Shostakovich initially wrote his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry for three singers and piano in 1948: just a few months after the Central Committee of the Communist Party condemned “cosmopolitanism” in arts, and his music was pronounced “worthless” and “fallacious”, and just a few months before Solomon Mikhoels, head of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee was murdered. The story and the timing of the cycle leave us with many questions: Was the composition of the Jewish cycle an act of protest and solidarity with the Jewish people in times of growing Anti-Semitism? Or was it, on the contrary, an attempt of the composer to write the music the Party expected from him: easily accessible to the listener, melodious, rich in stories and literary images? Was Shostakovich' interest in Jewish culture politically motivated or was he just looking for a musical heritage that would set his imagination in motion? And how shall we interpret the obvious break in the cycle after the 8th song? While the first 8 songs, written in August 1948 deal with hardship and human tragedies, the last three, dated in October of the same year, are optimistic and praising the happy life in the Soviet Union - a first glance at the titles reveals the chasm. Was this an attempt to make a publication of the cycle possible?
After the 8 songs ware performed during an informal gathering honoring Shostakovich’ birthday in September 1948 and he finished the last 3 songs in October of the same year, the songs disappeared in the drawer to be publicly performed only in 1955 – two years after Stalin’s death. The orchestral version followed in 1964. While the orchestral version is naturally richer in musical texture, the piano version does more justice to the intimacy of the original folk songs.
Although Shostakovich sat Russian translations, we know he was asking for help in pronouncing Yiddish in spring 1948. Was he at first looking at other – Yiddish – texts with the intention of setting them? Or did he have the original Yiddish texts of the Russian translations he later set to music? Or was Joachim Braun right when - quoting, Shostakovich’ son - he claimed that the composer intended the songs could be sung in Yiddish as well?
Most of these questions are impossible to answer 60 years later.
We however were up to an experiment: Paying tribute to the research of Joachim Braun who found and published the Yiddish texts of all 11 songs, we wanted to try out the settings in Yiddish. We found this very rewarding: the Yiddish language has its special flavor and many of its expressions add a semantic richness to the songs that are lost in the Russian translation. With the cycle in the center of the program we chose to surround its pieces with the traditional settings of the same texts as well as compositions by Viktor Ullmann, Darius Milhaud and Maurice Ravel. The Shostakovich settings are in an interesting contrast to the traditional songs: cheerful love songs turn into bitter songs of separation, lullabies into dialogues, fathers disappear in Siberia instead of waiting for their families in America.
A kaleidoscopic landscape opens up when we begin our journey into Soviet Yiddishland, inhabited by parting lovers, weeping mothers and rebellious daughters, joyful kolkhozniks, spiders in cribs and goats on the roof. I hope you will enjoy the ride as much as we do!