This past August, I was once again a participant at the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, at the like-named college in Vermont. At one of the faculty concerts, there was performed a work already familiar to me: Anton Arensky’s String Quartet in A minor, Opus 35. (It is very unusual, as string quartets go, in that it is scored with two cellos, instead of two violins.) I had always had some liking for the piece, though perhaps finding it a bit on the “kitschy” side.
But, a few months before I re-encountered this piece at Bennington, I learned something about it — not for the better — that now is indelibly connected, in my mind, with the music itself.
In March of this year, I myself played the viola part in a New York City performance of this Arensky quartet. Actually, we just performed the famous second movement (sometimes heard in a string-orchestra version), called “Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky”. I wanted to learn about this background of the piece, so I started to do some research …
The theme of the Variations movement is described in the Bennington program notes as a “solemn, lyrical hymn”. But there is much more to it than that. The theme is from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s “Sixteen Songs for Children”, Opus 54, composed in 1883. The text that Tchaikovsky set (in Russian, as you might expect) is a poem called “Legend” by Alexey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev. Now, here is where things get interesting. The Pleshcheyev poem (as you can read, in detail, here ) is a translation of an 1857 poem called “Roses and Thorns” by the American poet Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903).
Here is Stoddard’s poem:
The young child Jesus had a garden,
Full of roses, rare and red:
And thrice a day he watered them,
To make a garland for his head.
When they were full-blown in the garden,
He called the Jewish children there,
And each did pluck himself a rose,
Until they stripped the garden bare.
“And now how will you make your garland?
For not a rose your path adorns.”
“But you forget,” he answered them,
“That you have left me still the thorns.”
They took the thorns, and made a garland,
And placed it on his shining head;
And where the roses should have shone
Were little drops of blood instead!
So the Jewish children took all the roses away from Jesus, and placed the crown of thorns on his head. If this is not emblematic of the centuries-old anti-Semitic trope of the Jews being responsible for Jesus’ death, I don’t know what is!
One might hope that Pleshcheyev’s translation — which was what Tchaikovsky actually used — altered the text to get rid of the anti-Semitic venom. But a Google translation that I did from the Russian — laughably crude though it is — indicates that this is not the case:
There was a garden for Christ the Child,
And he made many roses in him;
He watered them three times a day,
To make a wreath myself then.
When the roses blossomed,
He called the children of the Jews;
They tore the flower,
And the garden was completely devastated.
“How will you weave a wreath now?
There are no more roses in your garden! ”
– “You forgot that spikes
Remained to me, “said Christ.
And they made spikes
A wreath of spiny for him,
And drops of blood instead of roses
The man decorated it.
If anything, this more condemnatory to the Jewish children than the original English. (“They tore the flower, / And the garden was completely devastated”)
Lest you, dear reader, think that I am just being too sensitive about this issue, let me show you that others share my aversion to the anti-Jewish message. On YouTube , one can find Tchaikovsky’s song rendered by the USSR State Academic Russian Chorus. The notes supplied with the video provide this translation of the text:
When Jesus Christ was yet a child,
He had a garden small and wild,
Wherein He cherished roses fair,
And wove them into garlands there.
Now once, as summer time drew nigh,
There came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree,
With shouts they pluck’d them merrily.
“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
All but the naked thorns away.”
Then of the thorns they made a crown,
And with rough fingers press’d it down,
Till on his forehead fair and young,
Red drops of blood, like roses sprung.
“The Jewish children” has here managed to become “a troop of children”. Nice and harmless, for the English-speaking web surfer …
One more “alternative version of the facts” … this from the GodSongs website. At least they are honest about their version’s antecedents: “The lyrics of this song were translated by American author and translator Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) from the Russian poem Legenda by A N P [sic], which is itself a translation of the poem “Roses and Thorns” by American Richard Henry Stoddard”. Here is the GodSongs version:
Christ, when a child, a garden made,
And many roses flourished there.
He watered them three times a day
To make a garland for His hair.
And when in time the roses bloomed,
He called the children in to share.
They tore the flowers from every stem,
And left the garden stript and bare,
“How wilt Thou weave Thyself a crown
Now that They roses are all dead?”
“Ye have forgotten that the thorns
Are left for Me, the Christ child said.
They plaited then a crown of thorns
And laid it rudely on His head;
A garland for His forehead made;
For roses: drops of blood instead.
Again, the Jewish children have conveniently disappeared. Some may say that this makes things OK, and that I am being unduly sensitive. But how can one forget the words that Tchakovsky set … which he was certainly aware of, and which, by setting them to music, he gave his tacit approval to?
Others will perhaps argue that Stoddard, Pleshcheyev, and Tchaikovsky were simply the product of their times … which like many (most?) past eras and societies, were inherently anti-semitic. I may somehow understand this, intellectually. But getting my feelings to go along is another matter …
I confess that I have been influenced in my views, on the bearing that “extra-musical” matters have on the “music itself”, by the writings and talks of the contemporary American musicologist Richard Taruskin. On YouTube there is, for exmple, this talk of his called “Did Somebody Say Censorship?”. And here, from Volume 2 of his Oxford History of Western Music, is part of his discussion on perhaps the most famous, arguably anti-Semitic work of all:
… the turba [“crowd”] in the [J.S. Bach] St. John Passion, following the Book of John itself, is identified not as “das Volk” or “the people” (as it is in the Matthew Passion), but as “die Juden” or “the Jews.” An accusation is being made, one that is no longer supported by responsible historical or theological scholarship, that the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Christ’s death. That accusation, now often called the “blood libel,” has had a bearing on a history of bloody persecutions, culminating in perhaps the most horrible page in the history of the twentieth century.
Obviously, Bach had no part of that. Nor was he, as far as anyone today can guess, personally anti-Semitic as the term is understood today, except insofar as he probably subscribed to Luther’s doctrine that the Jews should submit to conversion on pain of punishment. In all likelihood he rarely, possibly never, met a Jew and thought little about them. The St. John Passion was intended for performance before a congregation of Christian believers for whom the Gospel text was … well, Gospel. The insult it contains to Jews was wholly incidental to its purpose.
But today it serves other purposes and is performed before other audiences. Bach is long dead, but the St. John Passion lives on. Jews not only hear it nowadays, they often participate in performances of it, and are sometimes shocked to learn what it is that they are singing. Are they wrong? Does Bach’s music redeem the text? Would it impair Bach’s work from the standpoint of its present social use if the text were emended to exclude the blood libel? And if people disagree about the answers to these difficult questions, on what basis can they be adjudicated?