Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick: Fiddler On The Roof

So a few entries back we focused on John William's and his score to "Star Wars".  It got me to thinking about the scope of this blog in general.  Originally, it was an idea for getting kids to like music they haven't heard before (if you clicked the links on the right, you'd already know this).  If you're like me then discovering new music from a friend might go something like this:

Friend- "Hey, Ed!  You've got to listen to this!  It's Stinky-Wizzleteats newest album!"

Ed- "Hmm?"

Friend- "Here!  Listen!" *plays music for approximately 5 seconds*

Ed- "Don't like it."

Friend- "But you haven't even heard..."

Ed- "Nope."

Friend- "But..."

Ed- "No."

Friend- "Ok...."

*Fast forward to a week later*

Friend- "Hey, Ed!  What are ya listening to?"

Ed- "Stinky Wizzleteats newest..."

Friend *Facepalm*

And so forth...  There is a statistic somewhere (I don't recall where, I picked it up somewhere in college) that states that we set our preferences on music within the first 5 or so seconds of hearing a new piece of it.  In that span of time, we will instantly determine whether or not this music is something we will come to love or hate.  Keep or discard.  It's quick and incredibly potent.  For a music educator, it can essentially mean life or death when programming music for your kids.  It's a lot easier to get kids excited about something they really like.


But, sometimes it's important to learn and know stuff that we don't necessarily like.  An example that immediately comes to mind is the Holocaust.  It is by no means a pleasant course of study, nor a very uplifting one.  For some it might even mean a great deal of grief or even shame.  However, a quality and purposeful understanding of our own history is endemic to learning from the mistakes of not just our countrymen, but from our species. Without history, we have no foundation upon which to create our society.  Everything would be starting from scratch.

Much in the same vein then is learning about and listening to music.  Everything we hear is immediately criticized against an evolving set of standards that we've subconsciously established within our minds.  Our preference has been formed over years and years of social influence and to some degree personal preference.  I don't place personal preference in the same category as social influence because I really think it's a chicken and the egg sort of relationship when it comes to musical taste.

If you think back to your earliest recollection of music, it most likely involved your parents. Perhaps a lullaby comes to mind that you were soothed to sleep to.  Later on, you might have learned to sing a few tunes in elementary school or church chorus.  As you grew older, your own friends became a driving influence on the type of music you found enchanting.  For kids, it's of significant importance to belong and feel a part of the group.  Listening to similar music is almost always an important facet of this field of inter-relations.  Your preference then, is a direct result of the changing social spheres that you moved through in your youth.  It changes drastically from generation to generation.  My parents would have primarily gotten their music through their radio, but also television as it became more commonplace. My grandparents would have had the radio, but live performances of popular music were more commonplace and accessible.  More people played instruments.  My great-grandparents might have only had access to live performances.  I have grown up in a time when music was well-known on television, but also began spreading to transmission via online means.  The birth of the mp3 (and the death of fidelity as some might say) was within my youth.  My own son will not know of a world where you can't listen to whatever you want, whenever you want at the flick of a glass screen.

Back in my day we had to steal our music from the radio!  Damn kids and your torrents!

The common denominator in all of this, of course, is that music is and always will be a social event.  People don't create music and then place it in a box and lock it away forever (unless you're Brahms).  Music is, by definition, a means of communicating that which is incommunicable.  It is a language that is far superior to any verbal correspondence.  So, inspired by John Williams and his Star Wars, I announce that the new series we will explore will be called:

And not just any old dramatic music- we're talking strictly music that is coupled with action on stage.  We'll explore opera, Broadway, movies, and everything in the middle.  Starting off with week 1, we have the Fiddler on the Roof.

Sounds crazy, no?

For those that don't know, the plot follows a poor family in Russia in the early 1900's as they hold on to their Jewish traditions in spite of a rapidly changing political climate.  Pre-World War I Russia held a disparaging view towards their Jewish population and over time it grew more openly hostile.  The main character, a man named Tevye, was the father of five children- all daughters.  A central part of the plot revolved around the marriage of his daughters and their growth away from the traditions in which they were brought up and an increasing embrace from all the characters of the cultural shifts occurring around them.

The music itself was written by Jerry Bock (1928-2010) with the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (b. 1924).  The music features a bevy of Jewish influence and in true Musical form (as in Broadway Musical form) much of the plot is advanced through each of the musical numbers. Incidentally, our example will come from the movie adaptation, for which John Williams arranged and conducted the score. Now, the work itself is over two hours long, so we'll have to focus on one aspect of this work for today's LF.  In this case, we'll look at "If I Were a Rich Man"

Tevye is not wealthy.  He's a milk man for a poor village and makes enough to scrape by and keep his family fed.  He's a proud man and devoted religiously, despite his tendencies to regularly misquote scripture to great comedic effect.  The song itself is apparently written in the "klezmer" style.  Full disclosure- I had no idea what this means.  After researching it, I learned that it is a predominantly Jewish style with origins in eastern Europe from the mid-1800's onward.  It was transported to the United States along with the Yiddish culture by Jewish immigrants coming from the same area.  From there it interacted with the budding Jazz music of the time.

The term itself didn't come to embody this style of music until the 1970's (at one point previously, it actually was a perjorative term used to described musicians).

You know, in case just being a musician wasn't bad enough.

It was obviously popular amongst Jewish immigrants to the United States well ahead of that decade. Fiddler, incidentally, was published in 1964. The other interesting thing about the name 'klezmer' is that it translates from Hebrew to essentially mean 'musical instrument'. The style itself can be described by its imitation of Jewish liturgical singing and chant as well as very emotional ornamentation.  An example of these are called, "Krekhts", which is essentially a crying violin. The music genre experienced a bit of a revival in the 1970's (perhaps spurred by the popularity of Fiddler?) and there were several groups performing contemporary music in this style.

Meet the Klezmatics.

Here's what I like about this music.  It's highly social and has evolved considerably alongside the people that have created it.  It embodies and enhances the scene where Tevye is bemoaning his financial straits essentially because this music was born of a generation in his shoes.  I love how Tevye lists all of the fancy items he'd acquire and all of the wonderful things he'd do with his wealth, but at the center of his day dream is the chance to learn and read the scripture at his leisure.  To me, that moment truly reflects what Tevye is all about. He doesn't deny his aspirations to become a well-known and respected man in his community, but at his core he just desires more time to learn about his religion and his God. To become a better person.

So listen and enjoy this first bit of Dramatic Music, but be ready to open your ears next week to something that might be a little bit out of your social music climate.

Homework: Listen to this.  Do nothing.  Wait 3 days.  Listen to it again.  Decide whether or not you actually like it.

 See you next Friday.


Fiddler on the Roof is licensed by Music Theatre International
The film adaption of Fiddler is licensed by United Artists
The Blues Brothers is licensed by Universal Pictures