The Dybbuk and George Gershwin

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Dybbuk and George Gershwin


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


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. … 

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