Benjie-Ellen Schiller, who spent her childhood in Stamford, Connecticut, learned to play the piano initially on her own, mostly by improvising. Formal lessons followed, but as she has observed, her playing remained improvisatory. In her teen years she began writing songs—lyrics and music—of what she has since called a “folk nature,” with accompaniment for piano or guitar. When she was fifteen, she composed a setting of “May the Words of My Mouth,” the English prayer in the Reform prayerbook, to sing at her brother’s bar mitzvah celebration, and this inspired her to continue writing liturgical settings. “The prayerbook has spoken to me ever since I was a teenager,” she remarked in a Milken Archive interview. Summer experiences at youth camps sponsored by the Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) inspired her to continue with even greater enthusiasm, and she became a “song leader”—a new designation at that time, coined, according to her, at these camps. She went on to teach music and to sing as a soloist in various congregations during her college years.
For her undergraduate work Schiller went to Boston University, where she studied composition (for the first time) with John Goodman and Stephen Albert. She continued to focus on the liturgy—first in English, and only later in Hebrew when she acquired more proficiency. She also sang in the Boston Zamir Chorale during her college years and was exposed to the music of such serious Israeli composers as Paul Ben-Haim, Yehezkel Braun, and Marc Lavry. That experience, too, served as an important inspiration for her. Since Zamir’s repertoire included classically oriented pieces along with artistic folk music arrangements, she credits that dual exposure with helping her develop her own style, which she identifies as an amalgam of folk and classical influences.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree and completing her graduate work, she spent a year in Israel while her husband attended his first year of rabbinical school (Hebrew Union College’s initial rabbinical school year is conducted there). There, she wrote a setting of Psalm 150, based on melodies and modalities she heard emanating from synagogues and homes in Israel while taking Sabbath-afternoon walks. Written with an accompaniment for drum and guitar, this became her first published piece. It reflects some Yemenite and other Near Eastern flavors.\
Eventually Schiller decided to become a bona fide cantor. She attended the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion at its New York facility and received her cantorial investiture. While there, her master’s project (the program confers a master of sacred music degree on its cantorial graduates) was an original composition, Life Cycle Songs, written under the guidance of Samuel Adler. It comprises eight individual pieces, each related to a particular event of the traditional Jewish life cycle: baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, anniversary, conversion, funeral, and home or synagogue dedication. There are choral as well as solo pieces, all with piano accompaniment. Schiller describes its character as in the vein of art song. One of the pieces has a flute part as well, quoting a melody she once heard in orthodox surroundings.
In 1991 she wrote a complete Sabbath eve service, which includes many settings of the basic traditional texts of the Sabbath liturgy—the first time she set those texts. She also composed a new setting of parts of the text of the so-called grace after meals—birkat hamazon, in English; a choral setting of Shalom rav, the evening prayer for peace; Psalm 81, for solo voice and piano; a setting of a poem by the Israel poet Leah Goldberg; V’ye’etayu (and all the world shall come to serve You); Zeh dodi; and R’fuah Sh’leimah: Songs of Jewish Healing, an anthology of songs for solo voice as well as chorus.
Schiller serves on the faculty of her alma mater, the School of Sacred Music, Hebrew Union College, where she is a professor of cantorial arts, directs the cantorial practice, advises on master’s theses, advises on matters of prayer and prayer delivery, and coaches cantorial students. She is also a member of Beged Kefet, a group of seven singers—three cantors, two rabbis, an attorney, and a computer systems analyst—who perform folk-infused as well as some classically oriented choral arrangements for a project known as Miriam’s Dream, which raises funds to support community grants to aid elderly and disabled people.
In her Milken Archive interview, Schiller mused on her musical goals, style, views, and predilections:
I see myself in a certain way trying to write in a style that has popular melodic appeal, even on first hearing, but at the same time is music of harmonic and melodic substance: music that is memorable and has some kind of “hook” to it. . . . that would appeal to a layperson in its vitality, its rhythmic feel, its ease of harmonic language—but mostly in its melody. It has a natural flow of melody that I think we find in a lot of folk and popular music. I don’t want to sound too intellectual, even though I work very hard to give it substance. . . . So in a certain way I see myself trying to bridge the popular realms and the more classical realm: the nusaḥ [traditional canonized prayer modes] and the complete void of nusaḥ in what I’m doing.
By: Neil W. Levin