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Pianist Laura Leon

Hugo Weisgall's The Golden Peacock: Seven Popular Songs from the Yiddish for Voice and Piano

It was an honor to perform Hugo Weisgall's extraordinary Yiddish song cycle, The Golden Peacock: Seven Popular Songs from the Yiddish for Voice and Piano, with soprano Emily Duncan-Brown at the January 10, 2010 symposium Imagination and Catastrophe: Art and the Aftermath of Genocide at the Center for Jewish History. It was an opportunity to explore artistic responses to genocide. It was co-sponsored by the American Society for Jewish Music, and was part of the CJH's History of Genocide Initiative, which began on November 15, 2009 with an International Symposium on Genocide, exploring the legacy of Raphael Lempkin.

Hugo Weisgall is considered the preeminent American composer of opera in the 20th century. His last opera, "Esther," received its acclaimed premiere at the New York City Opera in 1993, and recently had its triumphant return to the NYCO in November 2009, thanks to the vision of its General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel.

Weisgall also composed a profound body of songs and song cycles. Quoting Bruce Saylor's entry on Weisgall in Grove Dictionary of Music: "His works deal with crucial philsophical, social and moral dilemmas of the 20th century." During interviews with the composer for my Teachers College dissertation on his songs and song cycles, Weisgall stated that The Golden Peacock, using pre-existing Yiddish folksongs, was his personal response to the Holocaust.

A witness to the liberation of the Terezin concentration camp, and unable to save his relatives from perishing in the Holocaust, while serving as an assistant military attache in Europe during WWII, Hugo Weisgall undertook his personal sense of responsibility as a Jew and as a Jewish composer to write a work about what took place, beginning in 1960 and completing the work in 1976.

During a taped telephone conversation with Hugo Weisgall on July 7, 1981, he shared why he felt compelled to compose this work:

"There is no question of the fact that the reason I am being drawn more and more to Jewish material 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."

For those interested in the pre-performance talk about Weisgall and The Golden Peacock, you can click on Calendar and then click on past events.