|About this Recording
8.669036 - CIPULLO, T.: After Life / LAITMAN, L.: In Sleep The World Is Yours (Music of Remembrance, Kirov)
Tom Cipullo (b. 1956) and David Mason (b. 1954)
World première: 11th May, 2015, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert. After Life was commissioned by Music of Remembrance and made possible by a generous gift from Sherry and James Raisbeck.
We are accustomed to thinking of great artists—in music, literature, painting and other forms—as those whose works endure because they resonate beyond the time, place and circumstances of their creation. Still, those artists are products of their own times, and their works reflections of how they understood and responded to the world around them.
In many ways, the lives of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein shared a similar arc. Stein, the American, and Picasso, the Spaniard, both gravitated to Paris at the start of the twentieth century. Both were brash modernists who exerted an outsized influence on their contemporaries. Stein was an early champion of Picasso’s work. He painted a well-known portrait of her, and she later wrote a poetic depiction of him. The two maintained a complicated friendship for decades, despite strong disagreements over politics. With the spread of Fascism and then Nazism in Europe, Picasso and Stein reacted in very different ways. In one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever, Picasso’s “Guernica” depicted the savagery of that village’s bombing by German airplanes in support of Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Stein, on the other hand, publicly endorsed Franco, and she was an admirer and translator of Philippe Pétain, the leader of France’s collaborationist Vichy government. Stein held many views that today would be considered conservative, even reactionary and perhaps elitist; Picasso joined the Communist Party in 1944 and remained an ardent member.
After Life imagines how Stein and Picasso might have resumed their conversation if they confronted each other in our times. Would either of them look back and reconsider their artistic or political ideas? How would they react to the ways in which the world had come to see them and their work? Would either of them recognize their own ego and vanity? (And would they contend that arrogance was integral to their genius?) Would they argue that artists are bound to respond directly through their works to the evil they see? Or is the very act of creating a form of resistance in itself? In this opera, composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason have created a masterful musical drama that challenges us to consider these questions through the ghosts of two giants as they reveal both their brilliance and their human flaws.
A question conjured us. A question hangs in the dark…
So Gertrude Stein remarks in David Mason’s libretto, and so the music goes on to insist. After Life is an opera more concerned with raising questions than answering them. The topics are weighty and ambitious; the rôle of art in a troubled world, the duty of artists in confronting inhumanity. I confess my own thinking on these issues evolved as I worked on the score. When recent events brought forth the images of black-garbed madmen executing innocents on the desert floor of the Levant, I initially thought that art was useless in such circumstances. Later, I began to reconsider, forming the opinion that the real value of art comes after such horrific moments, helping us, as individuals and as a culture, to make sense of the incomprehensible. Only recently, I realized that it is often art that makes the moments themselves bearable at all. But still, how ironic that the art we revere can be such an ennobling force for so many, and at other times an inspiration to those who have abandoned their own humanity. As Picasso exclaims in one of the most dramatic outbursts of After Life, “The Germans were lovers of art!”
The composing of After Life presented a number of challenges. David has called his elegant libretto a tragicomedy, and the delicate balance of these two sides was prominent in my mind as I worked. I allowed myself a bit of fun in incorporating quotes from Menotti’s The Medium when Gertrude Stein attempts to conjure Alice Toklas. In creating music for the fascinating, larger-than-life characters, I tried to capture Stein’s outsize ego and Picasso’s virility. Surprisingly, the character of the young orphan girl presented the greatest range of emotions. In her barely fifteen minutes on stage, she demonstrates calm, patience, sorrow, rage, resignation, wisdom, and grace.
The composer would like to express his deepest appreciation to Music of Remembrance and Mina Miller for commissioning After Life, and to James and Sherry Raisbeck for the generous support that made the work possible. Thanks also to David Mason for crafting a libretto that is both eloquent and inspiring. After Life is dedicated to my colleague and dear friend, the brilliant composer Lori Laitman, and also to the memory of Lori’s mother, Mrs. Josephine Propp Laitman.
Music of Remembrance is always seeking new ways of remembering, new stories to tell, and when it was suggested to me that the wartime experience of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein might provide good material, I began my research. Almost immediately I realized that these two estranged friends, two major artists of the twentieth century and, arguably, two outsized egomaniacs, would provide me a great opportunity to explore the culpability of artists in Vichy and occupied France. What is the position of art in a time of war? How does art respond to political and military disaster? And what can artists possibly do in the face of such massive evils as Nazism and the Holocaust?
Both Picasso and Stein remain controversial in terms of how they survived the war. Stein was a Jew, though not practicing, and she seems to have been naive about the oncoming invasion, denying its reality and impact until it was too late for her to do much about it. Critics of Stein have wondered about her decision and her friendships with several collaborationists. How was it that she, as a Jew, was spared? Was she aware of other Jews in her area who were taken away—including children from a nearby orphanage? Though Picasso was not a Jew, he had Jewish friends in Paris, where he spent much of the war. Some have accused him of collaborationist tactics in order to preserve himself; others have claimed he was active with the resistance, or at least in sympathy with it. He certainly felt very strongly that his art was a form of resistance, and endured frequent Gestapo inspections of his studio and his paintings kept in a bank vault. This is a story about artists in relation to history—the darkest history imaginable.
My first brainstorm was in the title, After Life. The script would be set in an amorphous afterlife, long after both artists were dead. But artists are always after life— they want to seize it, to possess it, and that is at the root of their art. They also come after life in another sense, modelling their work on experience of various kinds. I realized that Stein would be conjuring Picasso, her estranged friend, because he had died more recently than she and might know more about how they were both perceived in posterity. She conjures him because she has something urgent she must ask him—what has become of them, now that they are dead?
The libretto begins with absurdist comedy as these two artists confront each other in this other realm. Stein felt she had in a sense invented Picasso, and Picasso resented her for it. The introduction of a third character, an orphan girl who as a teenager had met Stein and Toklas, turns the libretto toward tragedy. The girl, taken to a concentration camp from her French orphanage, knows her anonymous death is recorded and remembered by no one. She knows the reality of death in a way neither of these artists, bent as they are on immortality, has quite comprehended. It is she who must teach them what death is, so they can finish dying as human beings.
Lori Laitman (b. 1955)
Poetry by Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (b. Czernowitz, Romania, 1924–d. Michailowka labor camp, Ukraine, 1942)
World première: 12th May, 2014, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert. In Sleep The World Is Yours was commissioned by Music of Remembrance and made possible by MOR’s Commissioning and Recording Circle.
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, born to a German-speaking Romanian Jewish family in 1924, was the younger cousin of the author Paul Celan. A talented writer in her own right, Selma began creating poetry at age 15. Her works consist of fifty-two poems and five translations. In 1942 at age 18, Selma died of typhus in a labour camp in the Ukraine. Thanks to the dedication and love of her friends, and later her relatives, her poetry survived, and resulted in the 2008 publication Harvest of Blossoms.
What I found inspiring about Selma’s poetry was that she was able to speak the truth in simple but clear poetic language. Behind the apparent simplicity of her words, however, was a depth of feeling and thought that, for me as a composer, was very exciting—because when setting a poem to music, I look for words that an audience can grasp aurally—but also for an underlying complexity that provides me with opportunities for creating dramatic music to illuminate the text. In this respect, Selma’s poems were perfect.
I chose three poems from Selma’s book: Lullaby, Yes and Tragedy, allowing me to create a cycle with a dramatic musical arc. The combination of soprano, oboe and piano perfectly suited the mood of the poems.
Lullaby spotlights Selma’s imagination, her capacity for love and hope, as well as her sense of foreboding and the realization that dreams might provide the only comfort in the increasingly dark days.
Yes is a good example of simple surface language combined with a complicated subtext. The song progresses from a turbulent opening to a peaceful close, as Selma understands how memory will always keep loved ones close.
Tragedy ends the work, and Selma’s heartbreaking words reveal her reality: “to give all of yourself and realize/you’ll fade like smoke and leave no trace.” Yet, Selma kept writing. She knew how important the mind and imagination were when facing the unimaginable.
And how lucky for us that she did leave a trace. While one wonders how she would have grown, her beautiful poetry gives us a glimpse of a supremely intelligent, spirited and gifted young girl.
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