David Bloch, Prague
ARRANGEMENTS OF SIX YIDDISH FOLKSONGS, 1923, 1925 (15:16)
New Edition by David Bloch and Austin Clarkson (Peermusic)

1. Inter dem kinds wigele, 1925
2. Bai main mameß haisele, April, 19225
3. Amul is gewen, April, 1925
4. Alle mentschen tanzendik, April, 1925
5. Wi asoi ken ech listik sain, April, 1925
6. Eß kimt gefloigen, Oct. 1923

Born and raised in a secular household, Wolpe had little knowledge of his Jewish heritage. His interest in Yiddish folklore was aroused in 1923, when he arranged “Es kimt gefloigen” from the collection of songs of “Ostjuden” edited by Fritz Mordechai Kaufmann (1920). Kaufmann intended the edition for practical use by acculturated German Jews (“Westjuden”) and so provided extensive notes on the songs, a key to pronunciation of Yiddish dialects, and a note on performance style. He wrote that he presented the melodies as they were sung, without prettifying them. He added pauses to indicate the improvisational, recitative-like manner, as Yiddish vocal style differed greatly from that of German folksongs.

Wolpe’s interest in Yiddish folklore seems to have been reignited by the singer Rahel Ermolnikoff (b. Odessa, 1890), who specialized in Jewish folksongs from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Alice Jacob-Loewenson (1895-1967), pianist, composer, musicologist and promoter of modern music by Jewish composers, gave a concert of her arrangements of Jewish folksongs from Yiddish and Yemeni sources in January, 1925. She accompanied Ermolnikoff at the piano. Wolpe must have been in the audience and smitten, for he invited Ermolnikoff to perform his own Yiddish song arrangements for his Berlin debut as a composer only three months later. Along with Wolpe’s Violin Sonata, op. 20 and Cello Sonata, op. 21 (both now lost), the program included thirteen Yiddish song arrangements, Op. 14. Wolpe’s enthusiasm for Yiddish folklore was such that he cited the Kaufmann edition as the source of the songs, printed the complete texts in the concert program, and provided German equivalents for obscure Yiddish words. Only six of the thirteen songs survive, of which five were composed in April, just before the concert on the 27th of the month.

Wolpe’s settings are cool, modern and inventive, with spare textures, post-tonal harmonies, late Mahler counterpoints, and offbeat, sporadic rhythms. Picking up on Kaufmann’s description of improvisatory Yiddish performance, the strophic settings are rich with unexpected variations. There is no trace of the thrumming ostinatos, and Western chordings that usually accompanied such folksongs.

The image for the strophe of each song is set with a distinctive figure and design. No. 1: A song of longing for the beloved, in which every chord is off the beat. No. 2: the lament of a jilted maiden, the active harmony and rhythm are varied fancifully. No. 3: The quiet glissandi offer a dreamy background to the lullaby and dissolve into trills and tremolos in the following stanzas. The accompaniment to No. 4, a children’s dance song, is extremely spare with sudden offbeat accents. No. 5 is the widely known lament of the bride trapped in a hostile household far from her home. The accompaniment is a collage of four-part chords, strumming, two-part counterpoint, and fragmentary rhythms. No. 6 is a children’s song about a boy who plays many instruments. The cumulative form of the song is amplified by a stream of inventive and accelerating figurations. This song concluded the 1925 concert.

Ermolnikoff must have enjoyed working with Wolpe, for she asked him to accompany her on a tour of Poland and a concert in Berlin. A review of the Berlin concert lists the program as Jewish folksong arrangements by Darius Milhaud, Heinrich Schalit, Jacob-Loewenson and Wolpe. It praises the “religious fervor” with which Ermolnikoff “celebrated” the excellent settings of Jewish songs from Yemenite and Yiddish sources. 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” (probably referring to Wolpe’s arrangements). Wolpe at the piano was a “hyper-sensitive bundle of nerves” who provided “a veritable tour de force of the accompanist’s art, … a chromatic scale of musical expressions, . . . a complete inventory of all possible nuances of articulation and pedaling.” The audience responded enthusiastically (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, February 11, 1927).

The edition was prepared by David Bloch (1939-2010), the pianist and musicologist who did much to promote Wolpe’s music in Israel. Bloch accompanied his wife, mezzo Emilie Berendsen, in the first recording of two songs on Symposium 1216 (1997). The complete set is recorded by Patrick Mason, baritone, and Robert Shannon, piano on Bridge 9209 (2007).

For an article on the late David Bloch by Emilie Berendsen follow this link