Jewish Currents July-August 2003 57:4 (619) pp26-27

The Abel Meeropol Centennial


[Portions in brackets did not appear in print.]

I never knew Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), but his works, mostly written under the pen-name Lewis Allan, have been a part of my consciousness longer than I can remember. He had been a librettist of my teacher and mentor, Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991). Yet the scope of Meeropol's work only became clear to me when I attended a December, 1986 memorial to him in Ardsley, New York. A reading there of his poem "Conscience" inspired me to set it to music. Fifteen years later that setting won the first composition competition of the Brookhaven Arts Council and was performed by [an] orchestra [of 55] and [a] chorus [of 160] at the Bald Hill Amphitheatre in Farmingville, Long Island[, July 13, 2002].

The People's Songbook, which appeared in 1948, [the year before I was born], includes his 1939 anti-lynching classic "Strange Fruit." Often misattributed to its most famous interpreter, Billie Holiday, the poem first appeared, as "Bitter Fruit," in the January, 1937 issue of New York Teacher. Meeropol began setting it to music on or after November 13th, 1938, as has been documented by Nancy Kovaleff Baker [in "Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan): Political Commentator and Social Conscience," AMERICAN MUSIC 20:1 (Spring 2002): 25-79]. The result, which Time, on December 31st, 1999 called "the best song of the century," [also] inspired David Margolick's acclaimed book Strange Fruit [(Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000)] and Joel Katz's 2002 [60-minute] award-winning documentary film of the same name.

All three of these experts were present at the Abel Meeropol Centennial Celebration at Queens College February 23rd, 2003 I organized under the auspices of the Friends of the Queens College Library and the Aaron Copland School of Music. Also present were Abel's two [adopted] children Michael and Robert (the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg) and their families, along with Aaron Katz, Henry Foner, and other members of the National Committee To Reopen the Rosenberg Case. Copies of Meeropol's 1969 collection of 125 poems, The Eye of the Storm, were offered in exchange for contributions to the Rosenberg Fund for Children. [That collection includes 3 poems first published in Jewish Currents: "Melody on a Jew's Harp," "The Master Race," and "Denazification."] Hundreds more of his poems, songs, and libretti are housed in Boston University's Special Collections. [Among those cited by Nancy Baker in her article, and lecture at Queens, are "The Chamberlain Crawl," "You've Got to Appease with a Striptease," "Is There a Red Under Your Bed?" and "The Watergate Gang."]

Included in the program, performed by four soloists and the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus, were three of Meeropol's own songs, in my arrangements, and his collaborations with Herbert Haufrecht (whose three children were also present), Earl Robinson ("The House I Live In" - the best of their numerous efforts), and Kurt Weill (the anti-Hitler song "Inventory"). There were also excerpts from operas that Meeropol wrote with Robert Kurka [(one of the great operas of the century, The Good Soldier Schweik)], Lehman Engel [(two operas, of which The Soldier is outstanding)], Elie Siegmeister, and Martin Kalmanoff [(his self-designated magnum opus of his 31 operas, The Insect Comedy)], who was also present[, along with Richard Marshall, Artistic Director of the Center for Contemporary Opera, which premiered Insect Comedy and plans to perform Schweik. The latter, recently revived and recorded by Chicago Lyric Opera, will receive a new production at Glimmerglass this summer, and at N.Y. City Opera in 2005-06].

The earliest Meeropol writings represented, dating from the 1920s, were the poems "Renunciation" and a "Sonnet to [his wife] Anne," set to music for the occasion (and the Great Neck House preview two weeks earlier) by Joel Mandelbaum [(commissioned by Meet The Composer)] and this writer, respectively.

Siegmeister was represented by six songs, four of them world premieres, and excerpts from his first opera, which was also Meeropol's first libretto, Darlin' Corie. Shortly after the work's 1954 premiere, Siegmeister and Meeropol began collaborating on a one-act opera based on Chekhov's play The Boor. It went through eight drafts, but the project fell apart when the FBI began harassing Meeropol and the Rosenberg sons. The details can only be pieced together from recollections and correspondence in the archives, which includes a heartrending plea for reconciliation that Siegmeister wrote Meeropol in 1975.

With the cooperation and encouragement of Michael and Robert Meeropol [(for the entire venture)], I set to music Abel's very first draft of the Chekhov opera, which he called The Wooing. It climaxed the centennial event, which was recorded and has been released on CD by Original Cast Recordings 6055. [Meeropol was also honored by the Oceanside Chorale June 7 and at performances of my Rosenberg Cantata, "We Are Innocent": at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ June 15, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue June 18, and Community Church of Boston June 21.]

LEONARD LEHRMAN[, a life member of Jewish Currents since 1988,] is Director of the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus and the Oceanside Chorale, Laureate Conductor of the Jewish Music Theater of Berlin, and Co-Founder of the Elie Siegmeister Society. His works, [numbering 158 to date,] including ten operas, have been heard throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel. [Eight of his articles appeared in Jewish Currents from Apr. 1981 to Feb. 1991.] Website: