Masterworks of Prayer
Art in Worship
Description: Liturgical masterpieces, from small settings to full services, equally at home in the concert hall as in the synagogue.
Choose a track to play
00:00 / 00:00
No Work Selected
OVERVIEW|VOLUME 7 On the first day of Rosh Hashana in 2010, The New York Times published an editorial lamenting the dearth of synagogue services composed in the mold of Western art music. In the article, pessimistically titled “The Music You Won’t Hear on Rosh Hashana,” the author argued that in the conflicted longings of American Jews who simultaneously sought distinction and acceptance, the need for acceptance and admittance into mainstream American culture ultimately triumphed. Further, he hypothesized that this was responsible for the fact that Jewish American composers had, by and large, not devoted their gifts to the enrichment and development of Jewish liturgical music. The only problem with this otherwise well-written and insightful article is that its premise is misinformed.
Had the author of that article—whose much appreciated journalistic coverage of the Milken Archive has vaunted its work—had access to the treasure trove of liturgical music included Volume 7, he may not have changed the title of his article, but he most certainly would have changed its tone. For while classically oriented Jewish liturgical music may not be standard in synagogues on Sabbaths and High Holy Days, the significant body of work in that vein that emerged in America in the 20th century stands as one of the great achievements in the history of Jewish music.
The first known incident concerning confluence of Western art models and Jewish sacred music dates to the early 17th century in Italy and to Salamone Rossi’s composition of Hebrew liturgical settings in his Ha-shirim Asher Lishlomo (1623). But with a few isolated exceptions, the potential synergy between art music on the Western model and liturgical expression in worship services remained within the domain of Christianity—which, it must be acknowledged, initially provided the womb for the gestation of all Western classical music. This volume explores a nexus between art music—in the American extension of the classical European tradition—and modern American synagogue worship. The sacred music herein exemplifies potential convergences between the particularity of Jewish liturgical function and the universal resonance of sacred music—music whose purpose is to accompany and facilitate Jewish prayer and that, at the same time, may also have the power to speak to all audiences regardless of individual religious persuasion or orientation. As such, this music generally falls under one of two types: music commissioned for use in the synagogue by composers whose focus lay primarily or entirely outside any Jewish connection; and works conceived from the outset to both serve and transcend liturgical functions.
The lion’s share of the music in this volume owes its existence to Cantor David J. Putterman (1900–1979), a visionary who, under the auspices of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, commissioned more than 40 complete kabbalat Shabbat and Sabbath eve services by some of America’s leading composers of the time. Other works reflect commissions from other important institutions: sacred services by Darius Milhaud and Frederick Jacobi were commissioned by San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El, while Rabbi Jacob Sonderling of Los Angeles’s Fairfax Temple commissioned and collaborated with Arnold Schoenberg on an imaginative version of the Kol nidre, now considered Schoenberg’s musical attestation of faith and commitment to the Jewish people (Sonderling was also instrumental in Ernst Toch’s Cantata of the Bitter Herbs, featured in Volume 17).
Beyond serving as an aural rejoinder to the notion that a significant body of “classical” synagogue music does not exist, Volume 7 further attests to the fact that while the seeds for a union between Western art music and Jewish liturgical expression were planted in nearly 400 years ago in Europe, they reached their fullest blossom yet in 20th-century America.
Read the full Introduction to Volume 7