Years ago, the director of the Hebrew school where I briefly taught in Portland, Ore., offered to introduce me to a composer she knew at Reed College. For a variety of reasons — most having to do with sloth and misanthropy — I never pursued the connection. I’ve regretted it ever since. The guy my boss had in mind was David Schiff, a prolific composer who somehow finds the time to write insightful essays about music for The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. And, as demonstrated by the first complete recording of his opera “Gimpel the Fool,” put out by Naxos, Schiff also writes fantastic music.
Schiff was inspired to write the piece while teaching music theory at the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the early 1970s. An English major in college, he had been asked to teach a literature course as part of the school’s liberal arts curriculum. He took the opportunity to assign some Isaac Bashevis Singer stories that he had heard of but never actually read.
The stories were a revelation. Though Schiff’s grandparents came from the same parts of Poland where Singer set his work, they never talked about the Old Country, which they had been quite happy to leave. (When Schiff’s parents announced their plans to take him to Europe for the first time, his grandmother was horrified. “Why,” she asked, “would you want to go there?”) As a result, Singer’s stories provided Schiff with his first glimpse of what the ancestral Jewish communities in Galicia and Warsaw had been like.
Schiff was so taken by Singer’s work that he decided to write a Yiddish libretto based on “Gimpel the Fool,” the tale of a stubbornly naive and forgiving baker who is deceived and betrayed by all around him.
“I had this idea that Stravinsky had written an opera [‘Oedipus Rex’] in Latin, so I could write one in Yiddish,” Schiff told the Forward in an interview.
That required learning to read Yiddish, which Schiff promptly did. He also had help from his grandfather, who deciphered parts of the story for Schiff from his room at the Extended Care Center of New Rochelle Hospital. “My grandfather had been a baker from Warsaw, and there were certain words we couldn’t find in any dictionary, but he knew them because it was baker’s vocabulary,” Schiff said.
Schiff knew he had a winner when the first fully orchestrated version of the piece premiered at the 92nd Street Y in 1979 and several rows of Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring members burst out laughing at the juicier bits. Singer, who had recently won the Nobel Prize in literature, also approved. “You know,” he told Schiff, “I don’t like music. But this I like.”
And with good reason. The libretto’s provenance may be noteworthy, but Schiff’s opera would be worth listening to even if it were based on a Bazooka Joe comic. From the very first bars of the overture, “Gimpel” grabs you by the ears and spins you around until you’re as docile as its hero.
The instrumental passages often hint at klezmer, albeit klezmer that has been yoked to Schiff’s own distinctive modern idiom. Schiff began writing “Gimpel” at the onset of the klezmer revival, but found much of that music to have been overly Americanized. Instead, he aimed for a more distinctly Eastern European sound like the one that occasionally colors the work of such classical composers as Mahler and Stravinsky.
Yet, Schiff eschewed direct references to Jewish folk music, choosing instead to follow the advice of one of his colleagues at Hebrew Union College, Yiddish art song composer Lazar Weiner. “Write your own folk music,” Weiner told him. “That way, you can control it better. Otherwise, you’re just quoting.”
Schiff did, however, make overt references to the cantorial music he grew up hearing in synagogue. Indeed, the first singer to play the role of the Rabbi in “Gimpel” was Cantor Lawrence Avery, in whose congregation Schiff was raised — and from whom Schiff borrowed liberally when writing the vocal melodies. “A lot of the phrases are ‘Averisms,’” he said. “They were things that had been in my ear all my life.”
In addition to its striking blend of Jewish and contemporary classical vocabulary, “Gimpel” unfolds with an urgent momentum that a philistine like myself associates less with opera than with musical theater. “My instincts were shaped by ‘South Pacific’ and ‘My Fair Lady,’ and I had a sense of telling a story with music that came a lot more from Broadway,” Schiff explained.
He also had the rare opportunity to refine “Gimpel” over an extended period, essentially workshopping it during the course of 25 years. During that time, Schiff was able to fine-tune various aspects of the piece in response to audience reaction — tightening up the laugh lines, for example, and making changes to the bits that seemed to lose people.
The result is an extraordinarily cohesive and affective work. Until now, if you wanted to hear “Gimpel,” you had to settle for the excerpts featured on another Naxos release, “Scenes From Jewish Operas, Vol. 2,” part of a series of recordings made by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. The new recording, which features Richard Zeller in the role of Gimpel and the Third Angle Ensemble under the direction of conductor Kenneth Kriesler, spans two discs and includes more than one and a half hours of music. Yet it is sufficiently compelling to rivet even the most ADD-addled iPod shuffler. (Both recordings feature the English version that premiered in 1985, 10 years after Schiff introduced the Yiddish original.)
Schiff dreams of one day presenting the Yiddish version of “Gimpel” in Warsaw. For purely selfish reasons, I’d settle for another English-language performance here in New York.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.