Yiddish is a central and deeply meaningful part of who I am. As with many Jewish artists, it indirectly and directly effects the work I create. I strive to honor my culture, identity and heritage in a manner that is unique unto myself. Therefore, it was natural that I used the extra time afforded to me during the pandemic to further explore the musical world that is so dear to me.
Like so many people, I was alone for much of the pandemic. I kept busy teaching full-time for MIT as a lecturer in music and working on a string quartet commission. With time to myself, I explored field recordings of Yiddish folk songs from the Ruth Rubin Collection, hosted online by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. I was enraptured by the soul, humor and pain of this forgotten world that lived in the hearts of many but in the memories of few. I continued to explore this huge online catalog of songs recorded in Eastern Europe, the U.S. and Canada by Jewish immigrants between the 1930s and 1970s. Stunning performances emerged from ordinary people recalling songs of their youth and past lives. Every note inspired me. I dreamt of writing something based on these recordings, but it remained on the back burner while I completed the string quartet commission.
Out of the blue, however, almost magically, I received a phone call in early 2021 from YIVO. They wanted to commission a piece as part of an art song project, inspired by Yiddish field recordings. It was bashert! Though it required a quick turnaround (two months), I had no doubts. I had buried my head in this material for almost a year and was swimming with ideas. Already, certain songs were deeply embedded in my heart. Songs that I, myself, had sung. It wasn’t long before this work, which was brewing and bubbling within me, played itself out. Writing it was merely dictation.
There were four songs in particular that reflected my life at the time. They expressed how I viewed certain people in my life, how I convey pain and love. One song, “Bay a Taykhele,” depicts my emotions following a destructive romantic relationship. Another, “Hob Ikh Mir a Shpan,” is about a friend who was suicidal during the pandemic. The last song, “Oyf di Felder,” conveys how I fall in love and struggle with unrequited desire. The final song is a triple fugue. Along with the entire piece, it reflects my love of Bach, whose cantatas I was deeply immersed in at the time.
The premiere came together very quickly, within a week or two. It was a fantastic experience! I coached the performers, all students at the Bard Conservatory in New York. It turned out so wonderfully.
This was my first opportunity to express myself through a Jewish/Yiddish medium and create a serious work in Yiddish. I wrote characters I knew personally, including myself. I hope I did them honor. It was a matter of catching their essence and depicting them. They became the songs, and the songs were within me; these people were a part of me. It is such a special way to express all of this because I am very much a Jew in my life; Yiddish is the primary symbolic signifier of how I express and understand my Jewishness. In an honest, whole and organic way, these four Yiddish folk songs are the confluence of all that means so much to me: the music and people I love, and my heritage which is fundamental to who I am. Out of the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, I was gifted time and an opportunity. These pieces are the start of a long road of what I hope will remain meaningful engagement with this source material that endlessly beguiles, enthralls and inspires.
To hear more of Derek’s music, please visit derekdavid.com
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