by Peter Tracy
Most of the great song cycles of classical music history are sung in languages like English, German, French, and Italian. In the best examples of art song, the poetry being set and the language it is written in are equally as important as the music itself. It’s significant, then that on And All the Days Were Purple, Alex Weiser gives us something a little less familiar: a song cycle mostly sung in Yiddish, and an attempt to help rehabilitate Yiddish as an artistic language in the process.
Yiddish, the native language of over half a million Jews worldwide, has a long artistic history, one that is largely defined today by the recent decline in native Yiddish speakers. The early 20th century saw a surge in composers who were interested in bringing their Jewish backgrounds into their compositions, often drawing from Jewish folk music or setting Yiddish and Hebrew texts to music. This artistic movement was cut short by the Holocaust, and it never fully recovered. Part of what Weiser is trying to do here, then, is to move Yiddish back into the spotlight, and to show us some of the struggles and triumphs of modern Jewish life in the process.
Much like traditional song cycles, Weiser’s music features a clear distinction between melody and accompaniment, and often depicts the images of its text musically. Most of the songs feature soprano Eliza Bagg singing winding, modal melodies that follow the contours of the poetry, accompanied by a small ensemble of piano, percussion, violin, viola, and cello. The song texts feature Yiddish-language poets from around Europe, the United States, and Israel such as Anna Margolin, Avrom Sutzkever, and Rokhl Korn, as well as Jewish poets writing in English such as Mark Strand and Edward Hirsch.
The song cycle’s opening track, “My Joy,” is an excellent introduction to Weiser’s musical language: the piano forms the backbone of the harmony and keeps the pulse, strings oscillate back and forth on the same harmonies, sometimes breaking off into solos, while Bagg sings Anna Margolin’s poetry about love and death with expressive clarity. The harmonies are seemingly simple as the ensemble rocks back and forth on just two basic chords, but dissonance tends to creep into the plodding of the piano, suggesting the highly tenuous happiness of the poem.
In “Longing,” the whole ensemble seems to be spinning and striving forward, echoing the anxious description of waiting and yearning in Rachel Korn’s poem. The final song in the cycle, “We Went Through the Days,” sets a Margolin poem full of natural imagery atop static string harmonies, pulsing piano chords, and punctuation from the vibraphone and glockenspiel, ending the cycle on a nostalgic and bittersweet note.
Two instrumental interludes provide moments of reflection that lead into new musical ideas, giving the cycle a sense of flow. In both interludes, the swells, trills, and glissandos of the strings are marked by interjections from the piano and percussion, and the instrumentalists take on a more active and animated role.
Also featured on the album is Weiser’s Three Epitaphs, with English language poetry from William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and the Seikilos Epitaph, the oldest complete musical composition in the world. An epitaph is usually thought of as a memorial inscription on a tombstone, but in the case of these three poems it might be more fitting to think of it as a poem written in memory of something that’s been lost.
The poetry is separated by instrumental interludes, but the piece is performed in one continuous movement, resulting in slightly more lively instrumentation and greater sense of unity from one segment to the next. In one particularly beautiful moment in Williams’ poem, as Bagg reaches the words “Love is a young green willow, / Shimmering at the bare wood’s edge,” the piano suddenly breaks into a romantic waltz-like accompaniment, only to recede back into the flow of the piece soon after.
It seems appropriate that Weiser has referred to the poems he sets to music as “secular prayers”—these are pieces that express not only the obstacles and lived experiences of the modern Jewish community, but, in certain sense, of modern society as a whole. More than just a meditation on modern Jewish identity and art, And All the Days Were Purple deals with universal questions of love, death, struggle, and perseverance through the lens of one culture and its language.