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In the spring of 1943, Cantor David J. Putterman, who served the pulpit of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue—a nationally prominent and religiously centrist congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement—presented his first "Sabbath Eve Service of Liturgical Music by Contemporary Composers." That service offered, as world premieres, the first fruits of his ambitious experiment: the commissioning of well-established as well as promising younger American composers, non-Jews as well as Jews, to write for the American Synagogue and its liturgy. There were some precedents in Europe during the 19th century, notably in Vienna and Paris, for invitations to local Jewish and Christian composers for synagogue settings. Some American synagogues also preceded Putterman in commissioning new music for Jewish worship—in some cases by highly important composers. But Putterman’s project, unlike those occasional or one-time occurrences, was soon designed to function in perpetuity on an annual basis.
Over its decades-long span, Putterman’s Park Avenue Synagogue program sought to encourage serious artists—who were often outside the specifically Jewish liturgical music world—to contribute to Jewish worship, each according to his own stylistic language without imposed conditions. In addition, Putterman’s practical aim was to accumulate an expanding repertoire of sophisticated music suitable for American synagogues, many of whose worshipers were no strangers to contemporary developments in the world of serious cultivated music.
The very first new music service that spring included world premieres of settings by Alexandre Gretchaninoff, Paul Dessau, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Hugo Chaim Adler, and Max Helfman—all commissioned expressly for the occasion—along with other contemporary but preexisting works by accomplished synagogue composers. The experiment proved immediately successful, and Putterman soon organized permanent funding for the annual commissions and premiere performances. The underlying mission was stated in the printed programs furnished for the congregation: “The program is dedicated to the enhancement of Jewish worship; to a wider diffusion and utilization of the resources of Jewish music; and to the encouragement of those who give of their lives and genius to its enrichment.”
Those special Friday evening services of new music soon became not only important occasions for the wider Jewish community, but also eagerly anticipated annual events on New York’s general cultural calendar; and they attracted considerable national attention as well. For the composers mostly associated with the general music arena, the commissions often constituted unique artistic challenges. For those already devoted in some measure to Jewish liturgical expression, the annual commission award became a much coveted honor as well as a prestigious opportunity—almost a “right of passage” in some perceptions. Indeed, by the end of the 20th century, many of the most significant works in the aggregate literature of American synagogue music had been born as Putterman commissions.
Over the years, dozens of successful composers received Putterman commissions and had their music presented at those annual services. The roster includes, among many others, such names as Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Herman Berlinski, Stefan Wolpe, Alexandre Tansman, David Amram, Robert Starer, Jack Gottlieb, Lazar Weiner, Yehudi Wyner, Miriam Gideon, Marvin David Levy, Leo Smit, Lukas Foss, Jacob Druckman, Leo Sowerby—and David Diamond. Of equal interest from a historical perspective is the list of many of America’s most prized composers who were invited by Putterman but who, for one reason or another, declined: Arnold Schoenberg (who did seriously contemplate the proposition), Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith, Paul Creston, Walter Piston, Norman Dello Joio, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Bernard Hermann, William Schuman, and Igor Stravinsky—to cite only some.
The first seven annual contemporary music services comprised individual settings of specific prayer texts by a variety of composers. Beginning with the premiere of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve (op. 122) at the 1950 service—and for more than a quarter century afterward, with the exception of special anniversaries or retrospectives—entire musical services as artistically unified works by single composers were commissioned and presented each year.
The 1951 commission went to David Diamond, who had already contributed two settings for previous new music services at Park Avenue. A tightly unified work, the various sections of Mizmor L’david are, as Diamond described, “cyclically related,” with a thematic and structural arch connecting them. “Everything is motivically and structurally connected, with motives and leitmotifs that are transformed. This is a technique that is certainly a result of my wonderful studies with Roger Sessions; and, of course, Boulanger, who was even more remarkable in that sense.” The entire work includes four selections from the kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service (of which three have been excerpted for this recording), and sixteen settings from the evening service proper (arvit)—as well as three organ pieces: a prelude and two interludes.
The premiere of Mizmor L’david was reviewed in the New York Times by no less prominent a critic than Harold Schonberg—an indication of the legitimacy and wide respect those annual services had come to achieve far beyond Jewish communal confines. “One feels that Diamond strove hard to get at the basic core of his texts,” Schonberg wrote—one of the highest compliments one can pay to any composer who wrestles with the inner meanings of the Hebrew liturgy. The work was repeated in its entirety at the Park Avenue Synagogue for its twenty-second annual new music service, in 1966, in honor of the composer’s fortieth birthday. It was the only occasion there of such an encore of a complete service by a living composer.