If one hears of “Yiddish music’’ today, probably what first comes to mind is klezmer, a folk genre whose popularity has surged since a revival that began in the 1970s. Those with a penchant for immigrant history may also think of the Yiddish theater tradition, with its own vast musical repertoire not far from the worlds of vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and early Broadway.
But Yiddish, the language of daily life for millions of Eastern European Jews, was also the basis of a once-burgeoning literary culture, a world of secular Yiddish poetry and fiction that flourished in New York and other cities in the early 20th century. The impulse to build a national Jewish high culture took root in music, too, with composers dreaming of fiddlers that might play Jewish music not only on roofs but also in concert halls.
Creators of this new art music aimed to derive its Jewish inflection from synagogue modes, folk melodies, or from the language of its texts, but they also harbored wider aspirations to stand in dialogue with the great Western classical masters, perhaps to write music that was Jewish in the way that the songs of Schubert are German, speaking of a particular social world but also sounding a note of wider resonance.
The genre of the Yiddish art song, almost entirely forgotten today, came to its fullest flowering in the middle of the 20th century, and in the work of a single composer named Lazar Weiner (1897-1982). Taken as a whole, Weiner’s vast and highly diverse catalog of over 100 Yiddish songs - rarely recorded, very seldom performed - represents a deeply eloquent achievement, one that simultaneously bridged artistic worlds, created new hybrid musical forms, and preserved a vision of a secular Yiddish culture across decades of its near-extinction. It’s an achievement that is also receiving fresh attention of late, with the first volume of a new series recently published by Transcontinental Music, and a live performance taking place this afternoon at the Old South Meeting House.
Today’s program, part of the Boston Jewish Music Festival, presents a rare opportunity to hear Weiner’s art songs explored in a dedicated full-length recital. Several admired singers are participating, and curating the afternoon from the keyboard will be Yehudi Wyner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who happens also to be a highly skilled pianist and an unimpeachable authority on the music of Lazar Weiner: He is Lazar’s son.
Wyner of course has long been a treasured Boston musical presence, but surely only a small portion of those acquainted with his music today are also familiar with his father’s fascinating 20th-century life and career. Wyner, whose last name was changed by his father when Yehudi was a boy, has occasionally written music for the synagogue, but has generally forged an artistic path independent of his father’s legacy. It’s nonetheless a legacy to which he has remained deeply committed.
“I’m not doing any of this as a kind of filial duty, nor as any kind of glorification,’’ he said recently over lunch in Coolidge Corner. “I really believe this is wonderful authentic art, and more than my father’s personal expression, I do believe that it’s a reflection of a much larger culture.’’
Lazar Weiner was born in the Ukrainian town of Cherkassy, and was destined to enter the family trade of shoemaking, until the boy’s artistic disposition caught the protective eye of a grandmother, as Wyner reconstructs in colorful terms: “She told my father’s father, ‘This boy is different. You will not make a shoemaker out of him!’ And that permitted him to go to Kiev and study.’’ In Kiev, he sang in the choir of the great Brodsky Synagogue, and later in the Kiev opera chorus, before immigrating to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., and at first helping to support his family by playing piano for silent films.
Still a teenager, Weiner had a hunger for music and a natural curiosity. Through a violinist colleague he was introduced to the more rarefied circles of contemporary Yiddish poetry. Attending contemporary music concerts across New York brought him into contact with composers such as Aaron Copland, Milton Babbitt, and Elliott Carter, and he even corresponded with Charles Ives. He began accompanying singers in the studio of a prominent New York voice teacher, learning the art song literature from the inside, and eventually worked himself as a vocal coach.
Weiner also built a significant career as a choral conductor, leading many communal choruses and workers’ ensembles that, under his guidance, aspired to professional standards. Their repertoire included cantatas - some of them his own - dramatizing the struggles of the labor movement, but it also extended to classical masterworks by Mozart and Beethoven, their texts translated into Yiddish. In later years, despite his anticlerical leanings, Weiner served as the music director of New York’s Central Synagogue. Many summers, he retreated to rented farms in the Catskills, where he would put an old upright piano in an unheated barn or abandoned chicken coop, sit there all day, and compose.
While still in his early 20s, Weiner wrote to Joel Engel, a composer and critic who co-founded the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, a pioneering group that strove to build a national Jewish art music derived from authentic folk sources. With his letter, Weiner enclosed some of his own early songs of a more generically impressionistic character. Engel replied, complimenting their craftsmanship but also wondering why Weiner had neglected all the obvious Jewish material in his own background?
“That was a turning point in his life,’’ said Wyner, one that set him on a new course toward his mature Yiddish art songs. Those songs make frequent if sometimes subtle use of Jewish musical sources while remaining keenly responsive to their poetic texts. (In musical terms, Wyner sees his father’s closest model as the songs of Mussorgsky.) In subject matter, Weiner’s songs address an enormous range of topics, from the plight of a simple wedding musician to the Yiddish language itself (“my golden well’’), from poignant affirmations of faith in a post-Holocaust world, to dissonant existential-religious meditations spurred by the poetry of the 20th-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. Wyner designed today’s program as a representative survey of his father’s full song catalog, with some of Weiner’s solo piano music included for good measure.
Tellingly, despite the fact that Weiner was forging ahead in a new hybrid genre, he saw himself fundamentally as a conservator angled toward the past. “This was a testament to a language and a culture that was dying, and he wanted to do what little he could,’’ Wyner explained. In discussing his father’s music, the word “authenticity’’ comes up most frequently. “It’s not just that they’re nice songs. It’s that they embody some kind of cultural truth, something of Yiddish life, which of course had its origin in the Pale [of Settlement] but also needed to be reconciled with contemporary life in America.’’