Mayn Fayfele - Songs of Gebirtig
The third album of Yiddish songs by Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen is the newly released Mayn Fayfele - Songs of Gebirtig. This extraordinary musical portrait of and tribute to Mordekhay Gebirtig includes a number of poems from a hitherto unknown collection of poems and songs, found in the archives of a kibbutz in Israel and the YIVO institute's archives in New York, and published in Hebrew and Yiddish in 1997 under the title Mayn Fayfele (My little flute). The poems selected from this volume have been exquisitely set to music by Jacques Verheijen, who stays true to the spirit of Gebirtig with extraordinary sensitivity.
It is almost impossible, where the work of Gebirtig is concerned, for any caring feeling individual to not identify wholeheartedly with his humanist, socialist, pacifist worldview. The relevance of Gebirtig's work in the early 21st century (C.E.) is not only undiminished, but if anything greater than ever in an age that tends to frown upon humanism while paying lip service to it. Through their personal engagement, Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen bring Gebirtig's world to life in the context of contemporary reality most vividly. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting way to pay tribute to the life and work of Mordekhay Gebirtig.
Their musicianship is every bit as outstanding as their engagement and commitment. Mariejan van Oort, gifted with a voice that just seems to float effortlessly, never misses a nuance in her expressive, sensitive interpretations. Jacques Verheijen has an unfailing feeling for when to remain subdued and understated and when to emphasize with his subtle, sensitive accompaniments on piano, guitar and accordion.
The opener of Mayn Fayfele - Songs of Gebirtig is a tender lullaby, Shlof shoyn mayn kind, filled with pathos and a great sense of loss, and is a superbly subdued and subtle interpretation. By way of contrast, Reyzele is a love song, more light-hearted, sometimes teasing, always tender. Mayn tate a Kohen depicts a street scene, miniature-like, with two boys quarrelling, one warning the other that his father is a Cohen and not to be trifled with. Gebirtig wrote the song Dray tekhterlekh (Three Daughters) for his wife, Blumke, on the occasion of the wedding of their eldest daughter, Shifra. It contrasts the joys of seeing the first two daughters successfully married with the sadness of the last one leaving the parental house empty. Fartogs in feld is a poem telling of a weekend holiday in the country and the pureness of nature and oneness with G-d's creation of the world, a very Pre-Raphaelite like idyll. Gebirtig's first published poem, Der general-shtreyk, first appeared in Der Sotsial-Demokrat, one of three Yiddish newspapers in Cracow, in December 1905. It captures the euphoria of the heady days of the Polish general strike and its success in improving the condition of the workers. Joyful and forward-looking, it also contrasts the hardships of oppression and exploitation whose shackles are beginning to be undone (albeit, briefly). Probably written between 1936 and 39, Nokh a hoyz un nokh a hoyz is a satirical poem about a big building contractor, at once biting and philosophical. Dating from around the outbreak of WWI, the poem A royter tseykhn is full of the social tensions, moral contradictions and changing moods of its time, an indictment of both imperialism and militarism as well as the social-democratic movements of Western Europe that appeased and condoned this. Avreml der marvikher is one of a number of Gebirtig songs about people on the fringes of society, here, a thief. Always non-judgemental, neither moralizing nor romanticizing, he paints an easily recognized human portrait of which every last brush-stroke finds wonderfully effective expression in Ms. van Oort and Verheijen's interpretation. The title track, Mayn Fayfele, is a poem about the wooden shepherd flutes that were popular as children's toys from around the end of the 18th century (C.E.) onward. Mordekhay Gebirtig had taught himself to play one of these as a boy, and it remained his lifelong companion. Kinder-yorn, one of Gebirtig's best-known songs, reminisces about childhood years with a mixture of affection, longing and regret. While many if not most of the numerous songs Gebirtig wrote for the stage, especially in the 1920s, are probably lost forever, Kum Leybke tantsn is one of those fortunately still with us and here provides a very welcome lighter touch. A tender duet between Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen, Blumke, mayn zhiduvke is a touching little tableau about a Polish boy in love with a Jewish girl. Mayn harts iz a novi is another Gebirtig poem beautifully set to music by Verheijen, a gently joyous love song. A stark contrast follows in s'Brent!, inspired by the resistance of the Jewish population of Przytyk and Brisk in the face of severe pogroms in 1936 and 37. One of Gebirtig's best-known songs, a plea to his brothers to not remain passive but rise and resist repression and destruction, this song with its prophetic warnings about times to come in which not just the whole shtetl but life itself will burn became an anthem of resistance for every Jew fighting persecution, repression, destruction and extermination. Ms. van Oort and Verheijen present s'Brent! with immense, rare power and conviction. Shifreles portret, here in Chanah Milner's musical setting, is a moving poem about Gebirtig's daughter Shifra, who in the summer of 1939 is staying in Lvov, under Russian occupation, and who cannot return to Cracow following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September that year. One of Gebirtig's last three poems, written in the Cracow ghetto in May 1942, In geto vividly captures the fear and despair of that particular abomination, sensitively and powerfully transmitted by van Oort and Verheijen and the latter's powerful, almost minimalist musical setting. It will strike a particular chord in anyone who can actually still remember the horror, or who grew up in its shadow, overhearing the elders recall it in hushed voices. For anybody else, this particular poem ought to be compulsory reading (among other works), for unfortunately people tend to forget all too easily what horror and misery really are. The album closes on an optimistic note with A zuniker shtral, a most welcome ray of sunshine after the darkness of the preceding song. A forward-looking poem sensitively set to music by Verheijen, A zuniker shtral first appeared on the album Brikele, and here provides a most satisfying closer.
The liner notes of Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen's Mayn Fayfele - Songs of Gebirtig are outstanding as usual and take the form of a lush sixty page booklet. In addition to full lyrics for all songs in romanised Yiddish and English translation and a foreword by Israeli scholar Sinai Leichter, there are copious notes about Mordekhay Gebirtig's life and work and times, as well as numerous informative, often touching anecdotes. Some rare historical photographs of the Jewish quarter of Cracow, Kazimierz, and of Gebirtig himself and family and associates complete the excellent booklet.
Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen have excelled themselves with this their latest album. Mayn Fayfele - Songs of Gebirtig surely must rank as beyond essential in any Yiddish song collection and should be essential in any collection of folk song or art song.
Voice and piano arrangements by Jacques Verheijen of all the songs on Mayn Fayfele (as well as separate volumes for each of Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen's other albums) are available through their web site.
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