Music has been an essential part of Jewish civilization since its origins. The Bible – the nation’s founding and unifying document – is filled with poetry as well as descriptions of the music-making that accompanied it; one of its books, Psalms, is a collection of poetic texts most of whose chapters begin with instructions for musical performance. And we know that much of this ceremonial music was performed chorally, accompanied by instruments – it is even possible to view today, at the excavations at the southern wall of the Second Temple ruins in Jerusalem, the stone steps on which the Levites probably stood when they sang the daily Psalms.
If we could decipher those instructions in the first verses of so many Psalms we would know something of the sound of those ancient musical renditions. But such directions, as well as the cryptic cantillation indications for the public readings from the Torah and the Prophets in the synagogue, are far vaguer than the system of musical notation developed in Europe during the Middle Ages that enables medieval music to be reproduced in our own day with remarkable accuracy, and the secrets of their interpretation were lost through time and national dispersal.
There are many reasons to explain the break in continuity of musical development in Jewish worship that might have corresponded to the evolution of the liturgy. The Diaspora that began with the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE, followed by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, led to a myriad number of local and regional stylistic traditions of chanting and singing prayers, many of which bear a closer relationship to the surrounding culture than they perhaps do to original practice. The rabbinic tradition that was consolidated after the Roman exile led to a diminution of music in public Jewish life, with instrumental performance forbidden on the Sabbath and holidays – times of communal gathering – and restrictions on the repetition of words and phrases in the liturgy that are typical of polyphony. The later exclusion of Jews from European society, their relegation to ghettos and pales of settlement, fed a complementary rejection of the surrounding culture, further limiting the points of contact that might have mutually fecundated each civilization’s music.
Another factor that affected the development of synagogue music at a time when church music was flourishing is the difference in ritual. Jewish prayer is both text-heavy and participatory. All members of a minyan [the quorum of ten men required for public prayer] recite the liturgy either aloud or quietly to themselves; those unable to do so, either because of a lack of education or a lack of printed prayer books, at least are expected to answer “Amen” to the prayer leader’s chanted (rather than sung) recitation of either entire paragraphs or the concluding sentences of each paragraph, depending on local custom. The prayer leader can be any member of the congregation literate enough to read the prayers; he does not need to be a professional. In general, the more participatory a liturgy is, the less sophisticated its music it can be, because relatively few people have sufficient music training. In contrast, the Roman Catholic liturgy out of which the long history of Christian sacred music arose is largely a ritualized performance by the clergy – a sacred drama – to which the congregation is witness rather than participant. Such a structure lends itself to more and more elaborate decoration of the relatively brief bits of text, while in the traditional lengthy Jewish service such opportunities are, by comparison, few.
The beginnings of political and social emancipation, and the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, led to a resumption of a recognizable evolutionary path for Jewish liturgical music.* With the release from the ghetto along with expanding urbanization in central and eastern Europe, with growing participation in public life (along with increased wealth and cosmopolitan sophistication) came a desire to emulate the majority culture with a more grandiose manner of public worship [CUT, as well as a relaxation among some Jewish communities of previously strict restrictions in many areas of life, including religious services]. While there had been little or no tradition of choral singing in Jewish life since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, both large urban traditional (Orthodox) synagogues and the new Reform temples – which aided the process by paring down the content of the service, making room for “modern” innovations such as sermons, clerical garb, organs and choral music – were quick to supplement or replace the customary chanting by individual prayer leaders (which used fixed modes for each particular service and festival along with characteristic cadential patterns), with singing by professional cantors, often of operatic quality, supported by small choirs, at first consisting of two boys and two men, later (in Reform synagogues) also including women [CUT, accompanied by organ].
The music freshly written for such soloists and ensembles, by composers who were themselves cantors or at least specialists in Jewish music, was mostly based on the traditional modes and melodic patterns (in Yiddish, Steiger) characteristic of certain prayers and services (such as the Ahava Raba or the Magen Avot modes, named for the prayers with which they are particularly associated). The new melodies were then harmonized in the prevailing European style. The result was a comforting, unexceptional Western music with an “oriental” flavor, a development parallel to the general run of church music that continues to be heard to this day – as this type of synagogue music does also.
The pieces that we hear in tonight’s program were all written to be used in synagogue services on special occasions – Sabbaths (which, though they occur weekly are considered the highest of holidays) and weddings. However, unlike typical synagogue compositions of the past 200 years, they were all created by composers who were primarily active neither in the realm of sacred music nor in Jewish life. They were conceived specifically to contribute to the development of a repertory of sacred Jewish works whose first priority is musical quality rather than generic familiarity. For the most part they employ their composers’ usual styles and are not reminiscent of “synagogue music:” Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 sounds like Schubert, Bernstein’s Hashkiveinu sounds like Bernstein, and Harris’ Mi Khamokha is redolent of the wide-open spaces of the American West as viewed through an urban prism.
Even so, what is still missing in Jewish music are masterpieces on the order of the Bach B-minor Mass, the Beethoven Missa solemnis and the Verdi Requiem – works that are sacred in character and that employ the texts and structure of the liturgy but whose vast scale breaks the bounds of what is possible in actual liturgical settings, making them suitable only for concert use. But it must be remembered that the structure of Christian worship itself developed hand-in-hand with its musical accompaniment over a period of more than a thousand years, while Jewish ritual forms had long been fixed, without regard to as-yet-unimagined musical symmetries. In other words, paradoxical as it may seem, synagogue music is still in an early stage of development. Yet the fact that none of the selections on our program, aside from the Schubert, has established a permanent place for itself either in the synagogue or in concert may say less about the intrinsic value of the music than it does about the continuing ambivalence of the Jewish world toward the intersection of sacred and profane implied by the introduction of “worldly” style into the tradition-laden environment of the synagogue.
* It is true that in the early 17th century the Jewish violinist Salamone Rossi was a leading musician at the ducal court in Mantua, a colleague of Claudio Monteverdi. In addition to the secular madrigals, canzonettes and trio sonatas typical of any court musician of his time, he published a volume of Jewish liturgical music – HaShirim asher l’Shlomo [The Songs of Salamone] in 1623. But this collection was written in the current Italian Baroque style and bore no musical relationship to traditional synagogue rites; it never came into wide use in synagogues. In other words, it had no forebears and no successors.
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A Note about Pronunciation
Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people. However, as spread out geographically as the civilization is, there are many regional pronunciations. Even in the Ashkenazic world (associated with Eastern and Northern Europe) in which all the works on our program originate, German-speaking Jews pronounced many Hebrew vowels and consonants differently from their Yiddish-speaking cousins. The resumption of national sovereignty in the 20th century led to a unification of Hebrew pronunciation according to the hybrid model spoken in the State of Israel, which has become standard throughout the world. This pronunciation differs from traditional Ashkenazic patterns in several ways. Modern Hebrew has simplified the range of vowels (the “aw” vowel kamatz has largely disappeared) and consonants (for example, eliminating the difference between the letters taf and sof). More importantly for our project, while traditional Ashkenazic speech tends to accent the first syllable of multi-syllable words, Modern Hebrew tends to accent the final syllable.
The music on our program all predates this process of unification. In both 19th-century Vienna and mid-20th century New York relatively similar Ashkenazic pronunciations were the norm, and were the versions of Hebrew in the ears of the composers. This affects most significantly the phrasing of the musical line. While it would be possible to use modern Israeli-based pronunciation in all of these pieces (and Leonard Bernstein in later life revised his Hebrew-language works accordingly) that would still leave the problem of musical phrasing that conforms to the older model. Our solution has been to apply an idealized “standard” version of traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation, less in a quest for historical authenticity than to match verbal to musical phrasing. However, the transliterations printed in this booklet are based on modern Israeli pronunciations. The dislocation between ear and eye that this provokes may give the uninitiated listener an idea of the feeling a typical synagogue attendee experiences in a congregation belonging to a tradition different from the one with which he or she is familiar.
Alexander Zemlinsky was Viennese. Although his father came from a staunch Roman Catholic background and his maternal grandmother was a Bosnian Muslim, Zemlinsky’s entire family converted to the religion of his Sarajevo-born Jewish paternal grandfather. Zemlinsky grew up playing the organ in his local synagogue, studied at the Vienna Conservatory, was encouraged by Brahms and became a close friend and the only formal music teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, later his brother-in-law. Zemlinsky made a career as a highly respected opera conductor in Vienna, Prague and Berlin until the advent of the Nazis caused him to flee first back to Vienna and then to New York, where he died in obscurity. But his post-Romantic operas and symphonic works, at first overshadowed in the1920s by the more radical idioms of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and then banned by the Nazis as “Entartete Musik” [degenerate music], have in recent years enjoyed renewed circulation, with multiple performances and prestigious recordings.
Zemlinsky composed his Hochzeitsgesang [Wedding Song] in 1896 for the marriage of a Galician rabbi to the daughter of the cantor of the Sephardic synagogue to which Zemlinsky’s family belonged. Its text is the opening of the Jewish wedding ceremony, a formal welcome to the bride and groom. The music is simple in style, with none of the expressionistic angst typical of Zemlinsky’s dramatic works.
Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890) was likely the first synagogue cantor trained in both traditional ritual chant and Western music; his teachers included leading cantors as well as Ignaz von Seefried, a pupil of Haydn and close friend of Beethoven. Sulzer was brought to Vienna’s then-new Seitenstettengasse Synagogue in 1826. He retained the framework of traditional chants while regularizing and harmonizing them, for soloist and four-part male choir, in the then-current Viennese Classical style. He also composed a considerable quantity of liturgical music, publishing two volumes of Schir Zion [Song of Zion] with examples of music for all parts of every service, many of which are now familiar throughout the Jewish world (an example is the Ein Kamokha melody sung in most Ashkenazic synagogues at the beginning of the Torah-reading portion of the Sabbath and holiday morning service). In his lifetime Sulzer was famed both as a cantor and as a singer of Schubert Lieder, and became a professor at the Vienna Conservatory.
Franz Schubert, who like Zemlinsky was Viennese, composed his setting of Psalm 92 for Sulzer in July 1828, just four months before his death, at about the same time as some of his greatest masterpieces – the Mass in E-flat, the String Quintet in C and the songs that were published posthumously as Schwanengesang. This is Schubert’s only setting of a Hebrew text, and he seems to have taken great pains with the word-setting, probably consulting Sulzer on issues of pronunciation and accentuation. The recitation of Psalm 92 occupies a central place in the Friday-evening service that ushers in the Sabbath, a service that, beginning in the 19th century, began to displace the Saturday morning liturgy to become the primary weekly synagogue gathering in Reform practice.
David Diamond had the misfortune to be an insistently mainstream, tonal composer at a time of avant-garde experimentation. Though overshadowed during his maturity by more radical composers after an earlier period of success, he lived long enough to see the decline of academicism, which permitted his symphonies and other works to regain a place in the repertory of American orchestras.
Diamond grew up in Rochester, New York in a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family. He had a typically casual religious education at an afternoon Hebrew school, but was moved by the music he heard both in his local synagogue and in concerts by visiting cantors – even in later years he recalled hearing the great Yossele Rosenblatt. After studies at the Cleveland Institute and Eastman School of Music he moved to New York City and introduced himself to Lazare Saminsky, the music director of Temple Emanu-El, the most prestigious Reform congregation in North America. Diamond wrote music for temple services, and Saminsky in turn provided him with introductions that led to performances of Diamond’s early instrumental works. Diamond spent much of the late 1930s in Paris, joining the long line of American composers who went there to study with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. On his return to New York, his first two symphonies were premiered by the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony.
In 1943, David Putterman, cantor of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York (affiliated with the Conservative movement), initiated what was to become a more than 30-year tradition, an annual “Sabbath Eve Service of Liturgical Music by Contemporary Composers.” His aim was to encourage both Jewish and Gentile composers to look toward Jewish ritual as a source of musical inspiration, and to create a body of repertory for perpetual synagogue use. The first year’s service included commissioned settings by Alexandre Gretchaninoff, Paul Dessau, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Hugo Chaim Adler and Max Helfman as well as pre-existing works. Beginning in 1950 with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve, rather than divide the service among a number of different composers a single one was commissioned annually to provide a unified setting of the entire service.
In 1951 that commission went to David Diamond, who had already written individual pieces for earlier occasions at the Park Avenue Synagogue. From that work – Mizmor l’David [Song of David], which follows in a long Jewish tradition of giving scholarly or artistic religious works a gently punning title based on the writer’s name – we hear two excerpts, settings of Psalms 29 and 92, which are part of the introductory Kabbalat Shabbat [Welcoming the Sabbath] portion of the Friday-evening liturgy. That 1951 service was reviewed in The New York Times, and the entire service was presented again in 1966. One interesting element in Diamond’s setting of Psalm 29 is the unison choral part (sung in response to the cantor’s call), which is designated “congregation” – judge for yourself whether the members of your congregation could easily learn to sing this every week.
Roy Harris was neither Jewish nor an Easterner. Like David Diamond, the California-born Harris studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, but earlier he had been a pupil of American composer Arthur Farwell, whose fondness for Native American culture and for the poetry of Walt Whitman both had a great influence on Harris. Again like Diamond, Harris was best known as a symphonist: Diamond wrote eight; Harris, fifteen, of which his Third was for many years considered the likeliest candidate for the title “Great American Symphony” and is still frequently performed.
Perhaps the spaciousness of the American West is the source of Harris’ characteristic style, with Coplandesque open sonorities within an elaborate polyphonic web. We hear that manner clearly in Mi Khamokha, which Harris composed for the 1946 installment of the Park Avenue Synagogue’s annual new-music service. In the liturgy Mi Khamokha is brief – only two lines of text – but Harris extended it through the repetition and distinctive coloration of individual words and phrases into a multi-part structure with introduction and climactic peroration. Orthodox custom prohibits instrumental music on the Sabbath and holidays; Reform congregations typically support the voices with organ (or, today, guitar). During the 20th century Conservative synagogues were split between those that did and those that didn’t. While an organ was normally used at the Park Avenue Synagogue, Harris’ plan to include trumpet and trombone went farther than Cantor Putterman was willing to go, and was abandoned.
Leonard Bernstein was among the most distinguished musicians that the United States – or, perhaps, the 20th century – has produced. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, he grew up in Newton, where his father became prosperous marketing a new permanent-hair-wave process. The family belonged to Congregation Mishkan Tefilah, the oldest Conservative synagogue in New England; Bernstein’s father was an officer of the congregation and the family attended regularly. Leonard Bernstein’s earliest musical memories were associated with the synagogue. We can hear how deeply they penetrated in his First Symphony (Jeremiah), whose second movement is built on a theme based on the Haphtarah cantillation and whose finale is a partial setting of the Book of Lamentations, using an original melody closely related to the cantillation used on the national day of mourning (Tish’a b’Av). But even his completely secular works often bear traces of his synagogue-going upbringing: for example, West Side Story opens with an imitation of the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn]. Unlike Jewish composers such as Diamond and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whose familiarity with synagogue ritual was limited, Bernstein’s natural comfort with the idiom enabled him to embed traditional synagogue chant melodies within many of his otherwise secular works. [A personal note: as a student at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore I once had occasion to attend a concert in Washington that Bernstein conducted. Afterwards I waited to greet him; when he emerged from his dressing room he graciously moved along the line shaking hands, stopping to chat briefly with each of us in turn. Suddenly he stopped, brightened, rushed over to a little old lady at the back of the queue, threw his arms around her, stepped back and began to sing a Haphtarah portion (part of the Sabbath service popularly associated with Bar-Mitzvah boys), with perfect cantillation. He then turned to the rest of us and explained that she had been his Hebrew School teacher – he was proving to her that he hadn’t forgotten what she’d taught him.]
Hashkiveinu is Bernstein’s only published setting from the Sabbath service. Like the Diamond and Harris works that precede it in our program, it was written for the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, in 1945. The Hashkiveinu prayer is part of the daily evening service, but only on the Sabbath would there be the leisure to sing such an extended setting. Bernstein creates a tripartite structure that focuses on the key word “l’khayim” [to life] – a sly pun on the traditional Jewish toast over wine or vodka. The central section reaches out to the world of Broadway theater (Bernstein’s first hit show, On the Town, had been produced the preceding year), expanding the stylistic range of synagogue music and no doubt surprising Hashkiveinu’s first listeners. But those same listeners would perhaps have been comforted by the soloist’s part, which sounds as if it comes directly from the bima [prayer leader’s platform] of Congregation Mishkan Tefilah.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a Florentine, born to a Sephardic banking family that had been prominent in Tuscany since the time of the Spanish expulsion of 1492. (“Tedesco” [“German” in Italian] was not an indication of Ashkenazic heritage, but was added when Mario’s great-aunt married a man by that name and, the couple being childless, made his grandfather their heir on condition that he include their name with his.) The budding composer studied at the conservatories of Florence and Bologna, earning diplomas in piano and composition. His principal teacher was Ildebrando Pizzetti – among the leading Italian composers of his generation – and Pizzetti’s internationally better-known contemporary Alfredo Cassella became an early champion. Frequent performances under the auspices of the Societa Italiana di Musica Moderna led to Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s reputation as a “futurist,” which was far from accurate but gave the composer access to international contemporary-music circles, including the then-influential International Society for Contemporary Music.
Though Castelnuovo-Tedesco today is best known as one of the twentieth century’s most prolific composers for the guitar, many of his works written for Andres Segovia, he was active in many genres, including opera, orchestral, vocal and chamber music. While it is not difficult to discern the influence of Impressionism and neo-Classicism on his music, Castelnuovo-Tedesco pointed to three chief inspirations for his work: his home region of Tuscany; Shakespeare; and the Bible – not only the text itself but also the Jewish heritage derived from it. By 1938 the Mussolini regime’s version of Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws had eliminated performances of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music from the radio and from concert halls; the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini sponsored the composer’s entry into the United States the following year. He moved to the West Coast and wrote or participated in the creation of a catalogue of music for around 200 Hollywood films. His influence in the industry was felt not only in the movies themselves but in the work of his students, who include Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s attitude toward his Jewish heritage was unambiguous, though like many his strong Jewish identity was rooted more in memories of his grandfather’s table than in personal religious observance. Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve was written in 1943 for Beth Shalom Temple in Santa Monica, California, a Reform synagogue that used the Union Prayer Book – a modernized text incorporating passages in both Hebrew and English. It was not Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s first work for liturgical use; he had already composed music for a synagogue in Amsterdam, revising it and adding an organ accompaniment at the request of Cantor Putterman of the Park Avenue Synagogue.
By the time the Sacred Service was ready the rabbi who had commissioned it had left for another post, and the Temple leadership was uninterested in pursuing the project. Several sections were performed individually at the Park Avenue Synagogue in 1945, the composer offering them on condition that the service be accepted for eventual performance in its entirety, which finally took place in 1950. For that occasion the composer added several movements – Ma Tovu, L’kha Dodi, Hashkiveinu and the Kiddush. The entire work is unified by several recurring and constantly evolving musical motifs, and has the flavor of both ancient traditional melody and Hollywood film music. Castelnuovo-Tedesco considered it among his “most purely inspired works,” and hoped (vainly, as it turned out) one day to hear it sung in his home synagogue in Florence.
- Jerome Hoberman -