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