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Pianist Laura Leon

Sunday, January 10, 2010

11:00 AM

New York

Imagination and Catastrophe: Art and the Aftermath of Genocide

15 West 16th Street New York


A symposium/performance exploring the artistic responses to genocide via film, literature and musical performance. Laura's performance of Hugo Weisgall's The Golden Peacock with soprano Emily Duncan-Brown was the featured musical response and presentation. The symposium, co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish History and the American Society for Jewish Music, had presentations and discussions with Academy Award nominee Atom Egoyan, poet Peter Balakian, novelist Marcie Hershman, writer R. Clifton Spargo, and Donna-Lee Frieze, distinguished scholar of genocide, philosophy and film studies from Melbourne's Deakin University.

The following is the text for the January 10, 2010 talk on Hugo Weisgall and "The Golden Peacock" prior to its performance:

Music is, and always has been, an extraordinarily potent and enduring art, in response to events in history. This is not only because of its innate power to direct and move the human psyche and soul. Music has the unique mechanism by which a sentiment, belief, or response can be evoked, documented, and then be encapsulated in time. It can be experienced as an individual, by simply singing a melody or song to oneself, or it can be experienced as a community, as we are doing here today.

And music can be encountered again and again. As human beings, we need and seek out repetition as a means of contact, context, and connection. Music has the mysterious and remarkable power to remind us and teach us, existing as an aural bookmark of time.

Before speaking about Hugo Weisgall and The Golden Peacock, which soprano Emily Duncan-Brown and I will have the privilege of performing shortly--and I would like to share that as the daughter of a survivor, my mother Masha Leon, participating today means a great deal to me--I would first like to talk a little about the folk tune. In a way, the folk tune can be looked at as a musical microcosm of a people and their lives. It's internal nature-its 'habitat,' so to speak, is that of a simple tune, repeated several times, each time with new words or text, along with a possible repeated phrase, or verse as chorus.

Not all folk tunes have serious emotional weight, but most reflect real life situations, of an every day existence. They are musical truths. The tunes' inherent simplicity and repetition never dissuaded many composers from incorporating them into their works. Beethoven, Mozart--and in our time, Copland and Bartok, to name but a few--had an affinity for setting them within their own vocabularies.

Bela Bartok, one of the most important contemporary composers, who lived from 1881 to 1945, immersed himself in the folk music of his country of birth, Hungary, and surrounding areas. But his goal was beyond simply including these folk tunes in his works, which he frequently did-some in an extroverted manner, and some subtly in his more complex compositions.

Bartok traveled to small town and remote villages, carrying a giant phonograph that looked like the one the RCA dog had its ear to. He had the people in these places sing their folk tunes into the phonograph, which Bartok then recorded, subsequently documenting them by copying them down. In doing so, and by incorporating them into his works, he preserved their history.

Hugo Weisgall approached The Golden Peacock as a way of documenting and preserving the heritage and the memory of his people through Yiddish folk tunes. But beyond documentation and preservation, his motivation for choosing this particular folk material was personal and one that touched on his sense of responsibility both as a Jew and as a Jewish composer. At the end of this talk, we will have the gift of hearing Hugo Weisgall's own voice and words, from a taped telephone conversation we had back on July 7, 1981, during which he spoke directly as to why he composed The Golden Peacock.

Hugo Weisgall is considered the preeminent American composer of opera in the 20th century. His last opera, Esther, based on the book of Esther, received its acclaimed premiere in 1993 at the New York City Opera, and just had its triumphant return there this past November, thanks to the vision of its General Manager and Artistic Director, George Steele.

Weisgall was also the Dean of the Cantors Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and came from several generations of great cantors. In a conversation I also had back in 1981 with the late Albert Weisser, who was a Professor of Jewish Music at JTS, served as President of the american Society for Jewish Music, and wrote the translations for The Golden Peacock, which are in your programs he said: "He didn't think of himself as two separate composers. He's not alienated at all, as you find with other composers who work like a double-they put this hat on and that hat on. But with Hugo, it's not that way at all. It's just another aspect of him when he writes a specifically Jewish work..even the operas--you think they have very little to do with the Jewish experience, and then you look very closely and somehow they do."

During WWII, because of Weisgall's fluency in many languages, he handled sensitive diplomatic responsibilities. He was present at the liberation of the Terezin concentration camp. And, according to his son, Jonathan, "he fought with his own sense of responsibility for failing to save his European cousins from those concentration camps." And so, feeling compelled to make a personal statement in response to the Holocaust, he began composing the work in 1960, starting two of the seven songs. He completed them and the entire song cycle between July and November of 1976. The title, The Golden Peacock, Di Goldene Pave, is often found in Yiddish folklore, with one of its symbolisms representing freedom.

Unlike the rest of his compositions for voice and piano, here he utilized pre-existing melodies from traditional Yiddish folk tunes. Weisgall had said to me, that when he comes to The Golden Peacock, "that's another story, because setting folk materials is something I never did before." These seven  Yiddish folk tunes, selected by Weisgall from four anthologies, tell the truth about the lives of the people who sang them. In a way, they are very short stories set to simple, endearing melodies, about the reality of their every day lives as Jews: work, love and happiness, the Rebbe, children, Shabbes, food and drink, worry about the future, God, despair, hope for a better life.

In contouring his musical statement, Weisgall made some adjustments to the folk tunes, in terms of meter or rhythm, and some note changes here and there, but nothing that would in any way distort them. You will find them immediately recognizable. He juxtaposed them with newly composed piano accompaniments, so that these songs could be heard and experienced anew. Within the realm of Weisgall's harmonies and counterpoint, you will hear dissonances and angularity, stunning lyricism and gripping sonorities, inventive and complex, yet clear accompaniments.

I cannot help feeling that these folk tunes, while anchoring the work and giving it is structural and artistic framework and voice, seem to be exposing an almost eerie foreboding of sorts, which becomes highly charged through the composer's settings. And through these settings, Weisgall's own emotions are exposed and profoundly palpable.

Beginning with 'Undzer Rebenyu,' he creates a mystical place from which the Rebe comes back, as if from another world. It's almost as if Weisgall is giving us the chance to meet him perhaps just one more time; an extroverted drinking song, 'Lomir Zich Bafrayen,' which is perhaps the most jovial and least emotionally charged of the songs, and the one that Weisgall said was influenced by Bartok; the painful 'Mayn Harts Veynt in Mir' the slightly off-balance coyness, tempered with a touch of bittersweetness in 'Baleboste Zisinke': brash humor in 'Der Rebe Elimeylekh,' with a klezmer band gone array and spinning out of control, which is telling in and of itself; the heartbreaking sensation of loss in the lullaby 'Shlof Mayn Kind,' with the rocking of a child coming to an end; and overwhelming finality, in 'Di Goldene Pave.'

Through these folk tunes, which already speak the truth of lives lived and lost, Hugo Weisgall was able to tell the truth about what happened and what he witnessed. The Golden Peacock is a heroic bookmark.

SOUNDCLIP OF HUGO WEISGALL: " There is no question of the fact that the reason I am being drawn more and more to Jewish materials is because I feel that I have not made the proper statement about the whole business of Hitler and the Holocaust. The main reason for "The Golden Peacock" is a kind of defiance--that it has to do with what I feel about my having to make a statement about the Holocaust. Who else is going to do Yiddish folk songs if composers like myself don't do them (Taped telephone conversation with Laura Leon on July 7, 1981).


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