Yiddish Poetry of Abraham Joshua Heschel in Song
composed and performed by
Basya Schechter

This post is about a CD of music by Ms. Basya Schechter, based on poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel. For more information about her, I recommend reading:

Ms. Schechter has set the Yiddish texts of 10 of the 66 poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel from his book, “The Ineffable Name of G-d: Man,” to a stunning variety of musical styles. (My review of that Yiddish-English volume of poems:

I think of Ms. Schechter as the “musical granddaughter” of Fred Hellerman (of the Weavers) and Theo Bikel, both of whom likewise incorporated a wide range of international musical styles into their performances. Shlomo Carle-bach, Joni Mitchell, and others come to mind as influences, too. However, she uses a much wider range of instruments and rhythms (and musicians who can play them) than were probably available to those who came before her. She  follows the “Klezmer” ethos, incorporating anything and everything musically usable into how she arranges and performs her songs, yet brings her own unique “fire” and charisma to the “mix.” Her live performances (usually with her group, “Pharaoh’s Daughter”) are masterful displays of both musicianship and showmanship.

The mention of “Yiddish” here shouldn’t be misconstrued. Neither the texts of Heschel’s poems nor Ms. Schechter’s settings are about “nostalgia” or “sarcas-tic humor.” The poems, although written before 1933, are a “living” Yiddish — passionate; profound; new. Ms. Schechter’s arrangements incorporate some musical elements familiar from Yiddish folk and theater music, but she infuses them with renewed relevance; parts of the polished vibrancy of her overall musical vision. She creates music that’s at once comfortably familiar and excitingly unexpected.

In setting the texts, Ms. Schechter doesn’t change them, but does take certain creative liberties — repeating a line that isn’t repeated in the original text; repeating couplets as a musical refrain; interspersing musical syllables; instru-mental interludes and solos; etc. I don’t know if this would have been done by musicians in Heschel’s own time, but as an artist himself, I think he would have understood intuitively that she wasn’t simply adding melodies to his poems; she was making them vehicles for her own self-expression. Great artists often can’t avoid doing that.

Yet, she hasn’t created “classical” or “art” music, in which one emotion or mood can pervade the entire setting. This was more the provence of artists like Ruth Rubin (for whom Fred Hellerman served at times as arranger) or Isa Kremer. There’s quite a bit of rhythmic, melodic and emotional variety within each setting.

Mrs. Shechter sometimes takes each line or couplet separately, as Renais-sance composers did. The songs don’t always have the simple beginning-middle-end of a popular song; each one becomes its own “performance piece.” At the same time, her melodies and arrangements remain sophisticated and interesting without becoming arcane or esoteric. Like Shlomo Carlebach, she finds a balance between the accessibility of popular melodies and the greater expressiveness towards which she reaches. As good as she is — and that’s already enviably good — I get the feeling that she’ll be growing artistically for a long time to come. We, her audience, will continue to be the happy beneficiaries of that creative progress.

The booklet that comes with the CD contains the texts of the poems in Yiddish (with Hebrew letters) and English. No explanation is given for why these 10 — out of 66 — were chosen or why they were put in the order they are on the CD.

I could read the Yiddish and follow what she was singing (most of the time), although I needed the English for full comprehension. I wondered, though, if it might not have been helpful to provide a transliteration (Yiddish words in “English” letters), for those who can’t read the Yiddish at all, but who would like to follow the lyrics? Also, the songs on Ms. Schechter’s CD aren’t in the same order in which they appear as poems in Heschel’s book (where the sequence is quite deliberate). I tried following the songs using the book, but found that I had to switch back and forth (after looking in the index for a page). In the end, I used the booklet. Perhaps if Ms. Schechter does further CD’s of these poems, she might consider putting a page number in the booklet for each poem.

Basya’s lovely voice should also be mentioned. She uses it skillfully to express many moods and emotions. It’s eminently listenable and varied.

While anyone could listen to this CD and enjoy it, the average listener might not come away singing the songs he/she heard — even if a musician. Basya doesn’t seem to have been aiming for that level of “folk” or “pop” repeatability. She’d be well able to do it if she felt it served a valuable aesthetic purpose (perhaps it’s an avenue she’ll explore some other time). The songs also might be tricky for a synagogue choral group to reproduce effectively. But for a class or adult ed program on Heschel’s poems or Basya’s music — the CD is ideal.

This collection is available both as a CD, and as an MP3 download.

Listen and Enjoy!