Kaddish is work for soloists, choir and orchestra by
Lawrence Siegel, who wrote both the words and the music. Siegel
has, over the last twenty years, worked on a number of projects
which use the testimony of ordinary people. These testimonies
have been used by Siegel in Kaddish, where he has edited
interviews with holocaust survivors into a moving and poetic
libretto which he has set to music.
Kaddish is in three sections, The World Before,
The Holocaust and Tikkun Olam, each
section split into a number of movements so that the work comprises
fifteen individual segments. Though the soloists sing personally
voiced narratives, such voices are assigned to the chorus as
well so that they are participants rather than commentators.
The World Before deals with village life before the Second
World War, concentrating on Eastern Europe, derived from testimony
from mainly Polish and Ukrainian Holocaust survivors. Then The
Holocaust deals with the events of the war itself, with
the final section being about coping with the aftermath. This
section opens with a movement, Litany, where a small number
of the names of the dead are spoken by the chorus, following
this is a setting of the Kaddish prayer itself before the closing
two movements which set reflections from some of the survivors.
The libretto is mainly in English except for some of the opening
songs and the Kaddish prayer.
Siegel’s libretto for Kaddish is a movingly beautiful
and poetic work which simply cries out to be completed by being
set to music. Siegel’s musical style is tonal and melodic.
He is capable of writing rather attractive music which sounds
as if it would be enjoyable to perform.
My problem comes that there seems to be a disjunction between
music and subject in this piece. This is especially noticeable
in the first section, where you find texts which deal with bullying
and extreme prejudice, set to melodies which are lyrical and
attractive. I think, perhaps, that Siegel was trying to get
the material of this part to evoke the folk idioms of the people
involved. But I simply found the disjunction too confusing.
Concluding sections are less troubling, as Siegel’s style
does get more difficult, more angular.
When writing this review, I was troubled by thoughts that perhaps
I should not be critiquing Kaddish in quite the way that
I would an ordinary piece of music; after all I am not Jewish
and have had no experience of the Holocaust. But in recording
and distributing a work like this, the originators are presuming
that it will speak to others, that Kaddish will transcend
its immediate appeal and illuminate the lives of listeners from
other backgrounds. The CD booklet has this to say, ‘Kaddish
opens a window onto the lives of survivors of the Holocaust
and evokes empathy for the perished and survivors of genocide
everywhere’. Unfortunately, for me, though Siegel’s
text does this, his music fails to transcend its origins.
Dealing with an event like the Holocaust is difficult, after
all if one wrote music that accurately reflected what happened
it would probably be torture to listen to. This means that you
have to deal with events in an oblique manner. And it can be
true that the attitude of those who have taken part in an horrific
event, can be markedly different from those that can just look
on … or look back. A noticeable example of this was the
way the music of composers who took part in the First War (such
as Vaughan Williams and Bliss), dealt with the event in a profoundly
oblique manner (RVW’s Pastoral Symphony or Bliss’s
Morning Heroes). If you want a musical evocation of World
War from a British symphonist then you have to go to Britten’s
War Requiem and Britten was a non-participant.
All this leads me in a circular manner, back to where I started;
and I have to admit that my judgement of the piece might be
wrong. All I can do is advise you to try it.
Philip Brunelle and his forces give the work a fine performance,
one which seems beautifully to articulate Siegel’s vision.
The unnamed orchestra accompanies sympathetically and the four
soloists are eloquent without ever calling attention to themselves.
All singers, choral and solo, have good diction so that Siegel’s
words are always audible without libretto.
If you put the CD into your computer then it plays to you whilst
you can read the libretto and booklet essays from PDFs on the
disc. But more than this, you can see Siegel’s full score
and download educational materials.
A great deal of love and thought has gone into this disc and
Lawrence Siegel’s poetic libretto deserves attention from
anyone with a remote interest in the Holocaust. I would urge
you to put to one side my concerns about the musical content
and buy the disc so you can listen for yourselves.