Stefan Wolpe, Jerusalem, ca. 1938
FOUR SONGS OF THE JEWISH PIONEERS, 1938
Arranged for string quartet and voice by Stefano Pierini
(Stefan Wolpe Society)

1. “Saleinu Al K’tefeinu” [Our baskets on our shoulders]. Text: Levi Ben-Amitai; Melody: Shalom Postolsky.
2. “Ra’inu amaleinu” [We beheld our toil]. Text: Levin Kipsni. Melody: Admon.
3. “Tel Aviv hi ir y’yudit” [Tel Aviv is a Jewish city]. Text and Melody anon.
4. “Holem tza’adi” [My step resounds]. Text: Jacob Schoenberg; Melody: Mordechai Zaira.

In the mid-1930s Hans Nathan, then living in Berlin, was involved with a project of the Palestinian National Fund to distribute “postcards with folk songs to Jewish organizations through the world, hoping to stimulate a nationalist music project.” He continued the project after immigrating to Boston in 1936. He published settings by Aaron Copland, Paul Dessau, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Toch, Kurt Weill and Stefan Wolpe in two issues as Folk Songs of the New Palestine (1938). Philip Bohlman took over the project after Nathan’s death in 1989 and prepared the critical edition. Three of the fifteen setting are by Wolpe.

These so-called “folk songs” were by amateur musicians who had immigrated to Palestine from Russia and Poland and were living on various kibbutzim. Among the authors of the tunes were Shalom Postolsky and Mordechai Zaira, who took lessons with Wolpe during his stay in British Mandate Palestine (1934-1938). In making arrangements of the songs before he left Palestine for the USA, Wolpe had the advantage of direct contact with the pioneers and their aspirations for a national music. Two of the songs he arranged were by Postolsky and Zaira.

To ensure that the arrangements would be suitable for amateur musicians, Nathan sometimes asked composers to simplify their settings. Nathan accepted Wolpe’s settings of “Ra’inu amaleinu,” “Saleinu Al K’tefeinu,” and “Tel Aviv,” but returned “Holem tza’adi.” Wolpe made a second arrangement, then a third, but Nathan rejected them all. The pedal sonorities, pointillistic, open textures and improvisatory style of the first part of the song mark Wolpe’s attempt to transform these “folk songs: into a new language that addressed the historical moment. He avoided the ostinatos and heavy chording patterns of those who dressed Jewish folk music in European clothing in favor of spare settings inflected by ornamentation that evokes the indigenous music of the Middle East. As he wrote about his “Songs from the Hebrew”: “Whatever I heard there . . . transformed itself into new aural images, re-crystallizing itself in its encounter with a modern musical mind.” (Songs of the Pioneers are recorded by Rebecca Jo Loeb, mezzo-soprano, and Ursula Oppens, piano, on Bridge 9308.)