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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Remembering Sholom Secunda

In honor of April 25, known among Jews as Yom Ha-Shoah and throughout the Western world as Holocaust Remembrance Day, I shall depart from my usual operatic commentary with an essay in memory of composer Sholom Secunda, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the late 1960s upon the occasion of the world premiere of his cantata, “Yizkor.”

Sholom Secunda (1894–1974) emigrated from the Black Sea area of the Ukraine to the U.S. in 1907. As early as age 19 he was involved in the Yiddish musical scene in New York City, writing songs for the shows that were designed to entertain the huge influx of Eastern and Central European immigrants living and working on the Lower East Side. In 1914 Secunda was admitted to what eventually became the Julliard School, so it was not only popular music that captured his interest. But he had no apparent taste for jazz because, as the story goes, he rejected the opportunity to work with the as-yet-unknown George Gershwin in 1920, shortly after they were introduced by Boris Thomashevsky—acclaimed as the founder of Yiddish theater in America. Incidently, Thomashevsky did a great deal to promote radio programs in Yiddish, including the broadcast of musical revues for which Secunda wrote original music. He even co-owned an all-Yiddish radio station in Brooklyn (WEVD) that lasted into the 1950s.

Secunda had his first operetta produced in 1926, at the Hopkinson Theater in Brooklyn. Showing off his talent for composition, Secunda did all of his own orchestration. While many of the songwriters who wrote for the Second Avenue houses (the Yiddisher equivalent of Broadway) were fairly good tunesmiths, few of them had either the ability or the professional training to write complete scores. Secunda wrote more than a half-dozen musicals in the years before WWII; many of the tunes he created were as popular with Yiddish audiences as Broadway tunes were with the English-speaking population. Two of his most famous creations include the adaptation of a Polish folk tune into “Dona, dona”—which was recorded in English as a ballad by Joan Baez, Theodore Bikel and others in the 1960s—and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” the 1940s mega-hit that helped launch the career of The Andrews Sisters.

Secunda was equally fascinated by liturgical music. In Orthodox Jewish houses of worship, religious music employs tunes that have been passed down through the generations. Many of the songs that are sung by congregations at Saturday morning services or during the High Holidays have words and music traceable back to the 1200s or earlier. One popular tune, “Anim Zemirot,” has even retained its Aramaic lyrics! But the more modern aspects of Judaism, especially the Reform movement, embraced the concept of setting traditional text material to newer tunes. Meanwhile, some temples offer mixed-sex choirs and musical accompaniment, even organs.

Toward the end of the 1930s Secunda met a young synagogue cantor named Reuven Ticker, who shared the composer’s enthusiasm for creating and performing this original music. Later known to the world as opera star Richard Tucker, the two continued their personal and professional relationship until Secunda's death, which was followed a year later by Tucker's.

After the Second World War, the Catskills in upstate New York became THE place for a certain segment of New York society. Hotels that catered to all sorts of observant and semi-observant Jews offered a place to “get away from it all” while still providing the company of one’s co-religionists. Professional entertainment sprung up wherever the crowds gathered, notably Jewish comedians who tested out their material on these so-called Borsht Belt audiences every summer. The Concord Hotel—along with Grossinger’s one of the two upscale establishments in the region—hired Secunda as their music director. Not only did he conduct services for employees and guests alike for 28 years—a real treat for worshipers once Tucker became the Concord’s official cantor—but also weekly summer concerts with full orchestra. Oftentimes these concerts featured Secunda's compositions. My mother’s cousin Sam, who was a clarinetist from Pennsauken, New Jersey, got his professional start in the Concord Hotel’s orchestra.

As the immigrant generation began dying off, so did their offspring’s interest in Yiddish. Some of Secunda’s final musicals were composed to half-Yiddish, half-English librettos as late as the 1960s. His final stage work was the 1973 production of “Shver tzu zayn a Yid” (It’s Hard to be a Jew), the musical version of a Sholom Aleichem play originally staged in 1921.

Secunda’s oeuvre includes more than eighty musicals and operettas, plus settings of various cantorial and choral works for the synagogue. He also wrote a string quartet, a violin concerto, and incidental chamber music among which is a clarinet piece recorded by the musical scholar (and clarinetist extraordinaire) Dieter Klöcker.

My initiation into the world of Sholom Secunda began with my grandmother’s LP recording of “A Passover Seder Festival,” which I now own on CD. Many of the selections on that record were original compositions by Secunda, sung by Richard Tucker. In our household, Tucker and his baritone compadre Robert Merrill—“two nice Jewish boys” as my bubbe used to say—enjoyed the same veneration from us that Marian Anderson (and later, Leontyne Price) likely received in African-American households.

In the late 1960s, Secunda began to work on a cantata to honor the memory of Jews lost in the Holocaust. Despite having lived in the U.S. for more than six decades, some of his relatives likely perished in Europe—and certainly many thousands of people related to members of his stage and screen audiences. He titled his work “Yizkor,” which is the name of the memorial prayer service performed on Yom Kippur eve to honor relatives who have died.

The 1968-69 school year marked my senior year at Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High. Our choir—110 voices strong and directed by Dr. Clair T. “Mac” McElfresh—was selected to premiere this cantata at Temple of the Heights. We were in rehearsal for more than a month. During the last week before our performance, Secunda came to Cleveland and helped us with our preparations. Even today I remember him sitting in the pews, nodding his head in time to the music as we went through our paces. The piece is scored for chorus, tenor solo (naturally), narrator, and small orchestra. In lieu of the latter, we sang with only piano accompaniment. In an interesting twist of fate, our accompanist that year and my classmate, Bruce Shewitz, many years later became musical director at that selfsame temple.

A few weeks later, back in New York the piece debuted on television with Richard Tucker in the role of soloist. Sadly, the program did not play in the Cleveland market, and I know of no existing taped recording. Likewise I’m not familiar with any available commercial audio recordings of the piece. However, some few years ago I posted a query on a pre-Internet bulletin board, and someone was kind enough to send me a cassette tape of “Yizkor” that appears to have been dubbed off the original TV broadcast. It’s one of the most cherished recordings in my collection.

The first line of Secunda’s cantata has the chorus sing out in four-part harmony, “Yizkor, remember”—not once, but twice.

We shall.

Many thanks to the National Museum of American Jewish History, notably the online Milken Archive, for details on Sholom Secunda's life. His biography, aptly titled “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön: The Life of Sholom Secunda,” by his daughter and noted psychologist Victoria Secunda, regrettably is out of print. Published in 1982 by Magic Circle Press, it can be found in many libraries throughout the U.S. and is occasionally for sale on eBay.

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