Chamberfest: Song cycle about Ethel Rosenberg all about a mother’s love

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in a park in 1945. Courtesy Rosenberg Fund for Children

On June 19, 1953 the United States government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in Sing Sing prison in one of the 20th century’s most controversial acts.

The Rosenbergs were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. That is what they are known for, but they also left behind two sons, Michael, who was 10 at the time and Robert who was six.

Over these years there has been much discussion about the guilt or innocence of the couple and the brothers have tried hard to clarify who their parents really were and to prove the innocence of their mother and the fact that their father did not deserve the death penalty.

When Julius and Ethel were arrested, the FBI took everything the family possessed. Almost all of that has been lost save the letters they wrote to each other and to their sons.

“My parents’ prison correspondence is my brother and my only legacy. That’s all we have of them,” said Robert Meeropol in a phone interview with ARTSFILE from his Massachusetts home.

Michael and Robert Meeropol outside the White House holding a black and white photograph of a protest in the same spot in which they took part in the 1950s. The brothers were at the White House on Dec. 1, 2016, delivering an appeal with thousands of accompanying petition signatures, to President Barack Obama, asking him to exonerate Ethel. Courtesy Rosenberg Fund for Children

“We consider this precious material and we treat it as such. I think my parents’ prison correspondence is unique, as far as I know. I’m unaware of any other couple facing execution who have produced hundreds of letters back and forth to each other that we can now read.

“We also feel a sense of public responsibility. There is personal value to these letters but also there is a public responsibility.”

The correspondence is held in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre at Boston University. The letters have been digitized and are now online where people can read them.

Kelly-Marie Murphy. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

One person who has read them is the Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy and her interest in what she has found in those letters has become a song cycle called All My Love, Ethel, that will have its world premiere at the Ottawa Chamberfest on Aug. 5 in an evening of new music. It runs about 13 minutes and there are four songs each about four minutes long.

Murphy, who is these days very interested in writing for voice as part of her musical practice, was watching the U.S. TV news magazine 60 Minutes when she saw the Meeropols talking about their campaign to have their mother’s conviction expunged.

At the time she was interested in writing something for the talented Ottawa soprano Emili Losier, who is a master’s student in musicology at uOttawa. (Losier already has a master’s in performance from uOttawa.)

Emili Losier. Photo: Darryl Block

Murphy heard Losier sing during various recitals at the university where she also teaches and thought to herself: “‘Oh My God, if I don’t write for this person I’m an idiot’.”

But, if she was going to write a notable song cycle it needed to be based on something significant. “It needs to stand out.”

She said she knew little about the Rosenbergs or the Meeropols until she saw the 60 Minutes piece.

She learned all about the trial and execution but “what really got my attention was these two men, who are now in their 70s, were 10 and six when their parents were taken.

“Can you imagine visiting mommy and daddy in Sing Sing prison before their execution.” It was this personal story that captured Murphy’s musical heart.

If she was going to do a song cycle for a soprano she needed to use a female perspective.

“So I started looking into things that Ethel had written.” And she had to seek permission from the Meeropols to use the words.

“They are very careful about what happens with these words. That terrified me. I’m a naturally scared person. What if they didn’t like the idea? These are the words of their mother.” But she summoned the courage to email Robert and that began a conversation.

“Honestly I just pitched them. What would they know of me? They have had pitches for all kinds of things, Broadway musicals and other things. I’m not first to contact them. There have been books they are not happy with.

“They talked about it. There were concerns (for example) about how much text I was going to use. It took a few months to be resolved.”

Eventually, “Robert said they needed to stop dithering about whether this was good, bad or whatever and let me do it.”

Robert and Michael Meeropol in the 1950s. Courtesy Rosenberg Fund for Children

Meeropol said he felt Murphy was sincere, honest, interested in the subject and sympathetic to it. He did his due diligence and realized Murphy was an award-winning Canadian composer.

“I figured she was someone I could trust to produce something that had some quality to it.”

It also helped that Murphy was going to portray Ethel as a mother.

The Meeropols have indeed turned others down who wanted to used the letters in a musical say or in other performances.

But today, he said, “I am more willing to say yes to people as long as I feel they are going to treat the material well so that it’s not going to be embarrassing or manipulated.”

Now Meeropol is waiting to receive a recording of the performance in Ottawa because he won’t be able to attend the performance. He knows what the text is, but he can’t get a complete sense of the music, even though he has a copy of the score and he once studied the violin in the home of his adoptive parents Abel and Anne Meeropol. Interestingly Abel Meeropol was a professional songwriter. His best known work is Strange Fruit recorded and made famous by Billie Holiday.

“I was one of these people who, as a child, my (adoptive) mother was keen for me to play the violin. I played it for five years until, as a teenager, she said I didn’t have to keep playing it and I stopped immediately. I was 14 at the time.

“At this point I can barely read music.”

Meeropol does believe the story being depicted is appropriate.

“I think that this is about family concerns. It is Ethel talking about her children and her husband. It is family oriented and I feel that is important to emphasize because there have been this false idea spread that ideology was more important to my parents than family.

“I think that is a false narrative.”

Robert and Michael are seen with their paternal grandmother, Sophie Rosenberg, in front of the White House in June 1953, days before their parent’s execution, when they were delivering a letter from them to President Eisenhower asking for clemency for their parents. Courtesy Rosenberg Fund for Children

Also the piece will be performed as the refugee crisis on the U.S. southern border continues to roil, something with which he makes a connection.

“Given what is happening in the detention camps and with children being taken from their parents and family members and asylum seekers being held in prisons, it all makes the whole question of imprisonment and what it does to families in general” is very present.

“Regardless of what people may think about my parents, it’s obvious that their case was political as opposed to criminal. And it’s obvious what is being done at the border today is really about politics.”

This photograph was taken of Ethel at her arrest.

Murphy’s daughter has just entered university so she knows what it means to be a mother and to worry about the children.

“No matter what is going on you put on the brave mom face.”

That’s why one of the letters she has set is one Ethel wrote to her sons.

“She is talking to them about what they are doing and how proud mommy and daddy are about their report cards. The letter takes you into this place where she is trying to project normalcy.

There are letters between Julius and Ethel that show their deep love for each other.

Another letter, which opens with Dear Manny, is to her lawyer in which she insists she was not going to betray Julius.

The last song features Ethel’s reply to a rabbi who gave her one last chance to confess. She said: “There is nothing left to say. I’m ready and I will sob my last heartbroken wracking goodbyes and reel under the impact of irrevocable murder.”

The fact that Robert was happy with the choice of text was “a true relief” for the composer.

Murphy believes that “music can express a range of emotions that you are not able to express in daily life.

“I don’t want to be superficial about these things. For me, writing music is about making a connection and sometimes it’s my connection with a subject that brings that subject to the attention of someone else who may not know the story.”

Knowing that there are real people who are survivors of something consequential matters.

For her, it’s not just the “big story,” but that beneath the big story are real people trying to live their lives.

The story of their parents is something the Meeropols have been thinking about and trying to understand for decades.

These days they have reached this conclusion.

“I believe my father, with a group of young idealistic people, did what they could to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis during the Second World War.

“It had nothing to do with secret of the atomic bomb. I think the U.S. government’s own documents show in their words that Julius was ignorant” of the Manhattan Project. But his activity was illegal.

“It is not my claim both my parents were completely innocent. However what often happens in my parents case is there is a plural. They always talk about the Rosenbergs. Then when people try to tease out exactly who the Rosenbergs were all they talk about is what Julius supposedly did.

“My mother kind of gets disappeared. The most powerful evidence we have about her involvement is that we now know from KGB documents and U.S. government intercepts that the KGB then gave all its agents code names. My father had a code name. But Ethel had no code name. We conclude that the KGB did not consider her an agent.”

The song cycle presents Ethel as an individual and Meeropol is very pleased with that. he knows how powerful music can be.

“I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and I have always been interested in early human history. I think we sat around the campfire for thousands of generations and one of things people did was sing. I think we are hardwired to music. Why is it so powerful, so universal? Why does it move people so?”

When the recording arrives, Meeropol says he thinks it will be worth a family gathering to hear the music and the songs.

“I hear my mother in those words.”

Chamberfest presents New Music Now II
Where: La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins, 333 King Edward Ave.
When: Aug. 5 at 1:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.