Fantasy on a Yiddish Song (Oyfn Pripetshik)
Mezzo-soprano, violin, piano
Commissioned by Irina Elkina.
Premiere–2016, Minneapolis, Minnesota, by Leora Eisenberg, Vladimir Tsiper and Irina Elkina.
The well known Yiddish song “Oyfn Pripetshik” sounds like a folk song, and it has the gravity of a song carried on the waves of time, but it’s an original work of the early twentieth century. Mark Markovich Warshavsky (c. 1845-1907) was born in Zhytomyr (now in Ukraine) and, after graduating from Kiev University, practiced law in Kiev. Warshavsky entertained in the style of the badhan, a merry-maker or wandering musician in Jewish towns and congregations, composing verses and songs in folk style as a pastime. Shlomo Hofman, in Grove Music Online, calls the badhanim the “real forerunners of the Yiddish theatre.” With the assistance of Sholem Aleichem, Warshavsky published the best of his songs in a collection, Jewish People’s Songs, which appeared in 1900. In these songs, he described Jewish life in the Russian Empire.
“Oyfn Pripetshik” (also called “Alefbet”) portrays a rabbi teaching young students the Jewish alphabet—which starts with alef and bet. By the end of the 19th century the song had become one of the most popular songs of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, and it is still used in Jewish kindergartens. “Oyfn Pripetshik” appeared in the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List.
Fantasy on a Yiddish Song begins with the heat of the stove, elaborated by the violin in arpeggios. A statement of two stanzas of the song brings a fugal section that playfully develops and intensifies the curling phrase, “the rabbi is teaching the children the alphabet.” A return of the verse is followed by close canons, as if the children are imitating the rabbi. One notable aspect of the tune is its dual tonicity: it moves fluidly between D minor and F major. For another chamber arrangement for mezzo, see 3 Ives Songs.
The Fantasy was commissioned by Irina Elkina, a brilliant pianist and teacher at the MacPhail Center for the Arts in Minneapolis, who wanted a piece to play with her children—Leora, a mezzo-soprano, and Vladimir, a violinist—for whom “Oyfn Pripetshik” is a favorite song.
|Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub iz heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,
Dem alefbeys.Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,
Vos ir lernt do;
Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:
“Kamatzalef: o!”Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on;
Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre
Der bakumt a fon.Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre,
Yeder onheyb iz shver;
Gliklekh der vos hot gelernt toyre,
Tsi darf der mentsh nokh mer? Refrain.Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn. Refrain.
On the hearth, a fire burns,
See, children, remember, dear ones,
Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.
Learn children, don’t be afraid,
When you grow older, children,