When Mark Glanville began to put together A Yiddish Winterreise, he had little thought that such a personal project would carry him quite so far. His programme of Yiddish songs, designed to mirror the emotional journey of Schubert’s Winterreise, has now been released on CD by Naxos, and this month Glanville and his right-hand man and accompanist, the Jewish music expert Alexander Knapp, are performing it at the Southbank Centre. But above all, Glanville’s Winterreise has taken him to the heart of his own identity.
Schubert’s song cycle describes a young man’s descent into despair over a lost love. In A Yiddish Winterreise, Glanville and Knapp have re-imagined this tragic journey in 23 Yiddish songs, many with specially made arrangements by Knapp, creating a Jewish context for the story: here, the wanderer has escaped from the Vilna Ghetto after seeing his child murdered. “I can’t think of anything more terrible than losing a child,” says Glanville, who is a father of three.
The cycle is intensely tragic, but by no means all gloom and despair — the hero, like Schubert’s, sometimes comforts himself by singing vigorous numbers reminiscing about the good times, in idioms familiar to lovers of klezmer or Fiddler on the Roof. Schubert’s original music is represented too: Glanville sings Der Lindenbaum, perhaps the most famous song of Winterreise, in a Yiddish translation. The last song is the Kaddish, following the revelation that the child has burned to death.
Glanville grew up rejecting his own Jewish background, to the point that he had never set foot in a synagogue before the age of 22. Blessed with a strong bass-baritone voice, he trained as an opera singer at the Royal Northern College of Music and the National Opera Studio after studying classics at Oxford. His first solo forays into the opera world brought him rave reviews, and high-level bookings followed. But, he admits: “I had begun to sing music to which my voice actually wasn’t suited at all.”
He ran into vocal problems and was forced to diversify. Now, he runs an events management company with his wife, and also does a spot of property development in Italy.
More famously, though, he wrote his first book, The Goldberg Variations. Published in 2003, this coming-of-age memoir was hailed as “painfully (and hilariously) self-lacerating” and “compelling” by critics. The book’s focus is as far removed from opera as you can get — football hooliganism. As a teenager he had been a “Cockney Red” — one of the London-based fans of Manchester United — and later spent his time doling out rough justice on the terraces where, he writes, he felt energised by “the rawness, the danger in the faces and stances of people who spat, and spilled their steaming tea and chewed their burgers open-mouthed in a pungent haze of fried onions and beer-fuelled farts”.
Named after Bach’s keyboard work, the title is a skit on Glanville’s background — his Lithuanian-Irish-Jewish writer father Brian’s name was originally Goldberg, while the “variations” reflect the ups and downs of coming to terms with a complex identity. It was shortlisted for both the Wingate Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Sporting Club Award.
Not that he stopped singing while he was following a literary career — but finding the right path was not easy. When he did, it took even him by surprise. “I was sent some Yiddish songs that I found fascinating, so I decided to include some of them as part of a classical song recital programme. People really responded to them — they wanted to know more about them and to hear more like them.
“I only ever wanted to connect with audiences, to give them something, to move them, and it was only when I started singing this repertoire that I felt I was able to do that to the extent that I wanted to.” As he says in his notes for his CD: “In the ancestral echoes of the music I rediscovered the joy that had led me to become a singer in the first place.” It was in this repertoire, too, that he began, at last, to find his true voice in terms of technique and optimum vocal ability.
A Yiddish Winterreise has certainly hit a nerve among listeners. Among them has been Georg Boomgaarden, the German ambassador in London, who wrote a moving introduction for the disc, declaring the cycle “not only an extraordinarily rich and moving record of Jewish life and culture; it is also a contribution to reconciliation and understanding, and to our shared future”. The embassy helped to fund the CD.
That became part of the cycle’s healing process, for Glanville had had “issues” with the German language and culture.
“I’m intensely attached to German music and poetry, but previously I’d had a sense of being alienated from this heritage due to the Holocaust,” he says.
Glanville, moreover, had always planned that the work should not only reflect Jewish suffering, but should aid the victims of present-day genocide. Past performances included a charity concert in 2008, in aid of the children of refugees from Darfur.
There is one more strand to Glanville’s multi-faceted life: he is cantor for the High Holy Days at Westminster Synagogue. It is a job that, with all that has led up to it, feels appropriate and strangely inevitable.