apt title for a program featuring Jewish songs and chamber music by the three great composers who were close friends and who supported each other in the worst of times.
World War Two and the reign of terror in the Soviet Union had a profound impact on them. Many of their compositions are inspired by Jewish themes. At a time when Jewish culture was censored, this took courage and it often took years for this music to be performed in public.
How it began
The idea of a program with the music of Weinberg, Basner and Shostakovich came up in a conversation with composer Yevgeny Khazdan in St. Petersburg in 2003, where we performed Tribute to Mikhail Gnesin at the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. He told Sovali about Weinberg’s Jewish Songs and his friendship with Basner and Shostakovich.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)
Aside from their interest in each other’s artistry, the three composers shared a love of Jewish music. While the subject of Jewish music may not have been openly discussed, one wonders if Weinberg’s expert knowledge of the subject might have had an effect on the others. Weinberg was raised with Jewish music and it is omnipresent in his oeuvre.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg grew up in Warsaw, where his father was a violinist, composer and conductor at a Jewish theater. He studied piano at the Warsaw conservatory. At the outbreak of World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he fled to the Soviet Union. At the border his name was changed to Moisei Vainberg (Moisei to indicate that he was Jewish). Weinberg’s family in Warsaw perished in the war.
In the USSR Weinberg continued his studies at the conservatory in Minsk, but when the German troops besieged that city in 1941, he was evacuated to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. There he befriended the famous Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was also evacuated, and married his daughter Natalia. In 1943, Weinberg and his wife left for Moscow to meet Shostakovich, who had invited him. Weinberg had sent him his 1st Symphony and Shostakovich wanted to get to know Weinberg. It was the beginning of a long and inspiring friendship.
Weinberg wrote his Jewish Songs, First Cycle, Op. 13 in Tashkent in 1943. The cycle contains five songs to lyrics by the Polish poet Yitskhok Leyb Peretz. The five songs are preceded by an introduction and end with a coda without words. In the first four songs, Weinberg playfully depicts the ingenuous world of children, but in the last song, the tragic Orphan’s Letter, the lightheartedness turns to grief. This song cycle was first performed in Tashkent in 1943 under the title Children’s Songs in Russian. This title was later adopted for some other performances. However, the first title is the one written on the score.
Weinberg wrote the Jewish Songs, Second Cycle, Op. 17 to Lyrics by Samuel Halkin (Galkin), in Moscow in 1944. The six poignant songs from this cycle deal with World War Two. In each song a different character is speaking, in No. 1 the narrator, in No. 2 a mother of five soldiers, in No. 3 a soldier, in No. 4 a soldier’s lover, in No. 5 a holocaust survivor, and in No. 6 a soldier’s mother, siblings and children. In his music, Weinberg conveys a range of opposing emotions, fighting spirit, waiting, loneliness, irony, courage, loyalty, despair and hope.
The Sonata for Cello Solo, No.1, Op. 72 (1960), dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, consists of three contrasting movements Adagio – Allegretto – Allegro, which are based on an ancient pentatonic germ cell.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
In several of his compositions Dmitri Shostakovich, who was not Jewish, uses elements of Jewish folk music. He liked the multifaceted aspect of Jewish folk music. He told Solomon Volkov, the editor of his autobiography Testimony, “It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be. There always should be two layers.” However, as he told Volkov, it wasn’t just that he loved Jewish music, he also used Jewish themes to express his rejection of anti-Semitism.
For our program, we chose four songs from the cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79 (1948). This work is believed to be a memorial to his friend Solomon Mikhoels, who was “run over by a truck” in 1948. For this work, Shostakovich used lyrics from a collection of Yiddish folk songs compiled by Y.M. Dobrushin and A. D. Yuditski (1947). According to Weinberg’s daughter, Shostakovich consulted her father about the Yiddish lyrics and their rhythms and pronunciations, but when the cycle was finally published in 1955, the lyrics printed in the score were in Russian and not in Yiddish. Prof. Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish lyrics to the vocal parts.
In the Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in F-Sharp Minor, Op.87 (1950-51) the Prelude’s light-hearted dance-like tune precedes the pensive Fugue based on a cantorial melody sung at Yom Kippur.
Shostakovich wrote the Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 67 in 1944. News of the Nazi concentration camps had reached Russia by then through the eyewitness reports of journalist Vasily Grossman. Shostakovich reacted to the news by creating a terrible dance of death in the finale of this work as an indictment of the Shoah, using dance motifs from Jewish folk music.
Veniamin Basner (1925-1996)
Venimin Basner, whose talents as a composer lay in various musical categories, became famous in Russia for his film scores and popular songs. Basner was a great admirer of Shostakovich and studied with him. A nice anecdote is that he didn’t dare to speak to Shostakovich at first. Shostakovich noticed and helped Basner by asking him to light his cigarette. Once the ice was broken, Shostakovich became Basner’s teacher (source Aislu Basner). Basner arranged Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, Op. 13 for chamber ensemble and made a symphonic adaptation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which he named after the main character of the opera, Katerina Ismailova.
Since Basner’s arrangement of Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, Op. 13 could not be located at the time, we chose Basner’s charming violin piece Poem, Op. 7, No. 1 (1950) for our program and songs from Basner’s musical Jewish Luck (Yevreiske Styastye), Op.45 (1994) based on David Friedman’s story Mendel Marants. The songs reflect Basner’s love for the folk music of ordinary Jewish people.
A friend in need is a friend indeed
The composers also supported each other. Weinberg, who was a great pianist, was often the first to play Shostakovich’s compositions, and he and Shostakovich, who was also a great pianist, usually played Shostakovich’s newly composed works quatre-mains for approval by the Soviet Composers Union Committee.
Shostakovich helped Weinberg promote his music and have it performed by the greatest Russian musicians – Kondrashin, Barshai, Rostropovich (this all changed after Shostakovich’s death in 1975). And when Weinberg was arrested during the persecution of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia in 1953, Shostakovich petitioned Stalin’s secret police chief Beria to release Weinberg. Fortunately, however, Weinberg was rescued several months later by Stalin’s death. Afraid of being arrested again, Weinberg gave his archives to Basner for safekeeping. Weinberg dedicated many of his works to Basner and Shostakovich, and Shostakovich dedicated his tenth string quartet to Weinberg.
Acquisition of scores
When we launched this program in 2003-04, it was not easy to find the scores of Weinberg’s Jewish songs. Today, Weinberg’s oeuvre has been published and re-published by Peermusic in Hamburg, and ever since Weinberg’s Centennial in 2019, his music is hot. However, in 2003-04 Weinberg was still unknown and his Jewish Songs were untraceable. In despair, Sovali turned to Weinberg’s biographer Per Skans, who helped her find the scores. As Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, Second Cycle, Op 17 were still unpublished, we had to work with a copy of the manuscript with the Yiddish lyrics written in the Cyrillic alphabet. We had to do some work deciphering everything, and got help from Fred Borensztajn with the Yiddish translations.
As for Basner’s music, we got it from Basner’s widow. Finding Shostakovich’s scores was of course no problem, but we had to make an effort to find the original Yiddish lyrics for Shostakovich’s cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, and fortunately had the help of friendly people. Alexander Oratovski made arrangements for voice, violin, cello and piano for the songs we chose.
We gave concerts with the program in the Netherlands in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and performed our program at the Composers’ House and the Museum-Apartment N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov, St. Petersburg during Shostakovich’s Centennial in 2006.
The musicians who participated in the performances included Sovali, soprano, Boris Goldenblank, violin, Alexander Oratovski, cello and Sander Sittig, piano. At some concerts, violinists Alexei Pevzner or Alla Kim stood in for Boris Goldenblank, cellist Wladislaw Warenberg stood in for Alexander Oratovski, and pianist Paul Prenen stood in for Sander Sittig. Paul Prenen also played at the concerts in St. Petersburg, as did violinist Grigory Sedukh.
The program included the following works:
Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)
• Jewish Songs, First Cycle, Op. 13 to Lyrics by Y.L. Peretz (1943); arr. for voice, violin, cello and piano by Alexander Oratovski (2004)
• Sonata No. 1 for Cello Solo, Op. 72 (1960)
• 4 songs from Jewish Songs, Second Cycle, Op. 17 to Lyrics by S. Halkin (1944); arr. for voice, violin, cello and piano by Alexander Oratovski (2004)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
• 4 songs from the cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79 (1948), in original Yiddish version restored by Joachim Braun; arr. for voice, violin, cello and piano by Alexander Oratovski (2004)
• Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in F-Sharp Minor for piano, Op. 87 (1950-51)
• Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 67 (1944) – 3rd and 4th movement
Veniamin Basner (1925-1996)
• Poem for violin and piano, Op. 7, No. 1 (1950)
• Wedding Song (Svadba), from the musical Jewish Luck (Yevreiske Styastye), Op.45 (1994), after D. Friedman’ s novel Mendel Marantz, libretto by Boris Pantser; arr. for voice, violin, cello and piano by Alexander Oratovski (2004)
Our performances were recorded by audio engineer Dick Lucas at the Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam in 2005 and 2007. They were released on the JMP CD 001 Sun and Rain in 2007.
On the CD there are some changes in the programming (the CD content is displayed on the back cover)
1. We recorded and released the full cycle of Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, Op. 17 in the original version for voice and piano performed by Sovali and Paul Prenen; the 4 arranged songs from Weinberg’s Jewish Songs, Op. 17 were not released on the CD.
2. The 3rd and 4th movements of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, Op. 67 were not released on the CD;
3. We released on the CD two additional songs from the musical Jewish Luck by Basner, A Jewish Town (Evreiskoe mestechko) and Song about the Family (Pesnia o rodstvennikakh).
The CD is for sale with us: firstname.lastname@example.org €19,90 shipping included.
“’Zun mit a regn’, splendid Yiddish lyricism”
“The impressive program went over very well with the audience. Everyone found it fascinating to witness how original, little known or completely unknown Jewish music was brought back to life.”
“How does one describe “atmosphere”? Not in terms like professional or virtuoso, although these terms were certainly applicable. In any case, the atmosphere of the concert was shaped by the Jewish sounds, the melancholy and sometimes heartbreaking grief that could be heard, by the sounds and rhythms that said: “I shall persevere and won’t let them grind me down”, by the Yiddish lyrics that were translated so professionally that they could almost be followed word for word.
Yet the atmosphere of course was predominantly determined by soprano Sovali, violinist Alexej Pevzner, cellist Alexander Oratovski, and pianist Sander Sittig […] In a beautifully structured program, with songs and instrumental works (partly performed as solos), they showed their professionalism, virtuosity and above all their pleasure in singing and playing. The warm cello and violin sounds, the beautiful, supple and agile voice and the pianist who conjured up a rich palette of sounds from the grand piano, were important ingredients for the special atmosphere of this concert.”
“This was an unforgettable event in which the musicians gave their all. Bravo!”
“Thank you very much for your “Sun and Rain” CD with the Sovali Consort. I am really moved by this beautiful melancholy music and am glad you sent me a copy. Some of the pieces I played twice and it’s mind-boggling that this beautiful music is so unknown. It is lovingly performed and your voice lends itself perfectly to this kind of music. One can hear it’s a part of your life. Weinberg is a really very good convincing composer, not a note too much, with surprising harmonies, and enormous lyrical expressiveness. […] A surprise. Alexander Oratovski masterfully arranged the music. My compliments. Paul Prenen’s piano accompaniments are excellent and he plays Shostakovich very nice. Those four Shostakovich songs are incredibly beautiful. Basner takes a more cheerful approach and it’s a nice ending to the CD. I’d like to stay informed if you do something again in this direction.” [… ] “It’s strange, although I know a lot of music, I’ve never encountered Weinberg in my path and luckily you changed that.”
“I received your letter and the CD – thank You very much for this. It was with great interest that I listened to this performance, and can say that I enjoyed it indeed, especially the songs by Basner and […] Weinberg, which I did not know. With great interest I listened to the arrangements of Alexander Oratovski […] And certainly I enjoyed very much your transparent and pure voice, which I heard for the first time.”
“The Amsterdam based Sovali Consort has drawn on varied sources for its many hued collection of Yiddish art songs and chamber music. But the CD “Sun and Rain” (“Zun mit a regn”), is seamless in its singular mixture of refinement, earthiness and drama. Soprano Sovali (Sofie Van Lier) brings a lucid folk-like authenticity to the songs of Twentieth Century composers and friends Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Dimitri Shostakovich and Veniamin Basner. Shostakovich had a great affinity for Yiddish musical themes and his musical vision of the Jewish folk poem, “Zun mit a regn” (“Lament for a Deceased Child”), is the CD’s title song. The piano, violin and cello provide dramatic texture to the songs, some based on poems of Yitshok Leyb Perets, Shmuel Halkin, that make art of terror, history, memories, laments and occasional kvetches. Weinberg’s Sonata for Cello Solo No. 1, Op. 72, Basner’s “Poem for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 No.1 and Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in F-Sharp Minor for Piano, Op.87 are equally eloquent. Like the little tree in the song “Afn Grinem Bergele, (“On the Green Mountain”), these songs do not want to sleep.”
“Musical Heroes”, “Where the Milken Archive presents itself with American-Jewish music via the Naxos CD label, the Sovali Consort shows that in the Soviet Union, too, Jewish classical music was composed, even though it mostly had to be done under cover. And Sovali’s masterful performance of these works deserves wide recognition!”