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Shattered Glass, Broken Dreams

New York
Museum of Jewish Heritage
11/09/2003 -  
Alexander Zemlinsky: Two Movements for String Quintet
Arnold Schoenberg: Transfigured Night
Felix Mendelssohn:


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 that comprises 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. 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 subsumed. 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.

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 printed 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. Music of both Kurt Weill, whose father was a cantor, and Leonard Bernstein often exhibits a direct connection to this melodic tradition.
Holidays have their own special music and much of this music is extremely moving. A highlight of the Kol Nidre service (ironically most famous in music history for being the inspiration for Max Bruch, a member of a Protestant clerical family) 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.

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 righteous, while Aaron is a demented perversion of the cantor, whose music is a powerful influence towards destruction. Ultimately the opera is about the problems of modern communication and has no resolution. Schoenberg, writing in 1930, was concerned with the demagogic rise of the Nazis and their ability to lead a sophisticated and intelligent people (the most literate society in modern history) down a path of barbarism and genocide. He, like his mentor Mahler, had converted to Christianity (Schoenberg became a Protestant, Mahler a Catholic) 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). Survivor is scored for speaker, chorus and orchestra and tells the tale of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The speaker plays two parts, an eyewitness left for dead, 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. In commemoration of the 65th anniversary of kristallnacht, the Museum of Jewish Heritage offered three pieces of music composed by Jews; significantly perhaps, none were Jewish for their entire lives.

Alexander Zemlinsky was certainly the most ecumenical of the three composers. His father was a Catholic who converted to Judaism, while the composer himself eventually became a Protestant (and added the “von” to his name for extra emphasis). One of his youthful efforts was given a strong reading by the refreshingly disciplined chamber group Concertante, who captured just the right perfumed air of decay in this fin-de-siecle work. Felix Mendelssohn was the scion of a famous Jewish family but lived his entire life as a Protestant. His youth was filled with great music, some even from his own pen. Here, the vitality of the musicians was tempered by an askew blending of sound, due perhaps to the unusual double quartet platform positioning, the unfamiliar acoustics of the hall (this was its shake-out cruise for unamplified music), or simply an uncharacteristic lack of preparation. Oddly in this reading, while the third movement of the Octet (written when the composer was but sixteen) was a marvel of diaphanous delicacy, the outer movements were both flabby and unfocused.

But it was in the Schoenberg where these fine players really shone. Passionate as only the young can be, the growls of the cellos, the angry and eventually loving utterances of the violins, the mysterious ambiance created by the violas, all were breathtakingly beautiful. It is hard to imagine a more forceful and yet tender rendition of this seminal work, which had obviously been fine-tuned to the nth, a recent CD by this group attesting to their commitment to living with this organic work for an extended period. This was thrilling music making and a wonderful way to inaugurate a new performance space. A fitting reminder of the lesson of both instances of shattered glass: out of suffering, rebirth.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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