4.15. Aaron Copland, piano trio ‘Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme’ (1929)

Anski’s play Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), *Chapter 4.15 written in 1919, was performed in an English version in New York in 1925. The American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) attended one of the performances and was impressed by the play, in particular by the Ḥasidic song Why, oh why at the beginning and the end. *Safran, The Worlds of S. An-sky, CD. Inspired by The Dybbuk, Copland composed a trio for piano, violin and cello, which he entitled Vitebsk after the Belarusian city where Anski had grown up and heard this melody for the first time. Marc Chagall, too, was from Vitebsk and pictured his hometown in many, often grotesque paintings; for that reason Copland dubbed the middle section of his new piano trio as a “Chagall-like grotesquerie.” *Pollack, Aaron Copland 143. And in this middle section, stylized shofar blasts appear.

Vitebsk has three sections, successively slow, fast, and slow, which flow into each other almost without interruption. Throughout the first and third sections, the atmosphere is determined by the above-mentioned Ḥasidic song, which begins with “Mipnei mah” (“Why, oh why”) on the pitches B♭2-G♭3-E♭3, and which in both Anski’s play and Copland’s composition is a kind of motto: “Why, oh why, / Did the soul descend / From the highest height / To the deepest end? / The greatest fall / Contains the upward flight.” *Anski, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) 4, 5, and 52.

This melody in the first and third sections is followed by harsh piano chords in root position, one time with the same root, another time with different roots, but always with major in one hand and minor in the other hand. In a sharp, iambic rhythm, the violin and the cello play quarter tones, which produce such coarse dissonances that an unsuspecting listener might doubt the sobriety of the string players. This mixture in the first section of major and minor, quarter tones and a depressed atmosphere is typical of Copland’s bluesy and jazzy compositions from the 1920s. *Cf. Pollack, Aaron Copland 44, 137. Copland’s biographer Howard Pollack interprets the coarse piano chords and the string motifs with quarter tones as follows:

The declamatory music requires the violin and cello to play in quarter tones, here employed more extensively and systematically than in the jazz works, including use of a special notation. These declamations, with their microtones, iambic snaps, and falling intervals, evoke the shofar calls, associated with the Jewish High Holidays and featured in The Dybbuk’s exorcism scene. *Ibid. 145.

Pollack’s interpretation of the harsh chords with the microtones and of the falling intervals as the representation of the shofar’s roughness seems obvious, but is neither musically nor dramatically tenable, for four reasons.

First, real shofar blasts do not contain microtones, because their pitches do not belong to any systematic division of the octave; instead, they are accidental “out-of-tune” pitches of one particular animal horn, which do not fit into the equal temperament of, for example, the piano. The piano’s pounding major versus minor chords in the first and third sections do not represent the shofar but instead, the Dybbuk, who has taken possession of Leah. By playing a complicated part with major in one hand and minor in the other hand, written on four staves, the piano player in Vitebsk lends a tangible expression to the idea of ​​the Dybbuk’s spirit in Leah’s body. The “out-of-tune” tones of the strings serve to enhance the impression of both unreality and danger.

Second, the many descending intervals do not represent shofar blasts, because these are always characterized by ascending intervals.

Third, the piano chords in the final 11 measures of Vitebsk, which become weaker and weaker to end morendo, are unlikely to represent the shofar blasts of the play Between Two Worlds, because the blasts in the exorcism scene become increasingly furious against the Dybbuk’s stubborn resistance.

Fourth, all shofar blasts except the tekiʿah are characterized by tone repetition, which is absent in the first and third sections of Vitebsk.

Concluding, it can be said that there are no stylized shofar blasts at all in the first and third sections of Vitebsk. Instead, they are found in the fast second section, in particular in the passage from rehearsal mark N to the end of the section. While the piano plays pounding bass notes and fast and nervous runs, creating a hectic atmosphere, the violin and the cello play a motif with fast tone repetitions, alternating with upward 4th and 5th leaps. These “shofar motives” follow the model of the stylized shofar blasts in Bloch’s Psalm 114 and Schelomo. *Psalm 114: Chapter 4.7, Ex. 2. Schelomo: Chapter 4.9, Ex. 3. In the 17 measures from N until the end of the second section, Copland builds a climax which is the musical expression of the three phases of the increasingly furious exorcism scene in Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), led by Rabbi Azriel: *Anski, Between Two Worlds 47-8

[1] Since you refuse to submit to our decree, I am placing you under the authority of the higher spirits, and they will pull you out with all their violence. Blow the horns! Blow tekíah. . .

[2] Since the higher spirits cannot control you, I am placing you under the authority of the middle spirits, those that are neither good nor evil. And they will pull you out with all their cruelty. Blow the horns! Blow shvórim! . . .

[3] And I anathematize you and expel you from the community of Israel!! Terúah!

Not only the rhythms with their fanatic tone repetitions, but also the unusual harmonic developments contribute to the increasing tension of the passage. In the first 6 measures after N, E♭ is the repetitive tone, while the theme leaps to A♭ and B♭; in the next two measures, the piano accompaniment does not change, whereas the violin and the cello repeat the shofar theme a semitone higher in E with leaps to A and B; in the next two measures the piano still does not change, whereas everything else sounds a major 2nd higher in F♯ with leaps to B and C♯, and because of the resulting dissonances, tension increases strongly. In the last seven measures, the violin plays the tone repetition a minor 3rd higher on A, this time with falling leaps into the broken triad of D minor, while the cello remains in A major; in the piano part, the right hand plays in A major and the left hand in E♭ major, two keys at the distance of a tritone, the medieval Diabolus in musica—or, in this case, the “Dybbuk in musica.”

The second section ends abruptly with a fermata on a rest. In the third section, the Ḥasidic song from the first section “Why, oh why, / Did the soul descend / From the highest height / To the deepest end? / The greatest fall / Contains the upward flight” returns, as a musical expression of Leah’s cry to Khonen: “The circle is broken! I can see you, my bridegroom! Come to me!” *Between Two Worlds 51. The Ḥasidic melody is played fortissimo, molto espressivo by the violin and the cello, after which the melodic lines gradually descend and decrease, senza espressione (“without expression”), to end on the last note of Vitebsk, a C2 on the lowest open string of the cello, played morendo, “dying.” This is the musical expression of the “lowest fall” in the final words of the play: “The lowest fall / Contains the upward flight…”


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