Wolpe: Arrangements of Six Yiddish Songs

Program Note

Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972)
Arrangements of Six Yiddish Songs (1923, 1925)

Fascinated by the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe, the historian Fritz Mordechai Kaufmann (1888-1921) studied the Yiddish language. He published the anthology Die Schönsten Lieder der Ostjuden (The Most Beautiful Songs of the Eastern Jews) to inform acculturated German Jews (Westjuden) of their Yiddish heritage. Kaufmann selected 74 songs for the anthology from various collections and publications of the Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music.  Kaufmann stated that he wished to avoid the tendency of editors to “clean up and prettify” the songs and claimed to present the songs as the people actually sang them, but he did not explain how he conducted fieldwork. Since setting words to the melodies differed from singer to singer, Kaufmann occasionally provided alternative stanzas. He said that many songs were sung unaccompanied, and yet he added chord symbols to all the songs. 

In October of 1923 Wolpe made an arrangement of Eß kimt gefloygen di gilderne pave (No. 6 of the present collection). Two years later, on January 20, 1925, Wolpe attended a concert by the singer Rahel Ermolnikoff in the Rönisch-Saal, Berlin. Ermolnikoff was accompanied by composer and pianist Alice Jacob-Loewenson, who made arrangements of the songs. On the day of the concert the Jüdische Rundschau announced that the concert of “Hebrew songs of Yemenite Jews, mystical-religious love songs from the Kabbalistic period (first performance), Yiddish folksongs in new arrangements, as well as Preludes by C.V. Alkan (performed for the first time in Berlin)” was sold out and that a second concert was planned. Wolpe must have attended the concert and been smitten by the singer and the repertoire, for he invited Ermolnikoff to perform in a concert of his own music.

Wolpe’s concert debut was just three months later on April 27, 1925, in the Meister-Saal. The program consisted of his Violin and Cello Sonatas (both now lost) and thirteen arrangements of Yiddish songs from the Kaufmann anthology. Four of the six surviving settings are dated April 1925, indicating that Wolpe was making arrangements right up to the last minute. Wolpe’s interest in the Yiddish repertoire was such that the printed program gave the song texts complete, together with German equivalents of obscure Yiddish words. Wolpe dedicated the arrangements to Rahel Ermolnikoff.

Though Ermolnikoff was twelve years older than Wolpe, they evidently developed a warm (even intimate) relationship. They went on tour to Poland and gave a concert in Berlin. Their program consisted of arrangements of Jewish folksongs by Darius Milhaud, Heinrich Schalit, Alice Jacob-Loewenson and Wolpe. The Berlin reviewer praised the religious fervor with which Ermolnikoff “celebrated” the Yemenite and Yiddish songs. He added that the singer was less successful in the Yemenite songs, which were influenced by Arabic music, than in the Yiddish songs with their “unusual, salty-lyrical settings.” The Yemenite songs were likely those arranged by Loewenson, who relied on traditional four-part accompaniments, while the “salty-lyrical” Yiddish arrangements were assuredly Wolpe’s modernist settings. The reviewer also commented on Wolpe’s pianism: “a hyper-sensitive bundle of nerves,” “a veritable tour de force of the accompanist’s art,” “a chromatic gamut of musical expression,” “a complete inventory of all possible nuances of articulation and pedaling.”

—from the preface to the score by Austin Clarkson