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Notwithstanding his many subsequent large-scale grand religious works, Berlinski always considered Avodat shabbat—his complete setting of the Reform version of the Friday evening Sabbath service according to the Union Prayer Book—his magnum opus. In some ways this work has come to represent a continuation of the path forged by Ernest Bloch and Darius Milhaud, who had successfully approached the Hebrew liturgy for the first time not only as specific synagogue music for worship, but also as universal artistic expression that could transcend practical Judaic and religious confines. Bloch and Milhaud had written Sabbath morning services, while Berlinski addressed the evening liturgy. And, whereas Bloch had used traditional material directly in only one part, and Milhaud had incorporated significant parts of the rare Provençal liturgical melodic tradition, Berlinski chose to rely, albeit not slavishly, on Ashkenazi prayer modes and biblical cantillation motifs.
Although Berlinski was consciously inspired by those two works—especially Bloch’s—his own service was not begun with such lofty aspirations. It began as synagogue music per se and developed later into the universal statement that it indeed is. Avodat shabbat was born as a commission by Cantor David Putterman for New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue as part of its extraordinary program of encouraging both highly established and promising composers to experiment with liturgical expression for its annual “new music” services. The timing in terms of Berlinski’s own development was fortuitous, since he had become increasingly disillusioned with the dearth of worthy artistic endeavor among many North American Reform synagogues and what he perceived to be a static, if not fossilized, condition. He was well aware of much worthy contemporary synagogue music as individual settings, but he saw little opportunity for a broader and deeper expression of the liturgy as cultivated art music. Apart from a few isolated incidents, Putterman’s annual commissions were providing the only real incentive for composers to devote their gifts to the synagogue on that level.
Cantor Putterman, generally conservative in his risks, and knowing that Berlinski had not yet explored the liturgy on that artistic level, invited him first to write a single setting for v’sham’ru, a brief text in the Friday evening service. After its premiere at the Park Avenue Synagogue, Putterman, now fully satisfied that Berlinski was a major talent, commissioned him to write a complete service. Avodat shabbat received its premiere in its original form (cantor, choir, and organ) at Park Avenue in 1958. Following that premiere, Berlinski’s friend Rabbi Abraham Klausner (congregation Emanu-El in Yonkers, New York) became convinced of its higher possibilities as a work for serious rendition within a symphonic context. In 1963, Rabbi Klausner showed the score to his friend Leonard Bernstein, who enthusiastically supported its public concert performance. Bernstein noted that he was especially impressed by its simplicity and its freshness: “from the heart... and a fine compromise between tradition and somewhat contemporary sounds.” He even wrote that he might consider performing the work himself in the future.
Armed with the Bernstein letter, Rabbi Klausner was able to persuade the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the lay federation of American Reform congregations) to fund Berlinski’s orchestration of the work and the premiere of the new version. His orchestration was ambitious, perhaps even a bit overly so: double woodwinds plus English horn, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two harps, strings, and elaborate percussion (cymbals; triangle; gong; tenor, bass, and small drums; and tambourine)—but, daringly, without violins. Berlinski also expanded the original solo vocal parts to include a soprano and mezzo-soprano or contralto, and he added settings for a few texts. This version was given its premiere that same year (1963) at Lincoln Center in New York, with the tenor role sung by Cantor Jacob Barkin, and the chorus and orchestra conducted by Abraham Kaplan. It shared the program with Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony.
Upon his acceptance of the original Park Avenue commission, Berlinski began by approaching the task according to his previously worked-out convictions concerning new sacred music: “There are three different elements that must be combined in the creation of a liturgical work,” he once wrote. “The spontaneous spark, without which a composer is not truly a composer; a clear understanding of the religious function of the music, without which a work will lack direction and conviction; and, finally, a knowledge of the traditional materials that are common denominators between the composer and the congregation.”
The harmonic structure often reflects the tension between the two basic traditional modes of the Ashkenazi Sabbath eve liturgy: the so-called adonai malakh mode, based on a scale akin to Western major but with important differences, including a scale that embraces more than an octave; and the magen avot mode, whose scale is akin to natural minor. In one instance (the l’kha dodi), there is the direct quotation of a specific traditional tune. Pervading the service is what the eminent synagogue composer Herbert Fromm called a “personal interpretation of tradition.”
Of the various devices and techniques that bring formal unity to Avodat shabbat and render it a cohesive work, none is so forceful and basic as the continuously recurring principal motive, derived from a fusion of biblical cantillation and traditional psalmody and introduced in the opening prelude. The prelude’s middle section generates the solo cantorial line in the ma tovu, a typical (but not liturgically required) introductory text for formal Reform as well as other nonorthodox Sabbath evening services. That motive appears throughout the ma tovu and, at the end, in the orchestra; and it recurs, both in its original statement and in varied or modified forms, almost in a rondo fashion, in the tov l’hodot; the bar’khu; the ahavat olam; toward the end of mi khamokha; near the conclusion of hashkivenu; and in the kiddush, Adoration, and closing Benediction. There are other, secondary recurring motives as well.
For his setting of l’kha dodi, Berlinski selected one of the oldest and most famous traditional Western, or “Amsterdam” Sephardi versions (often referred to as the Portuguese tradition in European and English sources). It must have been new, however, to typical American Ashkenazi congregations of that time, who undoubtedly thought it exotic. The tune has an interesting pedigree. Not only is its basic identity long established in the Amsterdam Sephardi tradition, but it is a firmly rooted l’kha dodi version in the London Portuguese Sephardi community as well—which is basically the same tradition despite local variances. This is hardly surprising, because many of the London Sephardi cantors came from Amsterdam over the years and became importers of such melodies. By the mid-19th century, this l’kha dodi was notated in a London compilation that reflected that Sephardi community’s established practice, which itself is a document of its authenticity. There are also other independently written and recorded confirmations of its long-established use in both London and Amsterdam, including one notation dating as far back as the late 18th century. There are, of course, local variances between the Amsterdam and London renditions that became crystallized as the tune was preserved in each community by oral transmission from one generation to the next; but it remains essentially the same tune. Moreover, the pioneer Jewish musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn notated a variant of this tune in the early 20th century in Jerusalem as he heard it from a Moroccan Jew. The preeminent authority on Sephardi music, Edwin Seroussi, has therefore suggested Morocco as its origin, positing the thesis that it might well have been part of the North African Sephardi tradition that was exported to, and established in, Amsterdam and London in the 17th century.
Berlinski’s incorporation of a Sephardi tune into an otherwise fundamentally Ashkenazi-based service was not without aesthetic or historical justification. In the 19th century, certain solidly Ashkenazi German congregations, most notably in Hamburg, adopted a number of Portuguese Sephardi melodies into their repertoires and even came to consider them their own. In part, that practice stemmed, consciously or not, from a type of aristocratic pretension to perceived authenticity and, consequently, status. There is no evidence that this particular tune was included among those melodies. However, in 1877 Abraham Baer published his seminal and monumental compendium of the entire aggregate Ashkenazi synagogue melodic and modal tradition as he had heard it in numerous synagogues and from numerous cantors—lay as well as professional—throughout German-speaking Europe. (We do not know the extent to which, if any, his documentation reflected any actual firsthand experiences in eastern Europe.) He identified his entries according to their established tradition or practice—e.g., German (old or “new” version); general Ashkenazi; or “Polish” (i.e., eastern European, but probably as heard in Polish synagogues in Germany or the German cultural realm). For a number of tune entries in that compilation he also included alternative “Portuguese” versions—so labeled—that were generally known in the German Ashkenazi world. Among them is this l’kha dodi, which was Berlinski’s own source.
Berlinski used this tune audibly only for the refrain. His careful harmonization with well-chosen chromatic elements, far from masking it, actually adds a fresh parameter. He also demonstrated his solution here to the problem of finding a way to employ polyphony with an old monodic line while still preserving its character. There is a delicate counterpoint even in its initial statement, motivically derived from the spirit of the original tune, with a Milhaud-like countermelody heard in the orchestral introduction and then again at the conclusion. That refrain is modally altered for its second appearance to a quasi-minor variation, with a brief canonic gesture at the end. The third occurrence begins with a bit of canonic treatment; and the final return of the refrain is heard in its original form, tying it to the beginning.
In the cantorially sung strophes, however, Berlinski departed from the traditional version (in which the strophes would have been variations of the refrain) in favor of newly composed but modally oriented sustained lines. Here the cantor is given rhapsodic opportunities that flow nonetheless naturally back to the choral refrains.
In his setting of sh’ma yisra’el (including the v’ahavta, which is the continuation of that “credo” text, collectively known as the k’ri’at sh’ma), Berlinski clearly relied to advantage on his studies in biblical cantillation with Rosowski, one of the most significant authorities on the subject. Here, in the v’ahavta section, he creatively combines the Hebrew text for the cantor, who follows the authentic cantillation for that passage, responsorially with the choir in an unrelated and freer polyphony sung to the English translation in the Union Prayer Book. Its a cappella rendition reinforces the effect of antiquity, especially contrasted against the rich orchestration of much of the other music in the service. That conscious juxtaposition of two unrelated musical elements produces an arresting dialogue, especially at the end, when the choral part becomes melodically related to the cantillation—almost as a sort of resolution. Although bilingual rendition is not entirely unknown in certain Near Eastern Jewish traditions—for example, among Yemenite and other oriental Jewish practices (albeit employed sparingly for special texts)—it cannot be considered part of any Ashkenazi tradition. Berlinski’s fusion of Hebrew and English here must be viewed as an American innovation.
The hashkivenu is notable as the most pictorial expression of a dramatic text in this service. It faithfully represents the prayer’s sentiments and its progression from the opening pastoral mood toward a passionate climactic plea.
The adon olam, the most common closing hymn text for Sabbath and other holy day services, mirrors the decidedly Arabic meter of the poem as well as its strophic structure. But the music goes beyond its simple strophic nature (precise pattern repetition) to a complex one, where the second line of each two-line stanza is slightly and subtly varied. This creates an illusion of strophic repetition without monotony. The scheme is interrupted, however, in the fourth stanza, where the soprano line slowly approaches its climax chromatically. Although, unfortunately, the overall sophistication of Avodat shabbat, together with its difficulty, prevented its entry into the general synagogue repertoire, this adon olam did gain acceptance on its own in a number of synagogues during that time and received performances within regular services.
The entire Avodat shabbat is sung here in the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation (including even the Sephardi l’kha dodi), since at that time it was still the overwhelmingly predominant pronunciation in virtually all Ashkenazi American synagogues. Berlinski therefore set all the texts to the particular consonant sounds and syllabic stresses of Ashkenazi Hebrew.
The press reviews of Avodat shabbat were largely enthusiastic, apart from one by Yiddish theater composer, Sholom Secunda, who could not relate to its complexity, its dissonant passages, its lack of more overtly traditional tunes, or even the very concept of it as a transcendent work of art. The Washington Post’s critic, on the other hand, found it “conservatively romantic,” texturally luxuriant, and exotic. Another critic was particularly struck by the cantorial line, which he interpreted as “flashing like a silver sword through the massed chorus.” Perhaps most telling was the observation of yet a third Washington critic, who remarked that Berlinski had not ignored the congregational role, noting that he “keeps it involved without descending to the trite or the obvious,” and that he succeeded in preserving an essential religious feeling throughout the work.