Jan Mittelstaedt’s “Songs of Silent Sorrow”

Tomorrow, August 6, is a horrible occasion: the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. It seems appropriate to spend some time meditating on our relationship with Japan and its people over the last century. Earlier this year Fresno, California, joined the rest of the nation in observing the 75th anniversary of the executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that forced 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens into internment camps during World War II. Fresno played a particularly terrible role in this internment, imprisoning 20,000 Japanese in two camps. I routinely pass by the Fresno Fairgrounds, a mile from my house, where I see tiny, ugly huts that held these people still standing. Fresno farmer and author David Mas Masumoto has taught Fresno gently and well about the checkered history of the Japanese in our region and led us effectively in observing this sober anniversary. So I was startled to see Jan Mittelstaedt, an excellent composer from Portland, Oregon, compose a work that tells this story so compellingly.

Songs of Silent Sorrow is not easy listening. Indeed, Mittelstaedt is not at all afraid to be prophetic and confront us with our sins against our neighbors. No wonder. She had the opportunity to interview the grandmother of one of her piano students and hear her story as a teenager from this era. The cruelty of this time is reflected in the very opening chord of “Shock,” the first of three movements: an incredibly ugly diminished triad in root position with a half-step dissonance added to increase its assault on the ears. The onslaught continues with the soprano soloist practically yelling “The children were told,” the opening lyrics by Roberta Badger Cain, as the cellist slaps her instrument sharply. The ghastliness of our treatment of the Japanese is made yet more horrible by this immediate plunging of their offspring into this maelstrom of cacophonous dissonance – all absolutely necessary to the telling of this story. Violent tone clusters in the piano presage the radio announcement of the Pearl Harbor hostilities. The ensuing canon proclaiming Japanese people and children as the enemy mimics well the real-life canon of gossip that spread our fear of the Japanese across California’s Central Valley and the nation. The very harmonic fabric of “Shock” is as torn up as the lives of Japanese families surely were 75 years ago: a quasi-tonal recitative breaks out into discordant shouts seconds later.

A close relative of the opening discord jars our ears as a dissonant quote of “America the Beautiful” gives way to pounding hearts in the flute and cello. The struggle between blatant “patriotism” and the rough displacement of fellow citizens is well depicted in one more back-and-forth between a patriotic tune and a chromatic quagmire that follows, as the ugly chord from the beginning brings “Shock” to a close.

The second movement, “Shame,” is an eloquent elegy exploring chiefly the F Dorian mode (minor scale with a raised 6th degree) and the F Phrygian mode (minor scale with a lowered 2nd step). This movement mourns the “shame trains” that conveyed the Japanese to ten internment camps all around the USA, as the tonality shifts across the universe to the very opposite: B minor. The descriptions of desert and relentless sun certainly bring the Central Valley of California to mind. The “loyalty oath” gives birth to a wildly disjunct motive that aptly describes the terror of the camps along with the drafting of Japanese men into a segregated military unit. This interacts with repeated moanings of the Japanese from their tight quarters, harsh labor, and family separations. I believe that “Shame,” with its increased tonality and gentler, more traditionally melodic and harmonic gestures, is a welcome tonic from the sheer aggressiveness of “Shock,” which certainly lives up to its name! It also prepares us for the somewhat festive finale, “Standing Tall.”

I always celebrate when a work of art has a moment of redemption that is balanced with reality, and “Standing Tall” provides that necessary redemption as it tells the story, in Mittelstaedt’s own words, of “reconciliation and the change of Americans’ attitudes toward Japanese Americans.”[1] In the opening, one hears the chaotic joy of children playing “Ring Around the Rosy” in many different keys and at least two different tempi. The flute merrily skips around this paean of joy with a bustling melody that is surprisingly chromatic and would be completely atonal in another context. It is a moment of festivity that combines Alban Berg’s Wozzeck’s final scene with the sheer hilarity of Charles Ives’ “Children’s Day” from his Third Symphony, The Camp Meeting. Brava for such a celebration! Yet the discords do seem a little too much out of tune, and, momentarily, we find out why. Not only is the train-motive from “Shame” quoted, but also, in the immediately following stark moment of realism, the soprano soloist narrates: “Not told: Hiroshima. Not told: Nagasaki.”[2] The wildly crunchy chords from “Shock” rejoin us as they temporarily upend the celebration with a moment of the sad and challenging reality of Japanese-Americans in finding work and rebuilding their families and communities. Yet, there is much to celebrate as families reunite in their homes, and Mittelstaedt treats us to a Ralph Vaughan Williams moment of joy with pure triads and dance rhythms. The mood again turns serious at the climax, the time of confession: “Internment was wrong. Our country feels remorse.”[3] The train-motive of “Shame” returns yet again – perhaps reflecting our shame as a nation, but also forcing Japanese to prove that they are loyal Americans (as the disjointed “loyalty” motive from “Shame” also returns with a brief reference to “America the Beautiful”). From here, it is an emotional tug-of-war between renewed Japanese-American pride (“Standing tall”) and brief, dark, teary reflections of the past that won’t soon fade away.

Songs of Silent Sorrow thus tells a hard story in a pithy, honest, and ultimately redemptive way. For its slender forces, a mere sextet and only 16 minutes of music, this work takes on an operatic demeanor, thanks not only to its inspired score but also the stunning performance of Vakare Petroliunaite, soprano, Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Betsy Goy, violoncello, and Dianne Davies, piano. My only suggestion for the work would be to incorporate more quiet moments, particularly in the finale where the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned. At a time in our history when we seem destined to make the same wicked choices of xenophobia as we did 75 years ago, this piece is important and deserves widespread performances around our nation. I, myself, cannot help but wonder if a performance in Japan might not effect even greater reconciliation between us and our former enemy and now staunch ally.

Alas, this fine work is not available on Mittelstaedt’s website http://www.sintsink.com for listening, so here is at least a temporary place to hear this epochal piece: http://williamvollinger.com/audio/Mittelstaedt3.mp3.

[1] Jan Mittelstaedt, Songs of Silent Sorrow (Portland, Oregon: self-published, 2016), 3.

[2] Ibid., 33-34.

[3] Ibid., 38.