Tales from Chelm
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Schoenfield’s Tales from Chelm—Four Pieces for String Quartet, completed in 1991, is a programmatic work that depicts humorous incidents, scenes, and characters from eastern European Jewish folklore centered around the Polish city of Chelm and its imaginary Jewish inhabitants.
The very mention of the city of Chelm can evoke laughter, owing to the large body of humorous stories connected to its mythical former Jewish residents. Since at least the 19th century, generations of eastern European Yiddish-speaking Jews and their descendants have been entertained by those sometimes satirical, sometimes nonsensical stories mocking Chelm’s supposed population of fools—sarcastically in folklore as khelmer khakhomim (the wise men of Chelm).
Although it is often assumed to be a completely fictitious town, Chelm (khelem in Yiddish) is actually a small city southwest of Lublin, with a centuries-old serious Jewish history. Its Jewish community, virtually extinct since the German deportation and slaughter of the Jewish population in 1942, is thought by some to be one of the oldest in Poland—possibly of medieval origin. In 1939, just prior to the German invasion of Poland that year, Chelm’s Jewish population was estimated at approximately 15,000. Only fifteen of the handful left behind by the Germans survived to be liberated by the Red Army in 1944. The earliest documented evidence of the city’s existence dates to 1442. Early in the 19th century a local Hassidic dynasty was founded there, after which the city’s rabbis were Hassidim. At its peak, the Jewish community—probably about fifty percent of the total population at the time of the German invasion—boasted the typical communal and religious institutions: a yeshiva (talmudic learning center), an orphanage, an old-age home, a secondary school, two Jewish weekly periodicals, and synagogues (one of which may have dated to the 13th century). All were destroyed by the Germans between 1939 and 1944.
Chelm’s comic notoriety stems from the perception of its residents as naïve and sometimes childlike simpletons—unable to separate theory from practice, incapable of deductive reasoning or problem solving, and prone to silly conclusions and confusions. Those perceptions eventually acquired the status of folklore throughout Poland and other regions of eastern Europe—much as jokes or comically derogatory anecdotes about stereotypical daftness have characterized inhabitants of Gotham, England, or certain regions or rural parts of the United States, however unfairly.
Typical stories about the “wise men of Chelm” concern senseless solutions to dilemmas and portray a community mentally overwhelmed by ordinary as well as self-created problems and befuddled by questions requiring even a modest degree of practical wisdom. Many Chelm tales and their variants are found in published collections, but the principal vehicle of dissemination was, as is the case with folklore by its very nature—oral transmission.
Awareness of some typical Chelm tales can provide a wider context for Schoenfield’s depictions and may further enrich our appreciation of his music. For example, one of the best-known stories concerns a group of Chelm laborers who are constructing a building atop a hill. They must bring dozens if not hundreds of large and heavy boulders up the hill by hand, without benefit of horses or mules. More than halfway through the process, a passerby notices them struggling to carry the rocks up the steep incline, at great risk of injury, and he suggests that a more judicious procedure would be to roll them up the hill instead. Seizing on that advice, the Chelm workers proceed to carry each boulder to the bottom again so that they can avail themselves of the passerby’s advice and roll them up—now observing how much easier their task is! In another story (told as a prelude at the premiere of the piece by the Ciompi Quartet), a traveler passing through Chelm purchases bread and pickles at a local store. After weighing both, the merchant informs the traveler that he owes him eleven kopeks: seven for the bread and seven for the pickles. Not wanting to take advantage of the merchant’s mistake, the traveler reminds him that twice seven would be fourteen. The Chelm merchant, after giving it serious thought, insists that he was correct in the first place—that he is owed only eleven kopeks, since seven plus seven indeed comes to eleven. “I’ll tell you how I know this,” he explains. “When I was married the first time, my wife and I had four children. Then, after my dear wife died, may her soul rest in peace, I married an almone—a widow—who had four children by her first husband. Then, together, we (my second wife and myself) had three children. So you can see: I have seven children, she has seven children, and all together we have eleven children. So seven plus seven make eleven!”
The first movement of Schoenfield’s Tales is titled A Meeting of the Council of Sages. The Chelm Jews have decided that they need a new synagogue. The residents all pitch in and begin digging a hole for the foundation. Working furiously, they eventually have an excavation, as well as a huge mound of earth, and they are at a loss to know what to do with it or how to dispose of it. So the council of elders is convened to find a solution. After days of deliberation, the council comes up with the solution: Dig a second hole and put the earth from the first one into the second. The town is in awe at the wisdom of the sages, and digging of the second hole is commenced the same day. Soon there is a large and deep enough second hole for depositing the earth from the first. Only then do the Chelm Jews realize that they now have another mound of earth on their hands. Completely confounded now, they decide to take the unusual step of bypassing the council and going directly to the wisest man in all Chelm, the retired rabbi of the town, Reb Leib. After scratching his head, tugging at his beard, and pacing around the room five times, Reb Leib finally has the answer: “My friends,” he counsels, “you must dig yet another hole. But this time, you must simply make it twice as deep.”
The program of the second movement, A Tightrope Walker in Chelm, finds the city in the throes of a severe winter, with all the Jews suffering from debilitating colds. Their noses run incessantly, and no one can work or even sleep. The wise men of Chelm come up with an ingenious solution. They string a wire high above the main square of the town and invite Veruchika, the beautiful female tightrope walker from the city of Pultusk, to perform her tightrope-walking stunts for Chelm. Scantily clad, with a parasol in one hand, she parades back and forth across the wire. Everyone in town turns out to watch her; the women jab their husbands in the ribs for looking up so eagerly at the enticing Veruchika, which the women and children do as well. And once again the wisdom of the town elders and sages is proved, for as the townsfolk raise their heads and crane their necks to see Veruchika above the square on the tightrope, their noses—as if by magic—cease to drip.
The third movement, Witch Cunegunde, depicts the purported evil sorceress Cunegunde, who is said to live in the forest outside Chelm. Cunegunde is a long-standing local legend whom parents invoke as a threat to misbehaving children, saying that if a child were to be sent into the forest as punishment, Cunegunde would catch him and make his ears grow down to his feet or turn his nose into a corkscrew. All misfortunes in the city—bankruptcy, an unhappy marriage, a damaging storm—are attributed to the witch, who takes credit for them because it strengthens her reputation as a sorceress. Cunegunde is not without a weakness for love, however, and she has fallen in love with the town rabbi, Reb Leib, during one of his walks in the forest. However, since he is under Divine protection, none of her sorcery—including feminine wiles, potions, and other tricks—have succeeded in attracting his love in return.
The similarity between the witch’s name in the Chelm tale and the fictional character Cunégonde in Voltaire’s novel Candide is difficult to ignore. Indeed, the two names may be identical, with the slight variation only a matter of Yiddish pronunciation. Voltaire’s character, who engages in multiple amorous and sexual exploits as the mistress of three men (two of them simultaneously) before marrying Candide in the end, is thought by some literary scholars to have her derivation in Cunigunde of Luxemburg, wife of the 11th-century Holy Roman Emperor Henry II. Whether or not Voltaire so based his character, the name itself is believed by many etymologists to be a pun on the Latin and French terms for female genitalia (which became a coarse physiological term and a vulgar epithet in English, signifying, among other things, a nasty, despicable woman). Given the singularity of the name, pure coincidence strains the imagination. But how the name of Voltaire’s character—or the earlier Luxembourgian one—might have found its way into a Yiddish tale in Poland, if indeed there is any connection, is open to conjecture.
The fourth and final movement, The Soldiers of Chelm, reflects another case of the “wisdom” of Chelm’s Jews. A famous rabbi from Lublin is about to arrive one morning on a visit to Chelm, following a snowstorm the previous night. Remarking on the beauty of the freshly fallen layer of pristine snow covering the ground in front of the synagogue, the people try to come up with a way to avoid having the rabbi make footprints in the snow, thus ruining its breathtaking effect. They huddle in council and arrive at a brilliant solution: A welcoming committee of four strong men will meet the rabbi at the railroad station, hoist him up into a high chair fitted with long slats, and carry him up the hill, across the expanse, and into the synagogue. That way, the rabbi’s feet need never touch the ground and ruin the layer of snow.
Meanwhile, the army regiment in Chelm has been suffering serious defeats, which concern the entire town. They have been pummeled by their adversaries in Nashelsk; they have lost the Battle of the River; and even a girls’ sport team from Vilna has gotten the better of them, which was the last straw for Chelm. Something must be done. Feitl the Thief comes forward and announces that if the town were to grant him full authority (and immunity) as its leader, he would break the tide of misfortunes. With unanimous agreement, Feitl is appointed the mayor, simultaneously given an absurd array of titles—including minister of war, chancellor of the exchequer, and anything else they can find to aggrandize him. Feitl’s first official act is to issue a proclamation stating that stealing is no longer a crime, but he also follows through on his assurances, arranging first for the army to be outfitted with new, stolen equipment and ammunition. The army goes on to victory after glorious victory throughout northeastern and central Poland and even beyond. Feitl’s ego gets the better of him, and he decides to go to America to conquer Chicago—for some reason, the American city perceived in Chelm as the ultimate utopia. He leaves on this mission, and of course, no one ever hears from him again.
The first movement combines the character of a typical eastern European Jewish wedding dance, such as a freylekh, with echoes of actual Hassidic niggunim (sing. nign, denoting not only a tune in its generic sense—the original and literal meaning of the word—but also a spiritual melody, whether joyous or meditative, specific to Hassidic rituals and celebrations). At the outset, Schoenfield quotes a well-known nign of the Lubavitcher Hassidim (the dynasty also now known as Habad, for its acronym that represents the three words for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge). Although even the first part of the tune is not quoted in its entirety, it is sufficiently and instantly recognizable before its alteration following three measures of its statement, with its syncopated incipit and semiquaver and quaver/semiquaver figures. This first part of the opening nign becomes the principal thematic material of the movement, recurring throughout. The second part, or b section of the same tune, appears later as well, as does another Lubavitcher nign identifiable by its initial leap of a fifth and its dwelling on the fifth tone. But the melodic substance always returns to the initial nign as the point of reference, which is heard in various alterations and extensions played by each of the four strings at various times. There is a driving, motoric force throughout the movement, with unrelenting energy, as the semiquavers of the initial nign are expanded and extended to a fortissimo climax, with no retard.
The second movement is marked “alla Marcia,” but it is as much a depiction of the steps of the tightrope walker as it is a march. The principal motive, a dotted rhythmic figure stated initially by the first violin, is heard passim in various extensions, often accompanied by marchlike pulsating chords, evenly paced. The overall character becomes lyrical toward the end, as the movement fades to its conclusion.
The third, slow movement has a meditative, almost plaintive quality. Yet its motion, too, is continuous, even as it changes meters. Perhaps its most gentle as well as its most passionate moments reflect some sympathy with Cunegunde’s weak spot—her unrequited love for Reb Leib. It builds to a feeling of intensity, punctuated by a short waltzlike section, but ends softly (ppp) with ethereal harmonics.
The final movement returns to a quasi-Hassidic flavor, although without recognizable quotations, in a furious, ebullient expression that recalls the energy of the first movement. Reflecting the new victories of Chelm’s army, it builds with the frenzy typical of the accelerating energy of Hassidic dances as well as joyous niggunim.
Throughout all four movements, the perfectly crafted string writing, as well as the harmonic language, are reminiscent—in the best sense of original artistic inspiration—of Bartók’s quartets, with echoes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as well. The dissonances are mild, always allowing the melodic material to remain transparent; and the textures recall advanced neoclassicism, but always with Schoenfield’s unique stamp. The melodic material, whether actual Hassidic niggunim or original tune fragments in the same vein, is developed with typical classical and neoclassical procedures such as extension, fragmentation, augmentation, and counterpoint.