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January 13: Sholom Secunda

January 13, 2014
sholom-secundaSholem Secunda, one of the great composers of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater scene, died at 79 on this date in 1974. A boy cantor in the Ukraine, he emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1907, enrolled at the Institute for Musical Art (now The Juilliard School) in 1914, and studied with Ernest Bloch after graduation. Secunda excelled in sacred music, classical music, and other genres, but achieved his fame as the composer of more than eighty operettas, melodramas, and musical shows for the Yiddish stage. He wrote the melody for “Bay mir bistu sheyn,” and for “Dos Kelbl — The Calf,” the song commonly known as “Donna Donna.” During the last two decades of his life, writes Neil W. Levin at the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, “Secunda accelerated his energies toward serious concert music. In addition to String Quartet in C Minor, that part of his aggregate oeuvre includes a violin concerto and an orchestral tone poem . . . as well as two major cantatas: If Not Higher,” based on the story by Y.L. Perets, “and Yizkor — both of which were sung at live performances and on television broadcasts by Richard Tucker.” To see a great modern performance of the Yiddish original of “Bay mir bistu sheyn,” look below. “Secunda made no secret of his desire to be remembered principally for those classically oriented accomplishments rather than as a Yiddish theater songwriter, and following the critical success of If Not Higher, he is said to have remarked that he hoped that this serious work might make people forget that he was the composer of B’ay mir bistu sheyn. That hope, however, will probably go unfulfilled.” —Neil W. Levin, Milken Archive of Jewish Music