About this Recording
8.559423 - WYNER: Mirror (The) / Passover Offering / Tants un Maysele
English 

Yehudi Wyner (b. 1929)
The Mirror • Passover Offering • Tants un Maysele

 

About the Composer

For nearly a half century Yehudi Wyner (b. 1929) has been recognized as one of America's most gifted composers. Although born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, he grew up in New York City. His father, Lazar Weiner (1897–1982), was a leading exponent of Yiddish high musical culture, both as a choral conductor and as a composer, and is now the acknowledged avatar of the Yiddish art song medium. Throughout his youth, Wyner was exposed to his parents' Yiddishist intellectual milieu, and their home was frequented by literati and artists from the Yiddish cultural orbit. (His father had the spelling of his children's surname changed — though not his own — to preclude a common mispronunciation.)

By the age of four or five, no doubt inspired by the music he heard in that environment, Wyner began improvising short pieces that had an eastern European Jewish folk or Hassidic character. He started his formal musical life as a pianist, although he never studied with his father — who was himself a brilliant pianist. While a piano student of Loni Epstein at The Juilliard School, Wyner became increasingly attracted to composition, which he then studied at Yale with Richard Donovan and Paul Hindemith, and at Harvard with Randall Thompson and Walter Piston. After completing his undergraduate work, he spent a summer in residence at the Brandeis Arts Institute in Santa Susana, California, a division of the Brandeis Camp, where the music director was Max Helfman (1901–63), one of the seminal figures in Jewish music in America. That program brought together college-age students as well as established Jewish — and especially Israeli —composers, in an effort to broaden the Jewish artistic horizons of young musicians. There, Wyner came into contact with some of the most creative and accomplished Israeli composers and other artists of that period, and he was introduced to new artistic possibilities inherent in modern Jewish cultural consciousness.

During his student years, Wyner did not develop any particular interest in Jewish or Judaically related music — sacred or secular — in terms of his own composing. Indeed, he was admittedly a bit rebellious vis-à-vis any personal Jewish involvement. But as it did for so many participants and students during its brief five-year existence, the Brandeis experience had a lasting impact that would later emerge in many of his works. And he was profoundly affected by the founder and director of the institute, Shlomo Bardin, whom he credits with instilling in him and his fellow students a fresh appreciation for Jewish cultural identity.

In 1953 Wyner won the Rome Prize in composition, and he spent three years at the American Academy in Rome — composing, performing, and traveling. Since then he has garnered many other honors — including two Guggenheim Fellowships as well as commissions from the Koussevitsky and Ford Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and numerous chamber ensembles and other performing organizations and universities. In 1998 he received the Elise Stoeger Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for his lifetime contributions to chamber music, and he has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Wyner joined the faculty of Brandeis University in 1986, and he has held the Naumburg Chair in Composition there since 1990. Previously he taught for fourteen years at Yale University, where he was head of the composition faculty, and he was also dean of music at the Purchase campus of the State University of New York. He was on the chamber music faculty of the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood from 1975 to 1997, and he has been a visiting professor at Cornell and Harvard universities.

Although his public persona rests primarily on his contributions as a composer, Wyner has also enjoyed an enviable reputation as a pianist and conductor. He has been both a member (keyboard artist) and conductor of the Bach Aria Group since 1968, in which capacity he has directed many Bach cantatas, concertos, and motets. He has also directed two opera companies and many chamber ensembles in a wide range of repertoire. In addition, he is the leading pianistic interpreter of his father's vast body of Yiddish lieder.

Wyner's opera include a diverse array of orchestral chamber, choral, incidental theatrical, and solo vocal and instrumental music. His early works, such as his Partita for piano (1952), have been described as betraying a neoclassical influence that soon gave way to freer forms, more varied styles, and a more chromatic harmonic language — as exemplified by his Concert Duo for violin and piano (1955–57). A number of his more mature vocal works were written expressly for his wife, Susan Davenny Wyner. Among these are Intermedio (1976), a lyric ballet for soprano and string orchestra; Fragments from Antiquity (1978–81) for soprano and orchestra; and On This Most Voluptuous Night (1982) for soprano and chamber ensemble. Orchestral works include Prologue and Narrative for Cello and Orchestra (1994), commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic for the Manchester International Cello Festival; Lyric Harmony (1995), commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the American Composers Orchestra; and Epilogue for orchestra (1996), commissioned by the Yale School of Music. In 2002 he was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a piano concerto. Works for ensembles in various combinations include a string quartet (1985); Sweet Consort for flute and piano (1988); Trapunto Junction for three brass instruments and percussion (1991), commissioned by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players; Madrigal for String Quartet (1999); Oboe Quartet (1999); and Horntrio (1997), commissioned for forty ensembles in the United States and abroad.

Many of Wyner's important works have been informed by Jewish experience and heritage. In addition to the works presented on this recording, such Judaically related pieces include Dances of Atonement for violin and piano (1976); another synagogue work, a Torah Service (1966) for chorus, two trumpets, horn, trombone, and double bass; a Friday Evening Service (1965); and his single foray into solo Yiddish song, S'iz nito kayn nekhtn, a folksong setting described by Wyner as "a transformation of a setting — a rather radical setting in the Bartók manner".

"Mr. Wyner's music, although reflecting Jewish subject matter, is of a highly dissonant idiom", wrote New York Times critic Peter G. Davies following a concert of three of his Jewish works in 1980. "Despite their generally severe style, these scores show a sophisticated ear for unusual sonorities and an unerring instinct for what constitutes effective instrumental virtuosity".

Neil W. Levin

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Program Notes

 

The Mirror
Suite from the incidental music for the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–91) is widely considered one of the great writers of Yiddish fiction in the modern era. Certainly he is the most famous Yiddish writer to the non-Yiddish-speaking public in America, owing at least in part to his receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978, which marked the first — and to date the only — instance of that award given to a Yiddish writer. Singer's initial perception of the theater was negative, as he was taught to associate it with a venue for evil and decadence. His father, an eastern European rabbi, is said to have described it as a place where "the wicked sit day and night, eat forbidden [nonkosher] food, and sin with loose women". Of course, piously orthodox and self-cloistered Jewry of that ilk and era had no monopoly throughout history on such views of the theater as dangerous to religious and moral values. In the West, the Puritans in 17th century England provide but one classic example, and even at the beginning of the 21st century, similar attitudes prevail among certain nominally Christian fringe sects and among various fundamentalist divisions of non-Western religions — as well as among some extremely devout circles within Jewish orthodoxy and the Hassidic world. In any case, inasmuch as the theater had been demonized for Singer, it is interesting to observe that The Mirror — his first theatrical stage adaptation from one of his short stories (of the same title) — concerns a demon's seduction of a vulnerable woman.

The Mirror, first published in its English translation in 1955, is one of a number of demon-driven stories that Singer wrote originally for a projected volume, Memoirs of the Spirit of Evil. The story and the play tell a tale of a bored, frustrated wife who, while gazing at her naked image in the mirror, is seduced into darker realms by a demon. The New York Times review at the time called it "an erotic and moral fable dramatizing… the dangers of fulfilling daydreams". The demon's function in the play differs somewhat from that in the short story, where he is the first-person narrator. In an overview analysis, Sarah Blacher Cohen observed the following about the demon in the story: "As a witty teller of the tale who seems more like a 'Puckish' wedding jester than a grim fiend, he causes us to take a light-hearted view of Zirel, the faithful but bored shtetl [small market town, religiously oriented] woman who succumbs to temptation".

The play concerns themes frequently addressed by Singer: religious life among small-town Jewry in eastern Europe; the sexual frustrations often produced by communally and religiously institutionalized sexual repressions and inhibitions; and the road to fantasy from those frustrations, which could lead to mystical and even satanic alliances with demons and with evil. Yehudi Wyner's musical conception for this work was informed by his own understanding and interpretation of Singer's preoccupation with exposing a consciousness of sexuality within that enclosed pious world — something not so transparent previously in major Yiddish fiction, nor emphasized outwardly in folklore.

Wyner's involvement with this project began in 1972, when he was asked to provide incidental music for the Yale Repertory Theatre's production of the play. He has provided the following comments:

From the very first reading, I found myself enthralled by the style and subject matter of the play, and I accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. The music was written rapidly over the winter recess period in 1972–73, in order to meet the deadline for the opening in January 1973.

The play deals overall with eastern European Jewish village or small-town life. But the real subject is sexual repression and fantasy vis-à-vis orthodoxy and superstition. From the standpoint of religious orthodoxy, or even the folk norms of the time, the play is highly subversive.

For the music, I drew upon my longtime exposure to the various musics of Jewish traditions — from secular folk and religious song to the music of klezmer bands; from the monophonic modes of the Near East to music of the Sephardi Jews of the Mediterranean basin. And just as Singer often used parody and distortion to reveal a contemporary point of view about conventional practices and modes of thought, so I utilized musical parody and stylistic distortion to achieve a similar result. The overall style, however, maintains a basic conventional attitude, allowing departures from the conventions to speak more forcefully.

The instrumental ensemble was conceived so as to simulate an eastern European klezmer band. It provided live performances throughout the run of the play, and was stationed on a balcony above stage left. In writing the music, it somehow took over in many ways: there is a great deal more music than was really needed for advancing certain scenes. But the director, Michael Posnick, found a way to include nearly all of it in the production by creating interludes and transitions to accommodate it.

As a play, The Mirror suffered from too many structural weaknesses to be successful. The fine first act was followed by a somewhat loose second act, and the play concluded with a fatally careless third act. When Posnick approached Singer to suggest some rewriting because that third act just didn't work, Singer replied, "You have hypnotized yourself into thinking that it doesn't work".

It is problematic to characterize the music for The Mirror as a suite. Some parts do organize into a coherent succession of numbers. For example, the opening salvo of noisy demons' welcome is followed by a short set of quiet variations that are meant to suggest a nostalgic yearning for home — both physical and spiritual. This music gives way to a group of wedding dances, at the end of which there is music to accompany the reading of the k'tuba (the marriage contract). The banality of this k'tuba music is intentionally ironic: the ceremony is a "black wedding" — as if a wedding "in hell".

Following that, the individual numbers reveal their "incidental" function: short ceremonial processions for the Jew of Babylon; "potted palm" music for Asmodeus' court; and a tender song and a vulgar dance for Yenta's imaginary wedding. The music for flight is mysterious and fugitive: the flight is an attempt to escape from the self.

'Wolf and Sheep', with the text by Singer, is an embittered anthem condemning hatred and hypocrisy whenever it is found, whether practiced by Jews or non-Jews. It is clearly Singer's outcry against prejudice, superstition, and injustice.

From the incidental music, Wyner subsequently fashioned a self-contained work performable on its own — "functionally after the manner of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat", he described, "but without narration".

 

Passover Offering

Passover Offering (1959), was born as a commission from the University of Michigan's radio station (WUOM) as a part of a series devoted to holiday-related compositions. Many of the commissioned composers elected to address national or quasi-religious holidays. Wyner, however, selected Passover — not only for its spiritual and religious elements but also for its dramatic and symbolic story line. "In conceiving a composition with these [biblical] events in mind", he commented, "I sought to evoke the drama and sentiment of some aspects of this legendary history". He did not, however, intend the work to be either a programmatic piece or a literal narrative in music. Rather, he viewed it as representing impressions of elements within the events: "reflections and meditations on certain situations". He devised the instrumentation — flute, clarinet, trombone, and cello — with a view toward modern counterparts of biblical instruments "as metaphors". For example, to represent a shofar as a signaling instrument, he designated a trombone, "because it seemed to me the most primitive of the modern brass instruments in the sense that it is valveless".

The work is divided into five movements, each with a programmatic subtitle: 1) Lento (Oppression, Enslavement); 2) Energico (Uprising, Plague, Exodus by Sea), in which the composer sought to depict a clash of battle that gives way to a "feeling of inundation, with the music suggesting a 'watery' evocation as the Egyptian army is deluged"; 3) Alla Marcia (A Desert March), in which Wyner wanted to suggest the presumed heat of the sand by "a rather quick-footed march — with distant signals in the middle of the piece"; 4) Grave (Despair, Hope), which he fashioned as a reflection of "a kind of lamentation and uncertainty — a kind of canzona"; and 5) Quieto (Silent Prayer, The Promised Land), which is reserved for flute and cello, playing harmonics in the composer's perception of "a desert prayer". The flute part was written to evoke and simulate biblical cantillation motifs. "That movement contains quite a lot of what we might call a 'Jewish melos' — turns of phrases and melodic fragments that are identifiable as associated with eastern European Jewish traditions and origins". Notwithstanding those folkloric elements, Wyner sees the work in its entirety as "a mixture of a type of Stravinsky's neoclassicism with the approach of Alban Berg".

 

Tants un Maysele

Tants un Maysele ("Dance" and "Little Story"), scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, was written in 1981 on commission from the Aeolian Chamber Players, whose violinist and founder, Lewis Kaplan, had requested a piece with a distinctly Jewish profile for the group's particular instrumental combination. "I was happy to undertake that assignment", Wyner reflected nearly twenty years later, "since in previous years I had written a number of compositions in which I had sought to synthesize contemporary aesthetic and technical thought with musical elements of clearly definable Jewish character. Turns of melody, dance rhythms, cadential figures, typical sonorities of an instrumental or ensemble nature — emerging from a body of various musics historically connected with Jewish life — were important elements in those pieces I intended to be characteristically Jewish".

The nature and form of this two-movement piece was driven largely by Wyner's predetermined title, taken from a pair of piano pieces with those titles, which his father had dedicated to him when he was about two years old (extracted from a series of three preludes). As a teenager, Wyner had learned to play those little pieces, which he later described as "very virtuoso Liszt-like pieces on Hassidic-type eastern European folkloristic themes". The Aeolian commission now suggested to him an opportunity to make a gift to his father by "returning the homage of that childhood dedication". In Wyner's own recollection:

So I began working on a piece that would be dancelike, filled with Hassidic-type dance rhythms, but also infused with a kind of violence and peremptory rage that one would not find normally in a Hassidic dance; and, also, with a sense of extreme mystery and confusion. And particularly at the end of Tants, there is a transformation from the rage and vigor to a peculiar sense of distant mystery — of a kind of ineffable peculiarity. It becomes a dance of creatures one might find in Where the Wild Things Are ; one could just imagine those creatures doing a slow dance in a dense forest. And that seemed to me to be very Kabbalistic, very much closer to a kind of dibbuk — to a mysterious creature.

The basic folklike theme in Maysele is actually Wyner's original tune, in his assessment "a kind of polka-mazurka — slow and quiet, like many of the songs we know from eastern European repertoires". The tune then undergoes various transformations throughout the piece. The composer has offered the following further comments:

Part of what I was writing reflected the character of the group of the Aeolian Chamber Players. But above all, I think I was reflecting my memories of that kind of music — of my father's music — and combining it with the residue of some systematic study of eastern European Jewish folk tunes I had done more than thirty years earlier on my own.

Tants un Maysele uses as its basic material musical fragments of Jewish character: dances, melodic and harmonic turns, phrase structures and gestural inflections. If these elements are conceived of as being "realistic" (as a recognizable object in a painting is considered realistic), then the compositional process first presents, then transforms those objects into surreal or abstract shapes — some of which remain substantial, while others evaporate in a haze of mysticism or nostalgic speculation. Tants un Maysele is dedicated to my father, in return. It was the last new composition of mine he heard, just before his death in 1982.

New York Times critic Bernard Holland observed that Tants un Maysele represented its composer's reference "back to Jewish cultural history rather than Jewishness itself". He discerned implied melody in Tants gradually emerging from the instruments' initial introduction of busy, fixated movement and then standing on its own and making its own statement. And he pointed to the "consciously Brahmsian textures" in Maysele, into which the opening mournful theme in unison thickens and grows.

Neil W. Levin


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