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I'm a Stranger Here Myself - story script

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

Damask Vocal Quartet

narrative script by Katharine Dain


K -- A glorious goddess

M -- Les feuilles mortes

G -- Mackie Messer

D -- Were you there


Do you hear that? I have a lifetime’s worth of music in my head. I can hardly remember where it all comes from. But there is little canon that I will never forget. I know every interval, every suspension. Back in 1928, when I was studying violin at the Universität der Künste Berlin, our counterpoint classes focused on the voice leading of Bach, the fugues of Beethoven. But this little exercise of Schoenberg, which pointed toward a new set of musical rules for the 20th century, fired my imagination as the older composers never could.


gather on Arnold Schönberg: Wenn der schwer Gedrückte klagt

And Schoenberg, like me, was a Jew from a poor family. Coming to Berlin from Rotterdam was a dream. I was the first in my family to study music, and my mother was so proud. I couldn’t believe the musical life of Berlin—hearing the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler, the premiere of Wozzeck at the Staatsoper… I was so lucky.

But eventually, after graduating and working as a freelance player for several years, I realized that I could not stay. Jews were losing work. Like many colleagues, I began to look west—to Paris. Finally, I made the exciting move, and my first job was playing in a cabaret club. Such a change of musical style, but I loved it. Here, come—listen! This was one of the first songs I played—by a Hungarian who had also moved to Paris out of necessity. I felt such a kinship with this man and his beautiful nostalgic melody.


Joseph Kosma (arr. Ryan O'Connell): Les feuilles mortes


A few years in Paris, though, and I could already feel the vicious arm of Nazism reaching my way again. I began to see what might happen if I stayed in Paris—I could be forced into hiding, imprisoned, or worse. Those who stayed and who dared to fight for justice saw horrible things—if they survived at all.


Darius Milhaud: Six sonnets composés au secret par Jean Cassou


I had to flee. I was lucky to secure passage on a ship to New York, and so began the longest journey I had ever made. Come, relive it with me! I will never forget the feeling of freedom and possibility when I saw the Liberty Statue for the first time. The ship deck was crowded with immigrants like me: children sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, old women clutching their few possessions to their hearts; and as we rounded New York harbor, the deck erupted in cheers, tears, frantically waving handkerchiefs. Pure happiness.

With the help of a friend from Berlin, I found a small room to rent on the Lower East Side. I picked up some teaching work in a music school and some night jobs playing in the pit at the theater. I was happy, I was working, and I began to settle into my new home. But as I observed my fellow New Yorkers, I began to see that many, even those born in America, were much worse off than I.


Kaija Saariaho: The claw of the magnolia (From the Grammar of Dreams)


I thought America would feel socially free. But the hierarchies were even more rigid than what I had left behind. I would see bored and unhappy women walking the New York streets in beautiful clothes, women whose only duty was to their busy husbands. Years later, reading Sylvia Plath’s explosive and fiery words for the first time, I could fully feel the hopelessness of their lives. And as I began to make friends with other artists, I met men who loved other men but didn’t dare live openly. At least the unhappy artists could sometimes relieve their suffering through their work. My friend Ned, a promising young composer, found solace setting the ancient homoerotic texts of Sappho.


Ned Rorem: Four Madrigals


The worst-off were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of former American slaves. I learned quickly that those with brown skin had a harder time than anyone. The Harlem community was insular and tight-knit and looked after its own, but friendly outsiders were welcomed; sometimes I would make the long journey uptown to 134th Street on a Sunday morning and sit quietly in the back of St. Philip’s. There, the suffering, hardship and joy of these people’s shared history was palpable in every word and note. I heard some of the most beautiful melodies of my life in those pews—many of them had been slave’s work songs—and I could never stop the tears from coming as I thought about my family, left behind in Rotterdam and missing ever since the bombings.


American Spirituals

My Lord, what a morning (arr. Palle Jefferson)

Were you there (arr. Katharine Dain)

All my trials (arr. Norman Luboff)

God's gonna set this world on fire (arr. Moses Hogan)


Through my work playing in the theater, I eventually found a whole community of musicians making new lives in New York after fleeing Europe. What a joy to meet a conductor, or pianist, or even a rival violinist, who had made the same journey I had! Once I even got to play under the famous Kurt Weill, a legend among theater musicians, for a run of shows at the Imperial Theater on 45th Street. Let’s listen! He, too, had started his musical life in Berlin—if I had been a few years older, I might have even met him at the conservatory. He too tried to make a new start in Paris, and in the end only found freedom in New York. The great genius had even adapted his style of composition to each of his homes. I loved his songs, so bitter and playful and sad and funny at the same time, and playing in the pit for One Touch of Venus was a highlight of my career.


Kurt Weill (arr. Mattijs van de Woerd)

Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

La Complainte de la Seine

I’m a Stranger Here Myself


But all this was long ago. I am growing old, and especially now I can feel how lucky I have been. I received wonderful training, I escaped Europe alive, and I made a good career in America. I was always hearing beautiful, exciting new music and being influenced by it. But I still sometimes feel homesick, and then I put on a record that reminds me of the past. This nostalgic song made the same journey I did—it seems to have followed me for my whole life.


Joseph Kosma (arr. Ryan O'Connell): Autumn leaves