A Yid­dishe Schu­bert

Mark Glanville on how singing the song cy­cle Die Win­ter­reise in the ma­maloshen squared his love of Ger­man and Jewish cul­ture

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS & BOOKS -

My mother left Ber­lin in 1932. It was noth­ing to do with the Nazis, just that, for­tu­nately, my grand­fa­ther hap­pened to have been of­fered a jour­nal­is­tic po­si­tion in Lon­don. In Eng­land my mother was teased for her Ger­man ac­cent. Now peo­ple joke that she sounds like the Queen. She claimed, oddly I al­ways felt, to have forgotten most of her Ger­man.

One thing she re­mem­bered was Hei­den­roslein, Schu­bert’s ex­quis­ite set­ting of the Goethe poem, proof that the peo­ple who had mur­dered her cousin Theo — and whose crimes formed the sub­stance of the Holo­caust litany my fa­ther re­cited at meal times — had a bet­ter side. The sim­ple mu­si­cal set­ting of a text that de­scribes the pluck­ing of a rose blinded me — per­haps my mother too — to the fact that this was ac­tu­ally a poem about de­flo­ration or worse.

The first classical vo­cal album I bought was a col­lec­tion of Schu­bert set­tings of Goethe po­ems that in­cluded Hei­den­roslein. The sub­limely beau­ti­ful mu­si­cal ver­sions of the great writer’s ro­man­tic verse were a pal­lia­tive against my frus­trated ado­les­cent yearn­ings. I started to ac­quire more Schu­bert Lieder, in­clud­ing Die Win­ter­reise, the song cy­cle widely held to be the great­est ever writ­ten.

It was this mu­sic that in­spired me to be­come a singer in the first place. I be­gan to take lessons with Mark Raphael, a recital­ist of in­ter­na­tional re­pute who had had to queue for soup in the East End be­fore a dis­cern­ing syn­a­gogue de­cided it would be a good idea to send him to study in Mi­lan. He as­sured me that my hero was not, as I claimed, the com­poser clos­est to God; rather the one near­est to earth.

Mark’s death be­came the cat­a­lyst for my first ever visit to a syn­a­gogue, at the age of 22 — the West Lon­don Re­form, for which he had com­posed a great deal of mu­sic, and where his me­mo­rial ser­vice was held. It would be in­ac­cu­rate to say that I had lapsed, since my fam­ily had given me noth­ing to lapse from, but if a war­den had not grabbed my arm and thrust a pa­per kip­pah into my hand, I would have walked into the tem­ple with my head un­cov­ered, in bliss­ful ig­no­rance.

At the time I was work­ing with Mark, I was also study­ing clas­sics and phi­los­o­phy at Ox­ford, giv­ing recitals of pre­dom­i­nantly ro­man­tic reper­toire that al­lowed me to in­dulge my­self and the au­di­ence enough to make us all for­get that I had no vo­cal tech­nique.

My only con­cern was to com­mu­ni­cate the reper­toire I had care­fully cho­sen to suit my pas­sion­ate, youth­ful sen­si­bil­ity. I was able to move au­di­ences more read­ily then than in later times, when af­ter five years of ob­sess- ing over tech­nique at mu­sic col­lege, I was a highly trained bass-bari­tone.

Pro­fes­sion­ally, at first, my star blazed brightly, but its de­scent was rapid. I even­tu­ally found my­self per­form­ing on cruise ships. It was there that I be­gan to in­tro­duce Yid­dish and He­brew songs as spice for the plain fare of our classical pro­grammes, and at last found my­self able to reach au­di­ences as I had done be­fore learn­ing how to sing. In the an­ces­tral echoes of the mu­sic I re­dis­cov­ered the joy that had led me to be­come a singer in the first place.

A Yid­dishe Win­ter­reise is the child of my love, not only for Yid­dish mu­sic but for its lan­guage. My rel­ish and en­joy­ment of ma­maloshen is equalled only by my dis­com­fort with Ger­man, the lan­guage of its and my own mother, which I have of­ten tried to learn, but never with suc­cess.

The spirit of Yid­dish is gen­tle, the tsartn gayst of a play­ful child that rev­els in a life which has of­ten proved so painful, its view of the world clear and undimmed by the dark­en­ing vi­sion of adult­hood. It is as if the an­cient di­alect of Yid­dish stayed fresh and young through the cen­turies while its par­ent grew mid­dle-aged and in­tro­spec­tive.

There is a di­rect­ness and sim­plic­ity in Yid­dish lan­guage and mu­sic that makes its songs in­stantly ap­peal­ing, but the depth and hon­esty of their feel­ing haunt one, mak­ing one want to re­turn to them again and again.

A Yid­dishe Win­ter­reise re­minds me that the cul­ture of the peo­ple I was en­cour­aged to re­ject is also part of who they are, that for ev­ery Go­er­ing who would reach for his re­volver when he heard the word cul­ture, there is a Schu­bert who set a He­brew psalm for the Jewish friend who sang his Lied.

I have had Der Lin­den­baum, one of the cen­tral songs of Schu­bert’s Die Win­ter­reise, trans­lated into Yid­dish for the recital, where it now ap­pears as Di Lipe but can still be un­der­stood, al­most in its en­tirety, by a Ger­man speaker. It de­scribes the plight of a lonely wan­derer look­ing for a place of rest, as does the Zion­ist song Jer­uschola­jim, which pre­cedes it in my pro­gramme. I have a record­ing of the lat­ter, made in Ber­lin in 1930, sung by the can­tor Sigis­mund Tor­day and ac­com­pa­nied by his wife, Thea.

Thanks to the in­ter­net, I was also able to track down the mu­sic in an an­thol­ogy of Yid­dish songs col­lected by Janot Roskin, and pro­duced, like the record it­self, in 1930s Ber­lin.

The pages are now so brit­tle that the cor­ners snap off as you turn them, no mat­ter how care­fully, as if one were pick­ing through the bones of the dead. I won­der if my grand­fa­ther ever heard it. A Yid­dishe Win­ter­reise will be per­formed at the Cen­tral Syn­a­gogue, Great Port­land Street, Lon­don W1 on Sun­day. Tick­ets on 020 7580 1355

Bass-bari­tone Mark Glanville, whose love af­fair with Yid­dish led him to have the songs of Franz Schu­bert (above) trans­lated

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