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Songs From The Song of Songs

Jewish culture traces its roots back over 5700 years and its influences are very strong in many fields of human endeavor. Religion, philosophy, law, science and literature have all been deeply affected by the preservation of ancient Jewish culture. The history of Western music has been populated with many significant Jewish contributors, particularly in the last two centuries, and Old Testament Biblical themes as source material for works of music are widespread throughout the last 500 years. Jewish culture and history have also produced a specific body of music which stands as one of the most important ethnic movements in the panorama of works that comprise Western Classical music.

Traditional Hebrew music has existed since ancient times. Before the Christian era, Jews played many instruments divided into three categories. Percussion instruments (mezamrot) included ritual devices such as the rattle (gragger) used during the synagogue service for the Purim holiday. Winds (nehilot) included the ram’s horn (shofar), blown to signify the new year at Rosh Hashanah. Strings (negginot) were similar to their Greek counterparts and included the ancient lyre. Chanting in the synagogue is the most ancient form of Jewish music and it exists today in much the same form as in the days of David. An elaborate oral tradition has ensured the preservation of these ancient melodies and conventions. After the destruction of the second temple (year 70 of the Christian era) all instrumental music was banned in order that the people would remember the sadness of their persecution (the ritual of breaking a glass at a traditional Jewish wedding is a remnant of this time, pointing out that there is sadness at even the happiest of events). Many of the Levite class (traditional lay leaders of the service) even cut off their thumbs so that they would not be able to play any musical instruments (compare the radicalism of China’s Red Guard). Only the shofar remained to announce the coming of the new year.

Gradually through the 1000 years which followed, music began to reemerge as an integral part of Jewish ritual and secular culture. The first significant Jewish musician was Suesskind of Trimberg, a minnesinger of the 13th century. Six of his works are still in existence. The seventeenth century saw a flowering of both synagogue and secular music in the person of Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). Rossi was attached to the Mantuan court and composed psalms, hymns and other music for the church. The chief rabbi of Venice, Leon de Modena, influenced him to also write for the Jewish service. His collected synagogue music is the three volume Hashirim Asher li-Shelomo (1623) for a three to eight voice choir written in a polyphonic style. In the nineteenth century the liturgical music of Rossi was revived by the famous cantor Samuel Naumbourg (1815-1890) who issued an edited version of Rossi’s works for religious service. However Naumbourg’s edition smoothed over much of the original harmony so that the essential flavor was significantly subdued. In the twentieth century the composer Hugo Weisgall reedited this great work, using the original parts from 1623 (there was no score written in Rossi’s time). Rossi wrote much secular music including seven books of madrigals, a book of canzonets, music for sacred plays, and the Sinfonie e gagliarde in 3 to 5 parts.

Depending on sect, music is a major part of the traditional synagogue service. In the services for the Sabbath and for the major holidays the cantor, a man trained specifically in the art of Jewish liturgical singing, leads the congregation in a series of musical pieces which can be solos for the cantor, choral works for the whole congregation or for a selected choir, or responsive singing and chanting. The rabbi leads the congregation in responsive reading and prayer and delivers the sermon. It is the obligation of the cantor to preserve the oral tradition which has been handed down for centuries. Musically there are two distinct parts of a Sabbath or Holiday service. The basic service with its standard prayers has a number of traditional melodies such as Shema Yisroel (hear, O Israel) and Adon Olom (a closing hymn). In the middle of the service is the reading of the Torah (5 books of Moses) which has a complex system of music accompanying it. In the ancient Hebrew language there are no printed vowels so in order to read the consonants, one must be familiar with the tradition of what vowels go with what word. At the reading of the Torah a different section is read each week throughout the year. The honor of reading from the sacred text is given to a special person each week, very often the boy who is celebrating his bar mitzvah or entrance into manhood. The section of the Torah, known in the service as the Haftorah, is chanted along lines that have ancient origins. A newcomer must learn both the chanting pattern and the vowel distribution for his particular passage. Additionally, there are a number of honoraria, called alleyas, wherein men who have already been bar mitzvahed come up to the Torah and sing a blessing.

Holidays have their own special music and some of this music is extremely moving. A highlight of the Kol Nidre service, which takes place on the eve of Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) is the cantor’s presentation of the Hineni (here I am). During this magnificent aria, the cantor is Everyman, laying his soul bare before the presence of God. The music’s raw power and ancient feel is enhanced by its rarity, as it is only heard once each year. At Passover, there are a number of special songs in the Haggodah, the book used for this jubilant holiday that chronicles the exodus from slavery. Songs like Rock of Ages and A Kid for Two Zuzim are sung not only in the synagogue but also at home around the Seder table and reinforce the special community feeling that is the essence of Judaism.

The nineteenth century was the great era for original synagogue music. The moving musical services that are standard today were composed by the great cantors of the 1800’s. A partial listing of the most important would include Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890), Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), Hirsch Weintraub (1811-1881), David Nowakowsky (1848-1921) and Boruch Schorr (1823-1904). The most important Jewish composer of the nineteenth century was Felix Mendelssohn, however his father converted the family to Protestantism when Felix was quite young and the mature composer produced no Jewish music. Ironically, the most famous Jewish piece of the century is the Kol Nidre of Max Bruch for cello and orchestra. Bruch, of a clerical Protestant family, composed this beautiful elegy for the Jewish community of Liverpool in 1880. The piece became so popular that it was generally, though erroneously, assumed that Bruch was Jewish. The Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, is the same tune as the main theme of The Moldau from Ma Vlast (my homeland) by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, but this is simply because they are both based on the same Swedish folk song (a wonderful bit of ethnomusicological trivia).

In the twentieth century a number of highly significant composers have produced music paying homage to their Jewish culture. Gustav Mahler, who converted to Catholicism as a career move, infuses his symphonies with the melodies and folk spirit of Klezmer music. Literally meaning musical instruments (kele-zemer), Klezmer is a form of Yiddish folk music that developed and flowered in Central and Eastern Europe. Its harmonies have much in common with indigenous Gypsy music and it has enjoyed a major revival at the end of the twentieth century (Itzhak Perlman is an active Klezmer player and has recorded some of this exotic music). Mahler’s First Symphony has a definite Jewish lilt to it and this is particularly emphasized in the Leonard Bernstein performances.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote a number of pieces influenced by Jewish culture. Schoenberg was not only a major composer and a highly acclaimed painter, but a dramatist as well. He wrote a play entitled The Biblical Way and this became the inspiration for his great opera Moses und Aron. In the opera, Schoenberg relates the story of Moses, the righteous man who cannot communicate well with his people. Moses cannot sing, in fact he speaks haltingly. His brother Aaron is a mellifluous tenor, who leads the people in the worship of the Golden Calf. The voice of God is a choral combination of singing, shrieking, speaking and whispering. The opera begins with the eerie scene of Moses trying to communicate with the voice in the burning bush. Moses is the rabbi, without musical gifts, who tries to keep his people moral while Aaron is a demented perversion of the cantor, whose music is a powerful influence towards secularism and destruction. Ultimately the opera is about the problems of modern communication and has no resolution. Schoenberg, writing his opera in 1930, was concerned with the demagogic rise of the Nazis and their ability to lead a sophisticated and intelligent people on a path of barbarism (and eventually, genocide). He, like his mentor Mahler, had converted to Christianity in order to pursue a musical career in Vienna, but the rise of the Nazis inspired him to reconvert to Judaism in 1933. He wrote several works in response to the Holocaust, including Kol Nidre (1938), Ode to Napoleon (1941) and the extremely expressive A Survivor From Warsaw (1947), scored for speaker, chorus and orchestra and telling the tale of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The speaker plays two parts, the survivor of the massacre who speaks in English (Schoenberg lived in America then) and the Nazi sergeant who shouts invective and barbarous commands in hysterical German. The chorus intones the mighty Shema Yisroel as they go to their deaths. Schoenberg also set psalms and wrote an a capella choral piece, De Profundis, on a Hebrew text.

Ernest Bloch was a Jewish composer from Switzerland who enriched the repertoire with his many compositions based on Jewish life. His most famous work is Schelomo, a Hebrew rhapsody for cello and orchestra composed in 1916. A similar piece is the Voice in the Wilderness (1936) for orchestra with cello obbligato. Bloch also composed an Israel symphony, Trois Poemes Juifs, Baal Shem for violin and piano, and two works for cello and piano, Meditation hebraique and From Jewish Life. He set an entire synagogue service to music in the tradition of a great composer setting a Catholic or Protestant mass. This work, Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) was recorded with Robert Merrill as the cantor accompanied by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Bernstein himself composed several works reflecting his Jewish heritage. His Symphony #1 (1942) is subtitled Jeremiah and is filled with the music of the liturgy. The opening movement, Prophecy, begins with the French horns intoning the Shalosh Regalim (amen response from the Sabbath service). The second movement, Profanation, paraphrases the cantillation motives of the Haftorah chant. The third movement, Lamentation, includes fragments of the Ekhah (the book of Lamentations) which is chanted on the ninth day of the Hebrew month Ab in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. As the composer says “…other resemblances to Hebrew liturgical music are a matter of emotional quality rather than the notes themselves.” The third movement contains a vocal part for mezzo-soprano harking back to Bernstein’s earlier Lamentation for soprano and orchestra and the pronunciation of the Hebrew is the Ashkenazic type used in Eastern Europe in order to pay homage to the symphony’s dedicatee, Bernstein’s father Samuel (ironically trashed mercilessly in the composer’s opera Trouble in Tahiti). Other composers who have written themes based on Hebrew chant include Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim.

Bernstein’s Symphony #2, The Age of Anxiety, is not specifically Jewish but does deal with the modern loss of faith. His third Symphony, Kaddish (the Hebrew Prayer for the Dead), is a further exploration of man’s disillusionment with God. Premiered in 1963, Kaddish is a conversation between man and God and is less a symphony than a dramatic monologue for speaker and orchestra. The speaker talks down to God (one critic said that the work should be called “Chutzpah”) and reflects Bernstein’s deep reaction to the murder of John F. Kennedy. In 1965 he wrote the Chichester Psalms on a commission of the Dean of Chichester, England, the Reverend Walter Hussey. The psalms, for boy alto, men’s chorus and orchestra are written in Hebrew and use many irregular rhythms and meters of fives and sevens which gives the work a jazzy feel. The first movement ends with a joyous chorus reminiscent of Bernstein’s other milieu, Broadway. The second psalm is a slow movement with a haunting solo for the boy. The chorus interrupts with short staccato phrases. The boy returns and his sweet song rises above the whispers of the chorus. The third psalm begins with a string orchestra passage of great beauty. Bernstein also composed a Mass based on Roman liturgy and the vernacular. He was always fascinated by the modern perception of God.

Non-Jewish composers have written on Jewish themes as well. Prokofieff wrote his Overture on Hebrew Themes in 1920 and Shostakovich, very moved by the Holocaust, wrote his From Jewish Folk Poetry in 1948. The Holocaust wiped out an entire generation of composers and it is vitally important to remember their music and their fate.

About an hour’s drive from Prague the Nazis established a “model” concentration camp for propaganda purposes. The camp, called Theresienstadt in German (Terezin in Czech), was where the Germans would bring visitors from world organizations like the Red Cross. The outside world was told that the inmates were treated humanely and that they even had a symphony orchestra. Several Jewish composers were interred here and they composed music for performance at concerts attended by Nazi officials. There was even a film made of the Terezin concerts. However, the dirty little secret was that these musicians were systematically being exterminated by resettlement at Auschwitz in Poland. Terezin became known to the inmates as the “anteroom to Hell”.

Viktor Ullmann was a Terezin resident. He had studied with Schoenberg in Vienna and with the Czech master of quarter-tone composition Alois Haba in Prague. Ullmann wrote several operas including Peer Gynt and Der Sturz des Antichrist as well as the orchestral work Five Variations and Double Fugue on Themes of Schoenberg. In the camp, Ullmann wrote the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis about a tyrant who outlaws death. Hans Krasa was a Czech composer and conductor who had established quite a reputation in the 1920’s as a conductor of Berlin’s highly acclaimed and experimental Kroll Opera. His orchestral piece, Grotesques, premiered in 1921 and one of his works, Pastorale and March was performed by the Boston Symphony in 1926. While a prisoner at Terezin he composed the children’s opera Brundibar which was performed several times at the camp. Pavel Haas was a prolific Czech composer whose works included the opera Sarlatan and the Mournful Scherzo for orchestra. At Terezin he wrote a Studie for String Orchestra and a Variations for Piano and Orchestra. All three of these men were put to death at Auschwitz in October, 1944.

Others forced to live at Terezin included Zikmund Schul, whose fragment from Cantata Judaica is based on Hebrew chant and who wrote two Chassidic dances for viola and cello, Karel Berman, who composed four songs for basso and piano entitled Poupata (The Rosebuds) and a suite for piano called Terezin, Carlo Taube, who wrote a Terezin Symphony (now lost), Dr. Karel Reiner, who was an eminent musicologist and author of incidental music to Esther, and Gideon Klein, who wrote many songs and chamber pieces. One survivor of the camp was Karel Ancerl who went on to a distinguished career as conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. The Nazis killed these promising composers but were not successful in destroying their legacy and there has been considerable effort in recent years to perform and record the music of this highly talented group. Hopefully more exploration of this music will continue in the future.

The Jewish tradition is a proud one and it has been nurtured by thousands of years of culture. The specifically Judaic theme has been explored often especially in the twentieth century. The mournful music of a people without a homeland is intermixed with a culture that constantly explores the relationship between man and his God. This exotic, sometime Oriental sounding, music has had a wide influence in the history of the classical music of Western civilization.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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