My mother left Berlin for London in 1932 after my grandfather, a journalist on Der Berliner Tageblatt, was granted an exit visa in exchange for training the son of a Nazi official. By the time I appeared, around thirty years later, she claimed to have forgotten most of her German, but one thing she did remember was Heidenröslein, Schubert’s exquisite setting of the Goethe poem, proof that the people who had murdered her cousin Theo, and whose crimes formed the substance of the Holocaust litany my father recited at meal times, had a better side.
The first classical vocal album I bought was a collection of Schubert settings of Goethe poems sung by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It included Heidenröslein. The sublimely beautiful musical versions of the great writer’s romantic poetry were a palliative against my frustrated adolescent yearnings, and I started to acquire more Schubert Lieder, including Die Winterreise, widely held to be the finest song cycle ever written. It was this music that inspired me to become a singer in the first place and I would include it in recitals I gave as a student at Oxford University, when my only concern was to communicate the repertoire I had carefully chosen to suit my youthful sensibility. Strangely, I felt able to move audiences more readily then than in later years, when, after five years of obsessing over technique at music college, I emerged with a highly-trained bass-baritone voice at my disposal. It was only when I began to introduce Yiddish and Hebrew songs into my classical programmes that I at last found myself able to reach audiences as I had done before learning how to sing. In the ancestral echoes of the music I rediscovered the joy that had led me to become a singer in the first place.
A Yiddish Winterreise is the child of my love for Yiddish music and language. The spirit of Yiddish is gentle, the tsartsn gayst of a playful child that revels in a life which has often proved so painful, its view of the world clear and undimmed by the darkening vision of adulthood. There is a directness and simplicity in Yiddish language and music that makes its songs instantly appealing, but the depth and honesty of their feeling haunt one, making one want to return to them again and again.
A Yiddish Winterreise reminds me that the culture of the people I was encouraged to reject is also part of who they are, that for every Goerring who would reach for his revolver when he heard the word culture, there is a Schubert who set a Hebrew psalm for his Jewish friend Salomon Sulzer, the great synagogue composer who sang his Lieder. It was not only lives that were lost during the Holocaust. Jews had been great contributors to and beneficiaries from German culture, a wonderful symbioisis that achieved its apogee in the music of Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg. I have had Der Lindenbaum, one of the central songs of Schubert’s Die Winterreise, translated into Yiddish for the recital, where it now appears as Di Lipe but can still be understood, almost in its entirety, by a German speaker. It describes the plight of a lonely wanderer looking for a place of rest, much as the Zionist song Jeruscholajim, which precedes it in the programme. I have a recording of the latter, made in Berlin in 1930, sung by the cantor Sigismund Torday and accompanied by his wife, Thea. Thanks to the internet, I was also able to track down the music in an anthology of Yiddish songs collected by Janot Roskin, and produced, like the record itself, in 1930s Berlin. The pages are now so brittle that the corners snap off as you turn them, no matter how carefully, as if one were picking through the bones of the dead. I wonder if my grandfather ever heard it.