Given his upbringing and background, it is not surprising that Samuel Adler has led such a distinguished life in music. In fact, his mother made an important declaration the moment he was born, as related by Adler in an oral history with the Milken Archive in 2006:
“The hospital where I was born stood on the site where Mozart married Constanze Weber. . . . And there was a sign on it that read this is the place where Mozart lived when he was in Mannheim. And my mother took a picture of the plaque and said, ‘My son is going to be a composer.’”
Of course, it helped that music was a significant part of the family lineage. Adler’s father and grandfather were both cantors, his father a composer in his own right who helped transform the music of his Mannheim synagogue. Samuel Adler recalled that instead of playing with trains and dolls, he and his sister used to conduct play services to the pass the time. But this was before the rise of the National Socialist Party and the terror that followed. The Adler family left Germany in 1939 (but not before saving the music from their synagogue) when Samuel was just a boy.
Samuel Adler (center) arrives in the United States at the age of ten. January 22, 1939.
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Samuel Adler)
In America, his father Hugo became the cantor and music director of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts, while continuing to compose. Samuel wasted no time fulfilling his mother’s prophecy. He became his father’s choir director at age thirteen and began composing liturgical settings during the same period. He went on to receive his B.M. from Boston University and an M.A. from Harvard. Along the way, Adler studied composition with Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, and Walter Piston, and conducting with Sergey Koussevitzky.
Adler’s career has straddled three worlds: general music, Jewish music, and music education. And he has been equally committed to and accomplished in each. He has created an impressively large body of compositions in virtually every format, including symphonies, concertos, string quartets, operas, and songs, as well as complete sacred services and dozens of liturgical settings. He has mentored countless students through decades of teaching at Eastman and Juilliard. And he has published important textbooks on orchestration and choral conducting. Having just turned 90, Adler only recently retired (for the third time) from Juilliard and published his memoir, Building Bridges with Music: Stories from a Composer’s Life.
Of the some 200 composers represented in the Milken Archive, few if any parallel Adler in terms of representation and contribution. Aside from the many liturgical settings and compositions on Jewish themes that appear in the Milken Archive’s permanent collection, Adler was also a founding member of our Editorial Board and contributed his conducting expertise to numerous recording sessions.
Recording session for Samuel Adler's Nuptial Scene.
Adler concludes his new memoir with the observation that the guiding principle of his life has been tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of leaving the world a better place than when you entered it. From our view, it would be hard to find a more apt summation.
It is difficult to summarize Adler’s musical contributions to the Milken Archive. The playlist below includes excerpts from selected works.
Symphony No. 5: We Are the Echoes
The four-note motif that opens Beethoven’s fifth symphony is often believed to represent death knocking on his door. Adler’s fifth symphony, “We Are the Echoes,” opens in a similar manner, but the rhythm is less predictable, angrier and more foreboding. Adler’s motif refers not to the inevitable march of time knocking on one’s metaphorical door, but to the evitable knocking of SS soldiers rounding up and deporting Jews to death camps. Despite it’s ominous beginning, “We Are the Echoes” ends optimistically, with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poem, “God Follows Me Everywhere,” emphasizing humankind’s capacity for goodness and brotherhood.
Two Bible Stories
Biblical episodes have been a frequent source of inspiration for Adler. In The Wrestler, to a libretto by Judah Stampfer, he recounts the story of Jacob through a contemporary lens. Focusing on Jacob’s internal struggles, his wrestling with the angels, his fraught relationship with his brother, Esau, and their reconciliation, this opera is as much a story of internal struggles as it is external ones. Musically, the piece is thoroughly modern, the drama depicted through angular melodies, disjunct harmonies, and brisk rhythms.
In The Binding, Adler recounts the seminial biblical story of Abraham’s binding of his son, Isaac, for sacrifice on Mount Moriah. The piece is actually somewhat a of a father-son collaboration. Adler’s father had composed an oratorio on this same subject in Mannheim, but Nazi storm troopers invaded a rehearsal and confiscated most of the music. His father had intended to rewrite the oratorio in America but died before he had the chance. So Samuel took up the cause himself, adapting his father’s text to his own music, which he explained as follows: “To differentiate Satan from Abraham and Isaac in musical terms, I have written his part strictly according to twelve-tone serial technique. This greatly contrasts the music associated with Satan with that of the other two characters, giving it a jagged and angular contour.”
Choral Music and Conducting
Samuel Adler with members of the Eastman Players at a Milken Archive recording session.
Five Sephardic Choruses was adapted from a larger work titled Ever Since Babylon commemorating the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. This setting of “Adon olam,” most widely known as a concluding hymn of Sabbath and other holy day morning services, is the fourth movement from that suite, and is based on a traditional Sephardi melody.
“O Rock of My Salvation”: This first movement from Adler’s eight-movement Hanukka cantata, The Flames of Freedom is adapted from a traditional ma’oz tzur melody that was first documented in Italy in the 18th century.
"El melekh yoshev": Written as part of a suite of High Holy Day liturgical settings, Adler aimed in this principle text of the s’liḥot liturgy to reflect the sound of communal congregational prayer. “I have always been fascinated by the sound of a praying congregation, when everyone prays and recites at his own pace, typically in a murmuring ‘singsong’ that can appear to be mumbling. I have tried to simulate that effect at the beginning of this piece, with the chorus intoning the opening words at various speeds before the cantor’s entrance.”
"Sim shalom": the setting here of the prayer for peace toward the end of traditional morning and afternoon services, is from Adler’s complete Sabbath eve service, Shiru Ladonai. “It is intended to be a meditation on peace and on the ecstasy of the vision of all people living together in harmony.”
I Will Betroth Thee Unto Me is a wedding song based on Hosea 2:19. Early Will I Seek Thee was composed by his father, Hugo. Samuel Adler conducted for this recording.