I was sitting in a hotel bar the other day when my eye fell on the following sage statement displayed above the bartender’s head: Every loaf of bread is a tragic story of grains that could have become beer.
Which got me wondering if the staple could have become music. I found that it had indeed, and in various guises, from heavenly manna to a village bakery, from the staff of life to the stuff of ploughmen.
One of the more colourful places to start is David Schiff’s opera Gimpel the Fool, a setting of the story by the Polish-born American Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who died in 1991. In the words of the composer, “it turned out to be a world full of spirits and demons, as well as a world inseparable from Judaism”. Schiff remembers visiting his sick grandfather in hospital together with his uncle:
“Like Gimpel in the story, my grandfather had been a baker in Poland. When [my uncle] read him the story in Yiddish he would explain the meaning of many words that are not in any Yiddish dictionary, such as the word for rolling pin. My grandfather was something of a Gimpel the Fool in his character – he was truly a good man, no matter what adversities he might encounter.”
The opera culminates with Elka, Gimpel’s wife of twenty years, confessing on her deathbed that their six children are not his. Soon after the funeral The Evil One appears to Gimpel in a dream and tells him to take revenge by pouring a bucket of urine on the challagh dough – the dough for the Sabbath bread. His hand is stayed, however, by the appearance of Elka’s ghost, telling him that she is now paying for her sins in the other world. Gimpel buries the dough, gives up all his belongings and wanders off into the world.
Here’s the scene between Gimpel and The Evil One.
Gimpel the Fool (8.669010-11)
Next, to organ music by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992. The Livre du Saint-Sacrement (The Book of the Blessed Sacrament) is his last and longest organ work, a thematic cycle based on the sacrament of Communion comprising eighteen movements, many based on his recorded improvisations, arranged into three thematic groups. We’ll hear a movement from the group depicting the life of Christ titled La manne et le Pain de Vie (Manna and the Bread of Life). It alludes not only to Christ as the bread of life, but to the bread from heaven sent to the Hebrews wandering in the desert, as recounted in Exodus 16. The imagery here is particularly vivid: a stark musical landscape full of harsh registrations, songs of desert birds, desert winds, and even a representation of bread falling from the sky, the starkness all swept away by a transformative final chord. We can listen to the closing minutes of Messiaen’s depiction.
La manne et le Pain de Vie (8.572436-37)
Using a more approachable tonal language, Bob Chilcott’s The Bread of Life was written for three prize-winning German choirs who first performed it in the Mosel Musik Festival in 2010. Chilcott, described by The Observer newspaper as “a contemporary hero of British Choral Music”, has become one of the most widely performed composers of choral music in the world. You can understand why as we listen to the final movement of his The Bread of Life, titled Our Father.
Our Father (8.573158)
The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara lived from 1928 to 2016. He composed his Rubáiyát, a song cycle for baritone and orchestra, the year before he died. It uses the celebrated English translation of Khayyam’s Rubáiyát that was published by the 19th-century British poet Edward FitzGerald under the title The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam’s poems are compelling meditations on his philosophy of life, often seen through the pleasures of wine and love, cloaked in mystical meditation and, in the third song of the cycle, with the accompaniment of bread:
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse, and thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness,
and Wilderness is Paradise,
and Wilderness is Paradise enow.
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past regrets and future fears:
tomorrow? Why, tomorrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n thousand Years.
But see! The rising Moon again
Looks for us, Sweet-heart, through the quivering
How oft hereafter rising will she look
Among those leaves,
For one of us in vain!
And when Yourself with silver Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One, turn down an empty Glass!
The mood of life is rather different when you cannot afford to buy any bread, let alone any wine. Michael Tippett wrote his oratorio A Child of Our Time between 1939 and 1941; its premiere in London in 1944 was one of the major artistic events in the capital during the War. As was usual, Tippett wrote his own text. The work was inspired by an incident in Paris in 1938: a 17-year-old Polish Jew, who was being sheltered illegally in France by his aunt and uncle, shot and killed a diplomat at the German legation. In response, the Nazis launched one of their most savage pogroms in Germany and Austria, the notorious ‘Kristalnacht ’.
The central theme of Tippett’s text is the need for each individual to come to terms with his or her own evil side, rather than project it onto an enemy. Tippett’s music similarly reconciles and integrates apparent opposites: there’s the madrigal-like adherence to natural stresses of the words against the underlying pulse, coloured by echoes of jazz and popular music, such as the tango rhythm of the solo tenor’s I have no money for my bread. Here’s a performance with the composer himself conducting;
I have no money for my bread;
I have no gift for my love.
I am caught between my desires and their
frustration as between the hammer and the anvil.
How can I grow to a man’s stature?
A Child of Our Time (8.557570)
We’ll end with two smaller slices of our musical bread theme. The first, a piano miniature from the pen of the Armenian composer usually known simply as Komitas, an Armenian priest born in 1869. His difficult early life is worth researching, but we pick up his trail in 1911, the year he wrote Seven Songs for Piano while lecturing in London. They’re based on Armenian folk melodies, like so many of his creative works, and are fleeting, lyrical, tiny windows on the gently circling melodies and rhythmic drive of Armenian music. Each one is based on a named melody. Here’s the 4th in the set, Bread I Carry for the Ploughman.
Seven Songs for Piano (GP720)
Finally to music that will be familiar to most, but possibly not the performer – the contralto Marian Anderson. Born in 1897 in Philadelphia in the US, she lived to the ripe old age of 96 and, for the greater part of her life, was an all-American legend. She became an internationally revered concert singer and was the first female American black artist to win full recognition in her own country. For decades her name was a synonym for the finest performances of not only spirituals but also an eclectic mixture of German Lieder and Scandinavian art songs. Here she is in a 1941 recording of the spiritual Let us break bread together.
Let us break bread together (8.120566)