October 10, 2012

In seminar class on Wednesday, we discussed our thoughts from the opera. Several people brought up the singing and the set design, however, no one brought up anything about the music that was played. Professor Kahan explained that subconsciously, we associate certain groupings of musical notes, called intervals, to certain cultures. For example, a “fourth interval” is commonly associated with the Oriental culture, as it sounds the closest to Chinese music. Throughout the opera Turandot, Puccini used a lot of fourths in the melody of Liu’s pieces. This is an example of using music to invoke different perceptions.

For the second half of class, Professor Sirotta came in to discuss his piece, which will be premiered by the Staten Island Philharmonic on Sunday. To begin his lecture, he asked us to think of the first piece of music we heard when we were children. For him, it was a song called “Oyfn Pripetshik.” He heard his grandfather sing this song when he was a child as his grandfather cleaned the eggs to be delivered. This song resurfaced in Professor Sirotta’s life a couple of years ago when he was asked by the JCC to teach a musical program for seniors. He wanted to find an old folk song with musical value that would resonate with the seniors.

“Oyfn Pripetshik” is a Yiddish folk song composed by Mark Warshowsky in the late 1800’s. Warshowsky was a lawyer in the Ukraine who had an affinity for his language. The song begins with a rabbi teaching young children the Hebrew alphabet around a fire. Later in the song, the rabbi tells the children, in a rough translation, “When you grow older children, you will know all too well of the tears that lie in every letter, more than time will tell. When you children will bear the exile and bravery is exhausted, may you derive strength from these letters, look at them again.” The strong heritage and history in this song makes it one of the most popular Jewish folk songs. It is often called the Second Jewish National Anthem.

Professor Sirotta then explained that composers enshrine the works of famous composers by taking an old piece of music and writing a new tune, creating a different variation of the same piece. Professor Kahan chimed in and said that this would often be a test of performers and composers ability, to see if they could take a famous and loved piece and make a newer or better piece. This is exactly what Professor Sirotta has done with “Oyfn Pripetshik.” While preserving the original melody, he added a brief introduction and a few variations. I look forward to hearing his completed piece performed by the Staten Island Philharmonic.