Lost Swedish Epic ‘The Jewish Song’ Reprinted On CD

“Moses Pergament’s music has been blessed by an inheritance from two cultures – the Jewish and the Nordic.” Lars Silén
“Moses Pergament’s music has been blessed by an inheritance from two cultures – the Jewish and the Nordic.” Lars Silén

Moses Pergament: The Jewish Song (Den judiska sången). Birgit Nordin (soprano), Sven-Olof Eliasson (tenor), Stockholm Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, James DePreist (conductor). Original recording made February 2nd and 8th, 1974. (Caprice CAP 21834). Total Time: 75’43.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — This remarkable recording first saw the light of day in 1974 as an LP. Since that time, not only has there not been a second recording, but live performances of Moses Pergament’s magnum opus also have been rare. Admittedly, Pergament is not a major figure in the history of music, nor are choral symphonies in the Swedish language in great demand. Nevertheless, there is really no excuse for this epic choral and orchestral work in 13 parts, lasting more than an hour and 15 minutes, to languish in obscurity. Hopefully, in its new CD incarnation, this performance will attract enough attention to inspire more performances and recordings.

350x313pxMoses_Pergament copyPergament (1893-1977) was born in Helsinki, the son of Jewish orthodox parents. He moved to Stockholm in 1915 and on from there to Paris and Berlin to further his musical studies. He returned to Stockholm to make his way as a music critic. What he really wanted to do was compose, but Sweden in the 1920s was not interested in a composer on the cutting edge of contemporary music. In his reviews, Pergament attacked the late Romantic style prevalent in Swedish music of the day, an activity that unfortunately thwarted his recognition as a composer; inevitably, he made more enemies than friends.

Pergament wrote chamber music, piano pieces, and choral works but, to the best of my knowledge, few if any purely symphonic works.  While much of his music is highly chromatic, it also shows the influence of music he might have heard in the synagogue.

It may be rash to generalize about Pergament’s style based on knowledge of the handful of works that have been available over the years, but it seems evident that The Jewish Song was both one of his most ambitious works and also one that meant a great deal to him. It was written in 1944, while World War II was still raging and is explicitly “a lament for the six million Jews who fell victim to the cruelty of the Third Reich.” Pergament assembled his text from collections of poetry by Ragnar Josephson (1891-1966). Josephson was best known as a professor of art history, but he also published a book called Jewish Poems in 1916.

Josephson’s poetry laments the fate of the Jews to be persecuted throughout history. Pergament sets Josephson’s words to music of almost unbearable sadness. Throughout the symphony, we hear the hatred of the Jews expressed in ferocious drum rolls and marches, and we also hear the voices of the victims crying out in pain. [An excerpt, “Prayer for a Gentle Heart,” is at right.] It is almost too much to bear. But that is the point. The Holocaust was too much to bear.

Pergament gives his tenor soloist a formidable challenge. The voice is often in its highest register for bars on end with frequent wide leaps in the melodic line. It is the sound of a tortured soul. Relief comes at last in the final section, “We Thank You Lord:”

For dies our sun, for darkens our day,
for shines our star but feeble and pale,
we still have a sun and a star,
which will guide us;
the story of our Fathers.

In the final pages of Pergament’s The Jewish Song, the torture and suffering of the Holocaust are over and the inner strength of the Jewish soul asserts itself in music of enveloping calm. This is music for the ages, and the committed and well-prepared performance of DePriest and his forces conveys its message extremely well.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.