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The Dybbuk and George Gershwin.

Is it possible that had a composer been successful in obtaining the rights to a play that he wanted as the subject for an opera, one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th Century would not have been written? This could have been the fate of Porgy and Bess if George Gershwin had been able to get the rights to The Dybbuk, the great Yiddish play by Solomon Rappoport (better known as S. Ansky) some years before he really turned his attention to composing Porgy and Bess. Ansky's play, probably the most famous Yiddish play of all time, was a great success right from its first performance shortly after Ansky's death in 1920, and this success continued in performances in many countries over many years. A dybbuk in Jewish folklore is the restless soul of a dead person that endeavors to enter the body of a living person. It takes over his body, talks through his mouth, and controls his behavior.

The play also entitled Between Two Worlds is about the love of two young people, Chonon and Leah, who were betrothed to each other by their fathers when they were small. But Chonon is a poor Talmudic student, and Leah's father breaks the agreement and plans her marriage to a rich young man. Chonon invokes the mystical powers of the kabbalah before he dies, and, as Leah is getting married, his spirit enters her body and she, being possessed by this dybbuk, speaks his words and in his voice. He cries out that he has come to possess her and claim her as his own. Leah's father asks the rabbi to exorcise this evil spirit from her body, which he succeeds in doing, but eventually Chonon has the last word as he takes Leah's soul away from her body to be united with him in death.

Gershwin had first become interested in classical music early in his career when in 1919 he wrote Lullaby for a string quartet. Blue Monday in 1922 was an attempt at a miniopera. Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 triumphantly blended jazz with classical music, and this was followed by his Piano Concerto in F, first performed with Gershwin as soloist in 1925. Almost exactly a year later, Gershwin wrote Preludes for Piano. In 1926, he began seriously to consider more classical compositions, and he turned his mind towards the possibility of a full-scale opera after reading DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy that he considered to have operatic potential. But nothing then came of this interest. He became intrigued with Ansky's play after seeing a performance at the Neighborhood Playhouse where it was performed by the famous Habima troupe in December 1925. He wrote to his friend Isaac Goldberg that he was ruminating much on a play that strongly appealed to him and that could be transferred to opera form. Newspaper reports then began to appear to indicate that he was contemplating an opera based on The Dybbuk. Ira Gershwin later said that his brother Ira loved this play and that this admiration increased after Hitler's accession to power in Germany.

The impresario Otto Kahn became enthusiastic about Gershwin's plan, and Gershwin sketched out some musical ideas some of which were believed to be Jewish in character, one being a slow hypnotic rhythm similar to shul chants. This in itself is interesting because there appears to be no suggestion that Gershwin had ever gone to a service in a shul since before his young days. He even had plans to visit Europe to study Jewish folk and liturgical music, and all this was followed up by his signing a provisional contract with the Metropolitan Opera Association for an opera to be called The Dybbuk to be ready for performance in April 1931. Henry Ahlsberg who translated the play from Yiddish into English and who also adapted it was designated as librettist. A piano score and an orchestral score as well as choral parts formed part of the contract.

Goldberg has written of Gershwin's interest in The Dybbuk. Gershwin showed him some of the themes he had written in his notebook, and Goldberg saw--
 ... a few melodic phrases unsupported by any harmonic
 structure; they suggested a slow lilt and might have been
 anything from a buck-and-wing to a dirge. He (sic)
 glanced at the notes and was soon constructing not only a
 music but a scene. This slow lilt gradually assumed a hieratic
 character, swinging in drowsy dignity above a drone.
 The room became a synagogue and this was the indistinct
 prayer of those to whom prayer has become a routine
 such as any other. The lilt had acquired animation; it was
 the swaying bodies of the chanters. An upward scratch in
 the notebook suddenly came to life as a Chasidic (sic)
 dance. And those who know what Chasidic tunes can be
 like in their wild, ecstatic abandon, know that the Chasid,
 like his brother under the skin, can grow wings and walk
 all over God's heaven. (1)

But the whole thing fell flat on its face when Gershwin found he was unable to get the rights to the Ansky play because these had been given to an Italian composer from Turin called Lodovico Rocca. He was forced to abandon any plan to write an opera based on this play. Some time later, Porgy and Bess became a realistic proposition.

Who was Rocca, and what led him to want to set Ansky's play as an opera? In all, Rocca wrote five operas, but his third, Il Dibuk, is regarded as his finest, at one stage being considered as a worthy successor to Puccini's Turandot. What made him choose this Yiddish drama? There is no evidence to suggest that he was a Jew--as Director of the Turin Conservatory throughout World War II, this seems unlikely--but he had seen the legendary Vilna Troupe (who only performed in Yiddish) when that troupe toured Europe in the early twenties. This does suggest that Rocca understood Yiddish or had a smattering of the language. His name did appear on a Nazi list that specified banned composers, but despite this, it is now generally accepted that he was not Jewish and that his misdemeanor as far as the Nazis were concerned was his composing of Il Dibuk. Rocca's librettist was Renato Simoni who was part-librettist for Turandot, and, again, there is no indication that he was Jewish. Simoni was editor of an important Italian newspaper throughout World War II, so once again this is unlikely. The opera was sung in Italian, so someone must have been responsible for translating Ansky into Italian.

Il Dibuk is a three-act opera with a prologue, and it was first performed at La Scala Milan in March 1934. The London Jewish Chronicle was one Jewish journal that noted its appearance when it reported on the good reception it was given by the La Scala audience. After Milan, it played in Warsaw, Turin, and Rome and it then crossed the Atlantic to play in the United States but in English translation. It was first seen in Detroit for one night and Chicago for two on May 6, 7, and 8 in 1936 prior to its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall five days later. After New York, the opera was scheduled for performances in Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St Louis, and Cincinatti.

The Detroit audience lauded it, but in New York the eminent critic Olin Downes in his New York Times review was scathing about a work that he considered to abound in banalities and having Jewish tunes used in a pseudo-Jewish manner. Whilst accepting that the performance was "earnest and painstaking," Downes was critical of the tenor playing Chonon who "struggled manfully with his role and almost succeeded in outshouting the instruments." Downes admired Ansky's play as a wonderful drama, but he did not believe that Rocca had any feel for a subject that was said to be clothed in "artificiality and pretence." Despite the appeal of the dybbuk story to him, Gershwin, apparently, did not go to see Rocca's opera, and this is a little surprising given his interest in the Ansky play.

Ansky's original play has never lost its popularity, and there are many performances of it in various languages to this day. It has appeared not infrequently on Broadway, and, in 2006, it was also performed in Washington D.C. Some writers have used the basic plot in their own drama versions of the story. One important example is Julia Pascal's 1992 production, the third part of a Holocaust trilogy. In it the central character is a British Jewess who conceives of a ghetto in Eastern Europe where five Jews are debating issues of love and death as well as invoking the kabbalah in their discussions before they are shipped off to Auschwitz. The dybbuk fable is encapsulated within the play. A play based on Ansky's text but combined with a short story by Hanna Krall was produced in Warsaw in 2003. In Krall's story, the dybbuk is a boy murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. The boy's father eventually reaches America where another son is born, and this dybbuk appears before the boy.

Not surprisingly, The Dybbuk has appeared on the screen. The first (Yiddish) film was produced in Poland in 1937, and a Hebrew version was produced in 1968 with a musical score written by one of Israel's leading composers, Noam Sheriff.

Rocca may have been the first composer to produce an opera from Ansky s play, but a number of others have dealt with this subject in music. One of the most important works using music is that of Jerome Robbins who choreographed a ballet with a Leonard Bernstein score. Both Robbins and Bernstein had been intrigued by Ansky's play for many years. Robbins first considered the subject in 1948, but much time elapsed before it was eventually premiered in 1974 in New York. The two men had intended to have it ready to commemorate Israel's 25th Yom Ha-Atzma'ut. Hebrew texts sung by a tenor and baritone are interspersed throughout the ballet. There was a notable revival in February 2007 by the New York City Ballet. Bernstein arranged two orchestral suites from his music. The first (1975) featured two vocalists, but the second (1977) was instrumental only. There was, however, an earlier version of the music, Dybbuk Variations, that Bernstein took on tour to New Zealand with the New York Philharmonic in 1974. Robbins himself was never satisfied with his ballet, and he revised it three times. Ultimately, he changed its title to Suite of Dances.

Even before the Robbins/Bernstein work, however, Max Ettinger had choreographed a ballet based on the play in 1947, and the Bejart Ballet from Lausanne in Switzerland performed a ballet based on The Dybbuk in performances choreographed by Maurice Bejart. The music came from that composed by Joel Engel for the original performances of the play and by Arnold Schoenberg. Apart from Rocca's, other operas have been written by Hollywood film composer, David Tamkin (1951), Michael Whyte (1962), and more recently, the Israeli-American, Shulamit Ran, a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote one that was commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. American Solomon Epstein's opera in Yiddish followed in 1999. Renato Simoni, Rocca's librettist, returned to The Dybbuk with a musical version and Tamkin has also reworked some sections of his opera into a concert version in eight movements for tenor and orchestra that was premiered in Portland Oregon in 1949 with Jan Peerce as tenor.

An interesting 'fall-out' from the original production of the Ansky play comes from Aaron Copland. When Copland saw the play in New York in 1929, he was so impressed by Engel's music that he used it as the basis of his Vitebsk piano trio, one of the few compositions he wrote using a Jewish subject. Ansky was born in Vitebsk. Engel's incidental music employed mainly old popular Jewish folk melodies, and it became well-known. It was published as Engel's Opus 35 and entitled Suite of the Dybbuk Legend scored in eight movements for string quartet, clarinet and double bass.

It was some time after being thwarted of plans for an opera based on Ansky's play before Gershwin turned seriously to another subject, and it was only in early 1933 that he turned positively to PoNy and Bess. October 10, 1935 was the key date--the premiere of the work at the Alvin Theater in New York--although there had been a 'tryout' in Boston ten days earlier. But would Gershwin have turned to Porgy if he had won the rights to The Dybbuk? Or perhaps more likely, would he have been able to complete work on it before his tragic and untimely death in 1937? If the answer is no, then the world would have been deprived of his masterpiece, but just imagine what he could have made of a subject like The Dybbuk that has fascinated so many Jewish writers, and musicians, and those of other faiths over the years!


(1.) Edward Jablonski, Gershwin, A Biography (London & New York 1988) pp 195-6.

CECIL BLOOM lives in Leeds, England. He served some years ago as Technical Director of a multi-national Pharmaceutical Corporation and after retirement began a career as a freelance writer. His work has been published in the U.K., U.S., Israel, South Africa, and Australia. He has written frequently for Midstream. His article on Golda Meir during 1946-49 appeared in the expanded May/June 2008 issue of Midstream commemorating 60 years of Israel's independence.
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Date:Sep 1, 2008
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