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Culture

Celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday with ‘Ode to Joy’ in Yiddish

Read this article in Yiddish.

This week marks the 250th anniversary of what is believed to be the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most influential composers of all time, and a favorite among the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Beethoven’s popular “Moonlight Sonata,” for example, is the topic of a wonderful children’s tale by the Yiddish writer Shloyme Bastomski, in which the author imagines Beethoven improvising the piece by moonlight for a blind orphan girl and her brother.

(In fact, the piece wasn’t called the “Moonlight Sonata” until five years after Beethoven’s death, when the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab likened the mood of the first movement to the experience of seeing the peaceful moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland.)

Bastomski first published the story in his children’s magazine “Grininke Beymelekh”, or Little Green Trees, in Vilna in 1927, on Beethoven’s 100th yortsayt. He reprinted the story in book form a year later. Last month, In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies posted a new English translation of the story by composer Alex Weiser.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a choral piece he composed between 1822 and 1824 that is often cited as his greatest work, includes text adapted from the German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem “Ode to Joy,” which envisions the unity of all mankind.

Mordkhe Rivesman, author of the Yiddish song, “Khanike oy Khanike,” later translated into English as “Hanukkah O Hanukkah,” was so moved by Beethoven’s musical adaptation of “Ode to Joy” that he translated it into Yiddish, sticking faithfully to Schiller’s text and naming it simply “Di freyd” — ”Joy.”

Meanwhile, the great Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz paired his own much looser Yiddish translation of “Ode to Joy” with Beethoven’s music. Today his song, called “Ale Mentshn Zaynen Brider” (“All people are brothers”) is familiar to all fans of Yiddish song. This stanza indicates the universal theme of Peretz’s lyrics:

Ale mentshn zaynen brider
Gele, broyne, shvartse, vayse
Felker, rasn un klimatn
S’iz an oysgeklerte mayse

All people are brothers,
Yellow, brown, black, white
Nations, races and climates
it’s all nothing more than fiction.

In this moving video clip produced by the Yiddish Book Center, Holocaust survivor Moshe Fiszman tells about some musical performances that were initially permitted by the Nazis in the Radom Ghetto in Poland, and why Peretz’s “Ale Mentshn Zaynen Brider” set to Beethoven’s music was the song the Jewish chorus chose to sing.

In 2015, the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus did a wonderful performance of Peretz’s Yiddish version of “Ode to Joy” at a concert in Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan. The choral adaptation was created by JPPC conductor Binyumen Schaechter. (Full disclosure: Schaechter is my brother). Celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday by listening to it here:

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