Akh, nit gut! From Yiddish Folk Poetry
Joel Engel: “12 songs from Yidishe folkslieder,” [a]; 4 later Yiddish songs [a, b]
Shostakovich: From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79 (sung in Yiddish) [a]
Zefir ZEF9696

Elizaveta Agrafenina, soprano; Sára Gutvill, mezzo soprano; Tyrone Landau, tenor; Jaap Kooi, piano [a] Pierre Mak, baritone [b]
Recorded, Zeeuwse Concertzaal
Middelburg, Netherlands, 10–13 July 2022
TT: 76:28




  1. Akh, nit gut Track length 2:59
  1. Klip-klap! Track length 2:12
  1. Di sheyne Rokhele Track length 2:59
  2. Shpatsirn zaynen mir Track length 3:56
  1. Slushay! Track length 1:56
  1. Zayt gezunterheyt Track length 2:05
  2. Vi zingt dos khosidl, dos tsigaynerl, der ivanke Track length 1:52
  1. Er hot mir tsugezogt Track length 3:32
  1. Zol ikh vern a rov Track length 1:46
  2. Az ikh volt gehat dem keysers melukhe Track length 2:46
  3. Mayn harts tsegeyt in mir Track length 3:27
  1. A mol iz geven a mayse Track length 4:16
  1. Zun mit a regn Track length 2:31
  2. Shlof, shlof, shlof Track length 1:55
  3. Shlof, mayn kind Track length 3:07
  4. Oy, Avrom Track length 2:56
  5. Her zhe, Khasye Track length 1:21
  6. Reb Elye Track length 2:09
  7. Af dem boydem Track length 1:28
  8. Der vinter Track length 2:54
  9. Vegn rakhves fun felder Track length 2:05
  10. Oyf a lonke Track length 2:30
  11. Sore, di shusterke Track length 1:33


Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill, Tyrone Landau, Pierre Mak and Elizaveta Agrafenina, Tyrone Landau, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill, Pierre Mak, Elizaveta Agrafenina, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill and Pierre Mak, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill and Tyrone Landau, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill, Tyrone Landau, Elizaveta Agrafenina and Pierre Mak, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill, Elizaveta Agrafenina and Tyrone Landau, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill, Tyrone Landau and Elizaveta Agrafenina, Jaap Kooi, Sára Gutvill and Elizaveta Agrafenina, Jaap Kooi, Elizaveta Agrafenina and Tyrone Landau

Zefir Records’ CD “Akh, nit gut!” includes a new recording of Shostakovich’s song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79, presenting the familiar cycle in Yiddish translation on an album that is the result of four years of work by a team of musicians from the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK. In addition to the Shostakovich, it features sixteen Yiddish folk songs arranged by Joel Engel. Hence, the Shostakovich work is presented as a continuation and a development of the Russian-Jewish academic tradition. And there are good reasons for this approach.

From Jewish Folk Poetry is an unusual work, if only because it represents two different cultures simultaneously. First and foremost, it is a work by a Soviet composer, written during the Stalinist era and as a response to it: Shostakovich completed the cycle in the autumn of 1948, a year that began with the assassination of Solomon Mikhoels on 13 January, soon to be followed by the arrests of members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which escalated into the mass arrest of Jews throughout the country. The Soviet poets’ translations of the songs themselves contain images and specific details that are clear and need no explanation for Russian listeners. For example, the last song ends with the heroine singing, in Yiddish: “Di zun aleyn shaynt gor in mayn lebn!” (“The very sun shines in my life!”). The pathos of her speech is partially offset by the play on words: “sons”— “sun” (in Yiddish, “zun” means both the sun and a son). The Russian translation of the line is different: “A star burns over our heads!”, recalling the Kremlin stars—the five-pointed summit of the Moscow Kremlin towers, installed in 1935 and eulogised in many poems.

At the same time, Soviet Jews perceived Shostakovich’s cycle as a work representing Ashkenazi culture. They discerned images and details referring to Jewish tradition. The text of “A Good Life,” for example, first refers to the psalm recited at the Sabbath service and then to the Pentateuch, which describes the land of Israel as a land where “milk and honey flow” (Numbers 13:28). That is, the collective land is likened to the Promised Land. When listening to “The Young Girl’s Song,” those who were aware of tradition detected similarities with the famous “Dudele,” a well-known song in Jewish tradition, composed by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a prominent Hasidic leader and Torah scholar in the late 18th century.

In effect, Shostakovich addressed Jewish and non-Jewish audiences simultaneously. He presented Yiddish culture to the latter, and “in their language.” A good example of this approach is the subject of a lament for the dead (no. 1 “The Lament for the Dead Child”). In fact, this genre does not exist within the Ashkenazi peoples. However, in this way, Shostakovich enables the non-Jewish listener to see the Jewish characters as people like themselves and thus understandable to them.

Yet at the same time, Shostakovich spoke the language of Jewish culture, using its figurative, verbal, and intonational codes. For many years From Jewish Folk Poetry became a kind of substitute for a tradition that was being banished and destroyed. In the 1990s, when the ban on anything Jewish was finally lifted, this cycle—a cycle by a non-Jewish composer—became almost mandatory at numerous festivals of Jewish music. The conductor Vladimir Spivakov, who attended the first public performance of the cycle in January 1955 at the Leningrad Glinka Concert Hall, referred to Shostakovich by quoting a line from Marina Tsvetayeva’s poem “The voice of all the voiceless”:1 here the composer spoke out where hundreds of thousands were silent.

The texts for the cycle were taken from a recently published book.2 It contained translations of Jewish folk songs, the originals of which had been published seven years earlier, in 1940.3 Some of these songs were widely known and some were published in other folklore collections. Unsurprisingly, with time, the idea of putting the original Yiddish texts in place of the Russian translations arose, and Professor Joachim Braun of Bar-Ilan University (Israel) did this.4

One might have expected the new version to gain popularity quickly, but it has been performed rarely. To date, the cycle has been recorded in Yiddish only three times. On CD: a 1985 concert performance of the first eight numbers with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yuri Ahronovich (Jerusalem Records Stradivari Performance SCD 8005, released in 1988), and the entire cycle in 2000 with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Andrei Chistyakov (Saison Russe RUS 288166,  DSCH 13 ). The other, earlier recording of a live concert in London was released in 1984 but only on cassette (B’na B’Brith 001).5

One of the peculiarities of this new recording is the concern given by the performers to the way in which the Yiddish text is set against Shostakovich’s music. The translations that the composer turned to were not, and could not be, equirhythmic. The whimsical rhythmic pattern of Ashkenazi folklore often does not conform to the norms of syllabo-tonic versification. Braun was obliged to remove some words and syllables, even though he strove to adhere to the Yiddish original as much as possible, while trying not to change anything in the music itself. As a result, functional parts of speech such as articles or prepositions often ended up on strong beats in the measure, distorting the sound of Yiddish.

In preparation for the recording of the album under review, the performers undertook painstaking work in an attempt to find the best solution for each such occurrence. Sometimes it was enough to change the rhythmic pattern of the vocal line slightly. For example, instead of (see Ex. 1) we now have (see Ex. 2).

By splitting the first beat rather than the second, the two erroneous accents are levelled out. In other cases, changes were more complex. For example, it proved impossible to bring back the folkloric text in no. 5 (“A Warning”), in which Braun, following the logic of the melodic pattern, had to rearrange the words of the Yiddish text. As a result, the rhyme was not retained—the text ceased to be an example of “folk poetry.”

The text that was reworked the most is no. 6, “The Abandoned Father.” Here the performers adopted a different strategy, making no attempt to reconstruct the words of the folk song; rather they reverse-translated the text used by Shostakovich. Thus, the affectionate address to the daughter “feygl” (little bird) is replaced throughout by “tokhter” (daughter), and the father promises his daughter rings and earrings (“ringen”) rather than outfits (“kleyder”). As the reader may know, Shostakovich also changed some of the song’s lyrics, replacing the social status of the main character Elye from innkeeper to a ragman. However, in this new release, Elye has lost his profession altogether and has simply become “reb Elye” (that is, “Mr. Elye”). This change is made to clarify the narrative: there is no explanation in the folk song or in the Russian translation for the “dressing gown,” which Elye puts on, having learnt his daughter Tsirl was baptised. (During the Soviet era, reference to religious realities was forbidden, so in Shostakovich’s cycle Tsirl had run away from home to a police officer.) In such cases, the parents performed the ceremony for the child in the same way as for the deceased, and the change of clothes indirectly points this ritual. In the reviewed version, the performers inserted a mention of this rite (“shiva”) in the first line, “sacrificing” Elye’s profession.

These changes are certainly successful. However, there are lines in this version where amendments are not so successful. For example, the daughter replies to her father that she intends to marry the police officer—this word in her speech is highlighted with a fanfare intonation and dotted rhythm, which become an indirect characteristic of this brave, empowered man chosen by Tsirl. In this new recording, the performers replaced “police officer” with “sheigets” (non-Jew), and if in the father’s speech this definition looks reasonable, then in the mouth of Tsirl, who is proud of her choice, it is inappropriate, and it also fails to fit the melodic characterisation. On top of everything, it seems that the “sheigets” and the “police officer” are different people. It turns out that in this little scene there are not three, but four characters, and Tsirl in her last line, calls for a policeman in order to get rid of her father.

There are other places in the cycle where the Yiddish text conflicts with the musical material. Shostakovich did not adhere the original genres of folk songs—for example, in no. 2, “The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt” Shostakovich uses the text of a lullaby, whose first words are “Shlof, shlof, shlof ” (“Sleep, sleep, sleep”). The Russian translator replaced them with syllables that could also be heard when rocking the baby: “bye-bye-bye.” But here, this text has become a song to amuse the child. It deploys a lively tempo, set to a light, bouncy accompaniment. The syllables “bay-bay-bay” do not contradict it, but the persuasion to sleep, uttered in a playful tone, is inappropriate. The resulting contradiction cannot be resolved simply by changing the opening words in the couplet: they rhyme with the next line. So here in the revised version the performers had no choice but to follow Shostakovich’s music, with no emphasis on the meaning of the words.

Similar contradictions occur in the first song, “The Lament for the Dead Child.” Shostakovich turned to the text with which the children’s game began. Many researchers have written about how the composer changed this text, depicting a strange landscape at the beginning, in which the sun and the moon, the rain and the fog are present at the same time. However, in the game “Zun mit a regn”—this is the “sun shower,” during which the sun shines and a rainbow appears. But for Shostakovich, the sun and the rain are opposites, and he begins his cycle with a microcosm that captures opposites, where there is the sun—and rain, radiance—and darkness, birth—and death. Accordingly, the two voices leading the dialogue also reflect this dualistic picture: the “bright” soprano and the “darkened” alto. The return of the “game text” is inappropriate here, despite the fact that rhythmically it fits well with the vocal line. A new translation is required. For example, the wonderful poet Boris Sandler, at my request, performed a reverse translation of this stanza into Yiddish:

Zun mit a regn,
S’a togshaynt un nakht.
Farshpreyt zikh der nepl,
Levone farshmakht.
The sun and the rain,
The glow of day and night.
The fog has spread,
The moon has faded.

A review of the changes in the lyrics of the cycle illustrates the extraordinary preparatory work undertaken by the performers in paving the way for new readings of the cycle. They find a suitable balance between the composer’s musical intent and the work’s lyrics. Paradoxically, their approach, not based on restoring original versions of folk songs, but rather on revealing them, newly recounted, brings the work closer to the Jewish tradition, in which texts could be freely transformed, regardless of whether they had authors and whether they were fixed in publications.

Equally challenging was the choice of a work that might be included on a CD alongside the Shostakovich cycle. The arrangements by Joel Engel are not the most obvious solution. Just as in Shostakovich’s opus, the pieces are an example of the composer turning to Jewish folk song. They are also in Yiddish. There are connections between some of the songs—in both the Engel and Shostakovich works there are songs about a girl’s fate (“A Warning” and “Shpatsirn zaynen mir”) and separation from a loved one (“Before a Long Parting” and “Akh, nit gut”). Engel’s arrangements are not only sung by almost the same performers (with the addition of another male voice, a baritone), but some of them are turned into dialogues, which should bring them even closer to the From Jewish Folk Poetry cycle. Nevertheless, dissimilarities between the two works are undoubtedly due to chronology, each composer’s experience with Yiddish folklore, their target audiences, and so on.

Folklorist and composer Joel Engel (1868–1927) was among the founders of the so-called Russian-Jewish school. While still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, he began recording Jewish songs. In the late 1890s he collaborated with Pesach Marek and Saul Ginzburg on the first anthology of Yiddish folk songs.6 Following a volume of song texts, a plan was formulated to publish an edition with music, but this project did not materialise, Engel later arranged some of the songs in the anthology and published them first in two small notebooks (1909 and 1912) and then in separate editions. These include twelve of the sixteen arrangements selected for this new CD. Among them is the popular song “Amol iz geven a mayse” (no. 15 “Once upon a Time”), whose melody serves as a reminder of the disasters associated with the destruction of the Temple,7 as well as the virtually forgotten paraphrase of the Passover counting song “Ekhad mi yodea” (“Who Knows One?”), in which traditional numerical symbolism is replaced with other values related to the wedding (no. 16 “Oy, akh, byomeynu”).

Joel Engel is known for his musical and critical activities, through which an understanding of Jewish musical tradition gradually crystallised. In the early 1900s, he vigorously debated in the press with Sholom Aleichem, protesting against the labelling of Mark Warshawsky’s songs as “folk songs.” Engel attempted to transpose into the Jewish tradition an understanding of folklore that had developed among conservatory-educated composers. However, over time his views changed. In 1915, he objected to the opinions of his colleague Lazare Saminsky (composer and folklorist, and member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg), who contrasted the music of the synagogue liturgy with Yiddish songs, which he considered to be full of borrowings and foreign elements. Engel, on the other hand, tried to prove the originality of the “everyday Jewish song” in response.

During the course of this dispute, both men referred disparagingly to the song “Oy, Avrom!”, calling it “a vile factory song favoured by the urban neighbourhoods of Odessa.”8 A few decades later, Shostakovich turned to this text, composing “Before a Long Parting” as the fourth song in his cycle. “A letter is as you read it, a tune is as you sing it,” wrote Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, and in the same lines it is possible to hear both frivolous vulgarity and a painfully poignant scene of parting lovers.

In his arrangements of folk songs, Engel followed the traditions of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov: he kept the melodies unchanged, setting them, like precious gems, within the framework of a classical accompaniment. He also sought to choose harmonies that emphasised the tonal uniqueness of the songs.

Unlike Shostakovich’s cycle, where the new reading involved performers working with a Yiddish text, in Engel’s arrangements, they focused on the musical settings of some of the songs. For example, Engel arranged the song “Akh, nit gut!” (“Oh, It’s No Good!”), adding a violin to the piano. The melody given to the instrument conveyed the longing of the heroine. Tyrone Landau suggested another performing variant, transferring the violin part to a second voice. The quiet, airy phrase “Farges keyn geveyn…” (“Don’t forget to cry…”) becomes the refrain of the song.

Similarly, the violin part in no. 8 “Er hot mir tsugezogt” (“He Promised Me”) became a romantic interplay between the tenor and soprano. This background seems to be not so much a memory of past happiness as an illustration of the unfaithfulness of the beloved. “God pays him back … that will be his punishment!”—the deceived heroine repeats.

Song no. 3 “Rachel the Fair” is adorned with a vocalisation interlude that depicts the beauty of the girl whom the young man is dreaming of.

An extremely successful solution is offered in song no. 7 “Vi zingt dos khosidl” (“How the Hasid, the Rom, and the Russian Sing”). Its three characters each sing their own melody: for the Hasid, it’s a nigun (a form of Jewish paraliturgical chant); for the Rom, it’s a dance melody, as if accompanied by the jingle of coins in a necklace, and for the third character—Ivanka—this is not a song, but rather a cry used to urge on his horses. Assigning these parts to different voices allows them to be further interconnected. In the resulting score, the nigun became the main melody, the “Gypsy rhythm” became the accompaniment, and the driver’s cry became the top line. The song sounds very Hasidic. Legend has it that all melodies are born in the Heavenly Palace and descend to earth, but they end up with different peoples. By uniting, they form a unified harmonious sound. In the new arrangement, this song gained completeness and became one of the most interesting numbers on the album.

On first listening, Engel’s arrangements seem simpler than Shostakovich’s: they are not structured as a cycle, there is no predetermined dynamic in their ordering, and their accompaniment writing appears somewhat naive compared to the significantly more complex piano parts in Shostakovich’s work. But it was not by chance that Engel treated these songs as precious items, striving to preserve both their lyrics and their melodies. Many of these songs have second and third meanings and lead into the depths of tradition. For example, listen again to the song of the tired watchman (“Slushay!”). One of its early versions is included in mid-19th century collections by Berl from Brody, Galicia (Berl Broder or Berl Margulies, ca. 1815–68) though it was probably written earlier. In performing it, Pierre Mak emphasises the contrast between the character’s weakness and the zealous execution of his duty. This is probably what Engel himself imagined the song to be like when he classified it as a domestic song. However, both the initial cry and the subsequent response contain intonations of the Lern-shteyger mode, used to study the Torah, which becomes a reference to the words of the prophet: “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me” (Ezekial 33:7).

Sára Gutvill produced the CD, inviting performers with excellent vocal skills and created a team of like-minded individuals. The four voices form a magnificent ensemble, in which each member adds his or her own colour to the overall sound. The piano is a full-fledged member of the ensemble. Jaap Kooi skilfully frames the performers’ voices in Engel’s arrangements, and in the Shostakovich cycle his instrument sounds with philosophical depth.

The unconventional choices of repertoire present the performers with difficult challenges. Despite many commonalities, Engel’s and Shostakovich’s works require different sonorities. Emotions that may appear similar are conveyed through different means. However deep the longing, the Yiddish songs possess a melancholy and sweet undertone. Conversely, in Shostakovich’s music, even in the softest of intonations one can detect the straining of nerves, and the more solemn the music, the more frightening it becomes. The performing group succeed in creating a panorama in which Jewish composers, admiring folk songs, sought to preserve them and present them to their audience: half a century later the songs cried out about the tragedy of their creators, and helped those who remained to survive.

The new album will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Shostakovich’s work. It will also appeal to connoisseurs of Yiddish song. But it is primarily intended for listeners who can ask questions, and also for performers and composers who can decide how folklore and academic traditions might be of interest to one another, and where they might intersect.

1 V.T. Spivakov, “Vladimir Spivakov on Shostakovich and Himself. Voice of All the Voiceless,” Chaika 19, no. 30 (8 October 2004). URL: https://www.chayka.org/node/338 (accessed 8 April 2023).
2 “Yiddish Folk Songs” (“Еврейские народные песни”) compiled by I.M. Dobrushin, A.D. Yuditsky; edited by Y.M. Sokolov (Moscow: State Publishing House of Art Literature, 1947).
3 “Yiddish Folk Songs” (“Yidishe folks-lider”) compiled by I.M. Dobrushin, A.D. Yuditsky (Moscow: State Publishing House “Der emes,” 1940). The volume is available online at https://archive.org/details/yidishefolksli00melu (accessed 17 May 2023). Thanks to Bret Werb for alerting me to this.
4 Joachim Braun, “Shostakovich’s Jewish Songs: From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79: Introductory Essay with Original Yiddish Underlay” (Tel Aviv, 1989). This is available online at https://yiddish-culture.com/multimedia_en/joachim-braun-shostakovich_en/ (accessed 17 May 2023).
5 The recording is available at the https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE2yTJ4VFi4 (accessed 14 May 2023). I would like to thank Rudi Van den Bulck for making this available on his YouTube channel, together with scans of some of his memorabilia of the event.
6 “Yiddish Folk Songs in Russia” (“Еврейские народные песни в России”), compiled by S.M. Ginzburg and P.S. Marek (Saint Petersburg, 1901).
7 For more about this song, see Evgenia Khazdan, “Once There Was a Fairy Tale: Riddles of Jewish Lullaby,” Traditsionnaya kultura 4 (2008): 94–102 (in Russian). Also “Była sobie bajka. Tajemnice zydowskiej kołysanki,” Midrasz 5 (2008), 42–45 (in Polish).
8 Joel Engel and Lazare Saminsky, “An argument about the value of everyday Jewish melody,” in Iz istorii yevreyskoy muzyki v Rossii: Materialy mezhdunarodnoy nauchnoy konferentsii “90 let Obshchestvu yevreyskoy narodnoy muzyki v Peterburge–Petrograde (1908–1919)” (Saint Petersburg, 2001), 159.

Evgenia Khazdan