Life & Culture

How Jewish music helped me find my voice again

Mark Glanville believed a haemorrhage on his vocal chords had brought his singing career to an end...until he began picking up the liturgical melodies at Westminster Synagogue


Berlin in the 1920s was the setting for my mother’s early childhood. After arriving in England in 1932 she never returned to Germany, but its culture, especially the music, remained with her. She bequeathed that heritage to me, sometimes in snatches of Schubert songs such as Heidenröslein and Erlkönig, settings of the German national poet Goethe, where pain and death, life’s unavoidable dues — as she well knew — were never far below the surface.

Aged 16, I invested in an LP of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert settings of Goethe to Gerald Moore’s accompaniment. They illuminated my adolescent angst, transfiguring my pain, through art, into something healing, even joyful. I started to explore more classical vocal music, one day singing a phrase of Prince Gremin’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin to my clarinet teacher, Marjorie Dutton. She exclaimed, ‘You have a voice!’ and sent me off to work with Mark Raphael, a distinguished former recitalist, now in his eighties, who had himself performed with Gerald Moore. I had a place to read Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford, but the thought I might make a career in singing intoxicated me.

At Oxford I performed a recital with the college organist, the today renowned David Titterington. In it I gave vent to the sufferings of love, in songs by Schubert and others. In exchange, I received a letter from the Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Eric Stanley, telling me it was the most moving concert he had experienced. Similar missives followed. If nothing else, I realised I could communicate raw emotion through song. It was cathartic for me and also my audience. But my singing voice was embryonic and untrained, something a few years at music college would surely remedy. Sir Geoffrey Arthur, Master of Pembroke, arranged for me to sing to his friend, the well-known baritone Thomas Hemsley, who in turn set up an audition for me at the Royal Northern College of Music.

I was accepted there to study with Patrick McGuigan, teacher of luminaries such as Sir John Tomlinson, Gwynne Howell and John Connell. Paddy told me my musicality was far ahead of my vocal technique. We set to work rectifying that. I quickly began to sound like a full-blown operatic bass and in a few years had work at national and international level. But I had become obsessed with voice at the expense of artistry, enjoying the noise I was making but not the passion and catharsis of earlier days. Nor did my audience. I hit a rock singing Iago in Verdi’s Otello for Haddo House Opera, a role I inhabited at the cost of excessive vocal stress, leading to a haemorrhage of the cords and a polyp on my larynx that had to be surgically removed. I had to abandon all future work and learn to sing again.

Judaism became a refuge. I began singing in Westminster Synagogue, first as a member of the congregation, picking up the liturgical melodies along with the Hebrew until, identified as a singer, I was called to sing as chazan from the bimah, accompanied on organ by Harold Lester. Singing the Ne’ilah music on Yom Kippur was like discovering Schubert for the first time. I felt deeply connected to the ancient melodies that evoked the history of my people’s suffering (and joy) like nothing else. In Jewish prayer I was able to express the deepest essence of myself. Song had, once again, become art. My reward was the response of Rabbi Friedlander, the congregation, and the shammes who wrote me the sort of letter I had received at Oxford. One day, Harold gave me copies of a few Yiddish songs in Schubertian arrangements by Janot Roskin which, remarkably, had been made in 1920s Berlin, when my mother lived there. I responded to their music as I had done to the synagogue’s (and Schubert’s.) Another revelation was the Yiddish language; colourful, crunchy, raw, a direct connection to the people who had spoken it, including half my ancestors. Harold and I gave a few short recitals but I wanted to create a structured, themed programme, the vehicle for a full-length Yiddish concert.

One night I woke at 3am with the words “Yiddish Winterreise” in my head; it would be Schubert’s great Winterreise cycle, but in Jewish form, uniting German classical Lieder and Yiddish song, my two major cultural heritages. It took several years to prepare, with the eminent ethnomusicologist and composer-pianist Alexander Knapp, but, once realised, we were set on a path to performances at The Kennedy Center, Leeds Lieder Festival, BBC Radio 3 appearances and a CD for Naxos. These became the foundations for a new singing career, this time based on the authenticity of the deep, personal artistic expression I had lost on my earlier journey.

Mark Glanville and Marc Verter perform ‘Yiddish Winterreise’ for BookWeek24 on March 10

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