Instrumentation: Mezzo and piano
Commission: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Evolution Program, Facebook & Youtube
Presented by YIVO, Center for Jewish History, NYC
When Alex Weisser, Program Director of YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) in New York, approached me about commissioning a song that would take one of several folksongs as its starting point, I was intrigued. Having composed Vayter un Vayter, a setting of three of Avrom Sutzkever’s marvelous poems in Yiddish, I was enthusiastic about this new project. There were four folksongs he suggested as springboards. I gravitated towards Under Sarah’s Cradle. There were links to several settings, including beautiful ones by Lazare Saminsky and Stefan Wolpe. Abraham Goldfaden also composed a new melody for it in his musical Shulamis, and there are more versions as well. It is always a challenge to find one’s way in setting a text to music, whether it has been previously set or not.
The lyrics are dreamlike and elliptical: a little white goat stands under the cradle, and goes shopping for raisins and almonds, looking for the best place to buy them. Meanwhile, the narrator imagines the future groom studying the torah! The folk melody has a yearning character, reflecting the future imagined in the lyrics. I was moved to build on the unresolved, dreamy aspect of the original melody with a floating whole-tone scale that lands on triadic harmonies only at key points. For instance, the music for the goat is light-hearted and grounded, and the music for the groom studying the Torah contains the high point of the melody. Further, the piano uses plucked and muted strings, creating a special sonic character for the original, unresolved, motive. My setting, for mezzo-soprano and piano, is one of chiaroscuro. It reflects both the domestic, yet mysterious elements of the poem, as well as the trauma of history through which it has come to us.