We Lived Happily During the War


We Lived Happily During the War is comprised of four songs and a percussion interlude, all of which reflect the isolation, pain, and political call to action — and the resulting inaction — that the 2020 pandemic has come to represent. It is also a further contemplation about my family history, specifically my grandmother’s escape from Ukraine with her seven children after the massacre in her town during the 1919 pandemic (my grandmother’s pre-recorded singing voice is featured in movement II). The piece takes on a devastating new meaning in light of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. — Mathew Rosenblum

In times of conflict, confrontation, uncertainty and strife, music is often a source of comfort and reflection. This was no less the case when Pittsburgh-based composer Mathew Rosenblum began work on his latest piece, We Lived Happily During the War, which took shape during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.

As it turned out, the piece gained an added dimension of poignancy in February 2022, when Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine. “It does take on a devastating new meaning,” Rosenblum confides, pointing to the work of Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, whose poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” published in 2018, provided a key source of inspiration for the music, and lends its title to the finished recording.

There’s an intimate sense of community support, the closeness of family, that runs through this work, and the musicians seem acutely aware of it. Soprano Jamie Jordan lends an almost sanctified reverence to the opening movement “No Words,” with sung passages that linger over the phrases “no words” and “there are no words” in ten different languages. She’s joined by the six members of Talujon Percussion, who rely largely on metal instruments — tuned pipes, almglocken, bells, vibraphone and more — to create a listening experience that owes as much to hypnotic, repeating melody as it does to the intricate, syncopated rhythms of, for example, Balinese gamelan or the layered sonic textures of Steve Reich.

One arguable centerpiece of We Lived Happily During the War is its second movement — a literal tribute to Rosenblum’s grandmother Bella Liss. She was recorded by her daughter (Rosenblum’s aunt) singing the Yiddish song “I’m laughing at you, for God is with me,” and years later, the tape was folded into the structure of the song. 

“On the same recording, she tells the story of her escape from Ukraine,” Rosenblum explains. “This was after the massacre in her town during the 1919 pandemic, and she had her seven children with her. To me, the song reflects the inner strength and perseverance she summoned while fleeing Ukraine as a refugee, and it connects directly with those in similar situations today in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

The work’s third movement takes its cue from Emily Dickinson’s haunting “The Loneliness One dare not sound,” while the concluding fifth movement, which also assumes the title of Kaminsky’s poem, features Jordan’s recitation over Talujon’s stately and mournful rhythmic cycle. The imagery of the piece exists in a tense duality, where the creature comforts of America push and pull against the waves of destruction in war-torn nations around the world — a powerful metaphor that compels us to confront our fears, and to cherish the moments, the memories, that give our lives purpose.


Produced by David Cossin
Recorded on October 1 and 2, 2023 at David Cossin’s studio
Edited and mixed by David Cossin

Jamie Jordan - soprano
Talujon Percussion: Ian Antonio, David Cossin, Matthew Gold, Michael Lipsey, Dániel Matei, Matt Ward

This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation.

"We Lived Happily During the War" from Deaf Republic. Copyright © 2018 by Ilya Kaminsky. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN. www.graywolfpress.org. All rights reserved worldwide.


We Lived Happily During the War
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Mathew Rosenblum: We Lived Happily During the War