Meyerowitz went to Berlin in 1927 and studied music with Walter Gmeindl and Alexander Zemlinsky. When the Nazi party assumed control of Germany in 1933 following the elections that resulted in Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Meyerowitz went to Rome, where he studied composition with Ottorino Respighi and Alfredo Casella and conducting with Bernardino Molinari. After the first concert of his music in Rome, the Italian composer-critic Mario Labroca observed that his compositions are “in a chromatic style like Berg’s, but they nonetheless present an evident melodic definition that clearly excludes atonality.” Meyerowitz took up residence in Belgium in 1938, but when the Second World War commenced with the German invasion of Poland, in 1939, he went to southern France, where he acquired friends in the Resistance and survived underground much of the time. In Marseilles he was hidden from the Germans with the help of the French singer Marguerite Fricker, whom he married after the war. Upon the liberation of Paris in 1944, several important French musicians - such as Jean-Pierre Rampal, Yvonne Loriod, and Yvon Le Marc’ Hadour - performed his works there in radio broadcasts and concerts.
In 1946, about a year after the American and British liberation of France from German occupation, Meyerowitz immigrated to the United States, where he became an assistant to Boris Goldovsky at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood. He later joined the music faculty of Brooklyn College, after which he taught at City College of New York (C.C.N.Y.), soon establishing himself in America as a composer. His second opera, The Barrier (1949), with a libretto by Langston Hughes - based on Hughes’s play about racial tensions in the South, The Mulatto - was premiered in 1950 at Columbia University. It was revived at several Italian opera houses during the 1970s and at the Darmstadt Staatsoper in 1996. In 1956 Meyerowitz was awarded the first of two Guggenheim fellowships, and that same year he completed his opera Esther, based on the biblical Book of Esther (completely unrelated to his earlier Symphony Midrash Esther, recorded here), also with a libretto by Hughes, which was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation for the eighth Festival of Contemporary Arts held at the University of Illinois (1957). Other collaborations with Hughes included a cantata, The Five Foolish Virgins; and The Story of Ruth, for coloratura soprano and piano. Among Meyerowitz’s other operas are Eastward in Eden, with a libretto by Dorothy Gardner, about Emily Dickinson’s love for a married minister; Bad Boys in School, a one-act “opera farce” after Nestroy; Simoon, with a libretto by P. J. Stephens after a Strindberg play; Godfather Death, also with a Stephens libretto; and Winterballade, apparently his last opera, after the play by Gerhart Hauptmann. His other nonoperatic vocal works include Missa Rachel Plorans, an a cappella Mass setting, which critic Howard Taubman of The New York Times described as “a mixture of archaic and modern ideas, which are fused expressively”; his Emily Dickinson Cantata; Herodiade, a setting of the dialogue by Stéphane Mallarmé; and cantatas, song cycles, and individual songs on poetry of e. e. cummings, Robert Herrick, Keats, Rimbaud, and many others. His instrumental catalogue in addition to Midrash Esther includes a flute concerto; shorter orchestral pieces; and chamber music, including a string quartet written sporadically between 1936 and 1955 that was described in Musical America as “a lyrically impassioned and subjective work colored with archaic Hebraic religious undertones.”
Meyerowitz received one of the coveted annual commissions from Cantor David Putterman and New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue for a complete Friday evening service (kabbalat shabbat - “welcoming the Sabbath” - and arvit). That work, titled Shir ḥadash l’shabbat (A New Song of the Sabbath), was premiered there on the synagogue’s 80th anniversary, in 1962 - at its 18th annual service of new liturgical music by contemporary composers.
The polarized critical reactions to his music were as eclectic and diverse as Meyerowitz’s span of subjects and literary sources - which embraced American, English, French, and biblical poetry and drama and expressed both Hebraic and Christian liturgies. Some thought it overly conservative and even antiquated. Alan Rich of The New York Times spoke of Meyerowitz’s stylistic identification “with the past” (a “right” he nonetheless conceded to him), and of his imitation of 19th-century operatic conventions and effects without an encompassing musical shape - although he acknowledged that some of Meyerowitz’s operatic writing was the sort that could generate enthusiastic ovations. Musicologist and famously outspoken observer Paul Henry Lang thought Meyerowitz’s music lacked personality and bespoke a fin de siècle mysticism that evoked a central European rather than any Hebraic melos, even in declared Judaic expressions such as Midrash Esther. Yet other, equally prestigious and respected reviewers reacted quite differently. In 1957, Felix Greissle discussed Meyerowitz’s music in The Musical Quarterly, noting its special importance in an era when musical styles have appeared and changed so rapidly that they bypassed a more natural evolution of style that accompanied important musical developments of previous centuries. “He [Meyerowitz] has decided for himself,” Greissle wrote, “to take up and expand where recent tradition has left us with a near vacuum . . . . His compositions reveal a full command of all the paraphernalia of the superior artisan, such as well-wrought themes, perfect interrelation between melody and harmony, consummately developed climaxes, and logically built and strongly contrasting forms.” The eminent composer and critic Virgil Thomson thought Meyerowitz was “possessed of a strong dramatic talent” and, following the 1950 premiere of The Barrier, anticipated a bright future for him. The Chicago Daily News critic went further in his admiration: “It is clear that Meyerowitz is that rare phenomenon in contemporary music: a real opera composer.” And following Eastward in Eden’s premiere, a writer for the Musical Courier exclaimed, “We do not hesitate to call Jan Meyerowitz one of the greatest musico-dramatic talents of our day.” In general, his music was perceived in both late Romantic and expressionist terms, permeated by intense emotion - often in juxtaposition with more delicate lyricism. But by the late 1960s and 1970s his music fell into neglect in America, and he returned to France after his retirement from City College.
Symphony Midrash Esther (commentary on [The Book of] Esther) is a tone poem that emotionally depicts aspects of the story - told in the biblical Book of Esther - of the imminent genocide of the Jews in the Persian Empire and their triumphant reprieve and victory over their tormentors. But it is also a musical reflection of traditional exegeses and expansions upon that story and its characters, as found in Midrashic (exegetical) literature. Although the work carries no literal program, the composer drew his inspiration from the Talmud; the Midrash (rabbinic commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, often by way of allegory and metaphor, dating to the 5th–6th centuries C.E.); and other rabbinic commentary on this subject.
In the biblical narrative, Haman, the closest advisor and highest court officer to Ahasuerus, King of Persia and ruler of the vast Persian Empire, is besotted with envy and hatred for the Jews as a people - a hatred that arose because Mordecai, a Jewish leader and a courtier in Ahasuerus’ palace, refused to bow down to him. Mordecai’s adopted orphaned cousin, Esther, is the king’s prized and cherished wife - Queen of Persia. On Mordecai’s advice, she has never revealed her Jewish identity. Waging a personal vendetta, Haman plots against the Jews by convincing Ahasuerus that they present a collective danger to royal authority and to the state, and he persuades the naïve king (known in Jewish literature as melekh hatipesh - “the fool king”) to authorize complete annihilation of the Jewish population throughout the empire. This is to occur on a particular day, which Haman has chosen by lots (pur). Beseeched by Mordecai, Esther intercedes by revealing her Jewish identity to Ahasuerus. She pleads on behalf of her entire people, pointing out that the genocide decree would apply to her as well. When it is discovered that Mordecai once saved the king’s life by exposing a regicidal plot, Ahasuerus turns on Haman in disgust and orders him to be hanged on the gallows he has just constructed for hanging Mordecai. However, since the law prevents a royal decree from being revoked, Ahasuerus issues a new order, allowing the Jews to organize for self-defense, and then to engage their enemies on the same day that Haman chose for the Jewish mass murder (the 13th of the Hebrew month of adar) - resulting in their decisive victory.
The first of the symphony’s four movements, a solemn introduction to the story, evokes the imminent danger to the Jews amid the lurking forces of evil. The second movement, Haman, contains passages that reflect a frenzy of raw hatred and rage, personified in the story by Haman and expressed here by motoric energy. The third movement, Esther and Ahasuerus, is at once a contemplative lament and a representation of Esther’s heroic poise, perhaps suggesting the dialogue in which she beseeches the king and reveals - at considerable risk to herself - her own Judaic ancestry. The final movement is titled Purim (a Hebraic plural form of the word pur), referring to the annual joyous Jewish festival that is celebrated to commemorate the averting of the catastrophe and the triumph of the Jews over their mortal enemy - which, in universal terms, might also be interpreted as a triumph of justice over evil and of equity over tyranny.
Midrash Esther received its premiere in 1957 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Subsequent performances included one by the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of William Steinberg, a vocal advocate of Meyerowitz’s music. It is tempting to consider obvious parallels between the biblical narrative and Meyerowitz’s own experience as a near victim of - and refugee from - the German genocide, but the issue of hidden Jewishness poses yet another question. Meyerowitz’s family had concealed its - and his - Jewish identity for a type of social safety (concerns for physical safety would not have been at issue until the early 1930s). To save her people, Esther’s tactic is precisely the opposite: to reveal her identity and thus personalize for the king the impending disaster. Was the irony of that comparison present in Meyerowitz’s consciousness as he created this work? And was it part of his inspiration? One can only speculate, but he does seem to have been sufficiently fascinated with the story to create two independent musical and dramatic expressions of it, and to have probed much lesser-known ancient and medieval Judaic commentaries in order to create his own “musical midrash.” For one who had no Jewish education, and to whom that Midrashic literature must certainly have been foreign, that level of Judaic curiosity cannot fail to arouse our interest.
Neil W. Levin
Jan Meyerowitz : une vie en musique
Three Comments on War - Jan Meyerowitz, 1964
Three Comments on War was commissioned by the Southern Division of CBDNA and the Ostwald Foundation. It was premiered without one movement on December 18, 1964, at the 13th National CBDNA Conference in Tempe, Arizona, by the University of New Mexico Concert Band conducted by William Rhoads.
Notes from the composer:
The melody that serves as "Chorale"of the first movement, an anonymous secular French ballad of antiquity, is the folksong, "Jean Renaud" that tells the story of a mortally wounded king who comes home to die. His mother makes desparate efforts to hide the tragic event from his queen who has just given birth to a son. The efforts are unsuccessful and the queen, in order to remain forever with Renaud, asks the earth to split open and to "swallow" her. The song is the cantus firmus of the beginning and the end of the Chorale Prelude. The middle portion is a plaintive cantabile crescendo evolved from the voices that support the cantus firmus in the opening section.
The second movement, Battle Music, has a program idea that is traditional enough. Examples of battle music are found in Renaissance and Baroque music. Their tone is heroic and somewhat humorous and the same appeal can be found in their late echo, Beethoven's Wellington's Victory. Modern war has certainly not eliminated the heroic aspect of battle, but its castastrophic grimness is quite unrelieved. The present Battle Music wants to be a reflection of this. It is written in sonata form with the minor very noticeable irregularity that the two principle themes are "conjured up" by preparatory passages, and not stated directly. The first theme represents the battle events, the second is an anticipation of one of the songs of mourning of the finale.
The third movement, Epitaph, is a memorial piece for a soldier. The principal songlike theme, appearing in three sections of the piece, forms a five-point rondo with two other songlike episodes. A short quotation of "Jean Renaud" leads into a violent, ominous final fanfare.
Le VIII° Festival Musiques Interdites, dans le cadre de
Marseille Provence Capitale 2013, propose debut Juillet unecréation sur le
theme de la frontiere entre annihilation et creation, oubli et memoire.
Dans le cadre historique de la Cour de l’Hotel de Prefecture des Bouches-du-Rhone, sous le haut patronage du Prefet de Region, Marseille, Capitale de l’exil durant le dernier conflit mondial, saura devenir,
par la puissance lyrique des oeuvres rehabilitees, symbole des reconciliations.
“The Barrier versus Le Mulâtre” Jan Meyerowitz - 11 juillet Création
Redécouverte d’un compositeur et d’une oeuvre d’indignation contre le racisme
Meyerowitz ? Qui connaît encore aujourd’hui Jan Meyerowitz, compositeur juif allemand majeur de la première moitié du vingtième siècle, taxé par le régime nazi, comme tant d’autres, de « dégénéré » (entartete) ? Grâce au "Festival Musiques Interdites" de Marseille, on vient de redécouvrir l’une de ses œuvres phare, The Barrier, un opéra protestation contre le racisme, une œuvre clameur contre les ségrégations. Il en avait été l’une des nombreuses victimes, et, émigré en 1946, il y découvrait l’apartheid anti-noirs alors encore de rigueur dans les provinces du sud. Sa rencontre avec le poète dramaturge Langton Hughes donna naissance à sa deuxième œuvre lyrique.
Né à Breslau en Allemagne (den nos jours Wroclaw en Pologne) exilé en Belgique puis en France, interné au Camp des Milles, sauvé de justesse par le Réseau Varian Fry, il se réfugia aux Etats-Unis en 1946, y poursuivit sa carrière de compositeur et y fut rapidement reconnu. Mais contrairement à des confrères comme Kurt Weill ou Eric Korngold, poussés à l’exil par les mêmes diktats de l’Allemagne d’Hitler, sa renommée ne retraversa pas l’Atlantique avec la même vigueur. En France il fut quasiment oublié.La VIIIème édition de "Musiques Interdites" à Marseille en ressuscite l’indignation dramatique et musicale. Un bien singulier festival, dédié depuis 2004 à la réhabilitation d’œuvres musicales ensevelies par les dictatures. Il devait, en ce mois de juillet, produire trois spectacles dans le cadre de « Marseille Provence Capitale 2013 ». A la suite de la « défection d’un financement escompté » (sic), 16 jours avant le jour J, la création en France de Die Kathrin, de Korngold a dû être annulée in extrémis. La création de l’opéra-ballet Equinoxe de Karol Beffa, compositeur d’aujourd’hui, a été maintenue en l’église Saint Cannat Les Prêcheurs, et, dans la cour intérieure du prestigieux bâtiment de la Préfecture des Bouches du Rhône, ce Barrier devenue Mulâtre bâti comme une tragédie grecque, a pu être joué en version de concert.
Norwood, veuf blanc d’une femme blanche qui ne lui a pas laissé d’enfants, nourrit pas mal de sentiments contradictoires avec Cora, sa gouvernante qui lui donna trois descendants de sang mêlé. Il en reconnaît la paternité, les envoie à l’école, mais reste intraitable sur la séparation raciale. Chacun à sa place. L’entrée de son hôtel particulier est réservée aux teints clairs, les autres doivent user de l’entrée de service. Bert, le plus jeune de ses enfants mulâtres a fait des études dans le nord. Il en revient avec des revendications d’égalité. Sa mère, sa sœur, son frère ne comprennent pas encore. Le père reste ancré dans ses convictions de race supérieure. Bert refuse d’obéir. Une dispute éclate. Norwood menace son fils avec un pistolet. Le gamin se défend violemment et tue son père sans le vouloir. Fuite. Retour. Suicide. Tout s’est passé en seul jour, en un seul lieu, un seul affrontement. Les trois unités de la tragédie classique sont respectées, comme chez Sophocle, comme chez Racine.
La trame du sujet vient d’une pièce de théâtre de Langton Hugues qui a ensuite rédigé le texte du livret. Des dialogues charpentés, sans fioritures, des phrases denses qui sous-tendent les sons charnus de la musique. Michel Pastore, directeur artistique du festival et le chef d’orchestre Johan Farjot ont réaménagé la partition et le livret. Durée légèrement réduite de la musique et introduction de textes et poèmes autour de l’intolérance et du racisme, signés Stéphane Hessel, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Langston Hugues. Un récitant – le comédien Jacques Martial au lyrisme pudique – les dit en introduction et en guise de pause entre les actes..
Le Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra que dirige avec ardeur Johan Farjot vient de Durban en Afrique du Sud. Les cuivres et les vents rutilent les révoltes, les cordes gémissent la douleur. Les parties vocales ont des accents de gospels que Nobuumko Mngxekeza, soprano au timbre chaud dévide dans le rôle de Cora. Le baryton basse Nicolas Cavallier est Norwood, tantôt cassant comme un arbre sec, tantôt pétri de mélancolie. Le jeune Mandisinde Mbuyazwe, baryton tout de clarté, campe avec justesse et énergie l’adolescent rebelle qui transgresse les règles d’une société absurde jusqu’au point ultime de sa propre mort.
Une grande et belle histoire, des personnages attachants, une musique à la fois moderne et résolument tonale qui fait déferler colère, désespérances et mélancolie A quand un Barrier – versus Mulâtre, en version scénique ?
The Barrier versus Le Mulâtre de Jan Meyerowitz, livret de Langston Hugues, adaptation dramaturgique et musicale de Michel Pastore et Johan Farjot, Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra direction Johan Farjot, Avec Nobulumko Mngxekeza, Nicolas Callier, Mandisinde Mbuyazwe, Jacques Martial, Kelebogile Boikanyo, Aubrey Lodewyk.
A Marseille, cour intérieur de l’Hôtel de la Préfecture des Bouches du Rhône, le 11 juillet 2013
Jan Meyerowitz est né Hans Hermann Meyerowitz à Breslau
en Allemagne, (actuellement Wroclaw - Pologne) en 1913. Sa famille convertie au
Christianisme avant sa naissance, lui cache ses origines juives pendant
sa jeunesse. Il ne l'apprendra qu'à 18 ans.
« The Barrier versus Le Mulâtre » opéra Jan Meyerowitz
Sauvé de son internement en tant que compositeur juif allemand au Camp des Milles par le réseau
Varian Fry, Jan Meyerowitz. compose dès 1949 lors de son exil à New York un opéra sur la ségrégation raciale contemporaine en Georgie. Cet opéra fut créé en 1950 sous le titre The Barrier à New York, puis sous le titre de Il Mulato en 1970 au San Carlo de Naples et en 1996 à l’Opéra de Darmstadt. La création française sera servie par une distribution de chanteurs lyriques sud-africains avec le Kwa Zulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (Orchestre Philharmonique de Durban Afrique du Sud) sous la direction de Johan Farjot .