Music by those who perished in the Holocaust has lately enjoyed something of a vogue, with both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences discovering the work, and unfilled promise, of composers like Viktor Ullmann, Erwin Schulhoff, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása. But what of the music written in the aftermath the Holocaust to honor the dead?
Such scores do in fact exist, and, if anything, they seem to be increasing in number. The past two decades or so have brought us Bruce Adolphe’s “Out of the Whirlwind” (1984), Lukas Foss’s “Elegy for Anne Frank” (1989), Gershon Kingsley’s “Voices From the Shadow” (1997), Ruth Schonthal’s String Quartet No. 3: “In Memoriam Holocaust” (1997), Paul Schoenfield’s “Camp Songs” (2001) and Thomas Pasatieri’s “Letter to Warsaw” (2003). There has even been at least one Holocaust opera, David Amram’s “The Final Ingredient” (1965), set in a concentration camp as prisoners strive to make a Seder. (Movie lovers may know of Amram for a different reason: He also wrote the scores to “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”)
There were, however, earlier efforts to come to grips through music with the ineffable horrors of the Holocaust, and one of them was Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (“The New Haggadah”), a musical memorial in the form of a cantata that mixes episodes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising with the language and spirit of the Seder. The piece, from 1948, takes its lyrics from an epic Yiddish poem by Itzik Fefer, “The Shadows of the Warsaw Ghetto.” The cantata’s title comes from a line in the poem.
“Di Naye Hagode” enjoyed some currency around the time of its composition — its premiere occurred at New York’s Carnegie Hall — but the piece pretty much faded from memory after Helfman’s premature death in 1963. Now, as part of its ongoing mission to document Jewish music in America — and in time for this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 25 — the Milken Archive has released the first recording of the work, the centerpiece of an all-Helfman album.
Born in Poland in 1901, Helfman, a cantor’s son, immigrated to America at 8. He was educated at New York’s Mannes College of Music and at Philadelphia’s renowned Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied conducting under Fritz Reiner. He remains best known as a chorale director, first leading prestigious synagogue choirs and left-wing Yiddish choruses on the East Coast, and then holding more pedagogically inclined jobs on the West Coast, where he served as the Brandeis Institute’s music director and the University of Judaism’s dean of arts.
Helfman’s output as a composer remains hard to gauge, as publishing was never a priority for a man dedicated to performance and teaching. But “Di Naye Hagode” is clearly a major work: heartfelt, intelligently crafted and powerful, if also occasionally heavy-handed and derivative. It requires large chorale forces, an orchestra and a narrator. On the Milken CD, those duties are undertaken by the Choral Society of Southern California, Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra and Theodore Bikel — all under the direction of Nick Strimple, who honors Helfman’s wish that the work be sung in Yiddish but narrated in English.
The cantata’s title offers insights into the score’s meaning, but care must be used in interpreting the word “hagode,” which here is to be taken literally, as “narrative.” This is not some version of the Exodus story made “relevant” with allusions to modern events. Helfman uses Fefer’s words to portray a situation in which Jews are not beholden to God for temporal assistance (as in the traditional Haggadah), but are instead a heroic, if doomed, force unto themselves (as they were during the 1943 uprising).
That said, there are also ample Passover parallels in the work, including a Ma Nishtano (the Four Questions) that employs the familiar refrain but asks different questions. Nor should it be forgotten that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising itself is often linked to the first night of Passover.
Helfman’s music offers plenty of charms, but its best moments remind one of other material. The opening chorus, for example, has a grandeur and pathos befitting Elmer Bernstein’s score to Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” And the Oriental mood of “Riboyne-Sheloylem”(“Master of the Universe”) suggests Alexander Borodin. Similarly, Edvard Grieg could have written “A Linder April” (“A Mild April”).
But one must be careful about such comparisons. “Di Naye Hagode” also contains passages that prefigure more familiar works. To wit, “Dos Yingl” (“The Boy”) sounds as though it were cut from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was 16 years from Broadway when Helfman’s score was written. And “Di Fon” (“The Banner”) sounds an awful lot like “Bali Hai” from “South Pacific,” which had yet to come to the Great White Way. Even Helfman’s anthemic finale, “Aza der Gebot Iz” (“Such Is the Command”), reminds one of something else: “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” eight years from Broadway at the time.
As for the performance, Bikel’s narration is gratifyingly rich and mellow, his crisp but avuncular diction perfect for this project. Strimple’s choruses, though, could be a little less refined. Their Yiddish needs to be more, well, schmutzig.
The CD is filled out by two altogether more uplifting examples of Helfman’s work from the years surrounding Israeli independence, both sung in Hebrew: the Shavuot pageant “Hag Habikkurim” (“Festival of First Fruits”) and a setting of parts of the Torah service, “Aron Hakodesh” (“The Holy Ark”).
David Mermelstein writes about classical music for various print and Internet publications, including The New York Times and MusicalAmerica.com.