String Quartet in C Minor
on Hebrew liturgical themes
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To those for whom the name Sholom Secunda automatically evokes some of the greatest moments in popular Yiddish theatrical song from Second Avenue, any work so classically oriented and crafted as his String Quartet in C Minor will likely come as a surprise. It is, in fact, a testament to his early aspirations to become a classical composer (or “serious composer,” to invoke the label more current in his day)—an ambition that resurfaced periodically throughout his principal career in the popular as well as liturgical arenas.
On some levels, this piece is an effort in the tradition of the “ethnic nationalist” sensibilities that informed a number of late-19th-century central and east-central European as well as Russian composers—such as Dvořák and Borodin—and Jewish counterpart composers such as Jacob Weinberg and Joseph Achron, who were associated with the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg, or the so-called new national school of Jewish art music. Those composers—who discovered the artistic potential of ethnic roots—exploited and incorporated folk themes and tunes from their respective ethnic and regional traditions, not only in programmatic tone poems, but also often in the framework of standard classical forms such as symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and string quartets. Secunda’s piece here offers a pastiche of interwoven but transparently recognizable Jewish melodies and motifs—mostly from Hebrew liturgy, but with some flavoring of Jewish secular sources outside the synagogue—within the context of one of the most established intimate forms of Western art music: the four-movement string quartet. In terms especially of its formal structure (less so with respect to contrapuntal technique or texture), however, Secunda’s quartet looks even further back—to the 18th century and Joseph Haydn’s conception of and predominance over the string quartet genre. It is almost as if Secunda were trying to imagine, in overall concept as well as in certain sections, how “Papa Haydn” might himself have handled an assignment to build a quartet around this same Jewish musical material—with some clairvoyance of late-Romantic and 20th-century clichés as well.
This is not a programmatic work in the sense of illustrating any literary or historical agenda. To the contrary, the preexisting melodies—whose sources range from High Holy Day and Three Festivals prayers to cantorial-type melismas to wedding bands—appear to have been selected arbitrarily. Their only connection to one another is their common provenance in the traditions of Ashkenazi Jewry in eastern Europe and in their transplanted stage in America. There are specific identifiable tunes with established liturgical functions, ubiquitous motifs from synagogue song in general and from biblical cantillation, and hints throughout at typical Ashkenazi patterns and modalities.
The first movement begins with a resolute yet briefly meditative prologue, with successive pronouncements by each of the four instruments. This leads to the exploration and development of the two principal themes upon which the movement is based:
a. A well-known quasi-congregational tune for certain passages of the ḥatzi kaddish prayer in its rendition as an introduction to the mussaf services specifically on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
As an affirmation of faith, kaddish—whose language, apart from a Hebrew response and the concluding sentence of its full form, is Aramaic—may be perceived as a Judaic doxology. It embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God’s unparalleled greatness—the ultimate expression of unqualified glorification, praise, and worship of God throughout all eternity. Among the several forms and versions of its text, each with a distinct liturgical function, the ḥatzi kaddish (half kaddish) is recited to separate the sections of the liturgy in all services where a quorum of ten (minyan) is present. In one of those roles, the ḥatzi kaddish, in effect, introduces the mussaf—the additional service immediately following shaḥarit (the morning service) and the biblical readings of the Torah service on Sabbaths, High Holy Days, Festivals, and the New Month, thereby separating it from the immediately preceding liturgy.
In all synagogues and services that follow the Ashkenazi rite (minhag Ashkenaz), there is—specifically attached to this mussaf kaddish on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by requirement of canonized tradition—one of the fixed, universally accepted, and exclusive melodic patterns of the so-called missinai tune family. This is essentially a group of seasonal leitmotifs associated with specific annual holydays and other seasonal events on the liturgical calendar (i.e., rather than regular weekly or daily liturgies), and many of these tunes are also assigned to specific prayer texts. Their adoption as mandatory for those occasions or texts dates for the most part to the period of minhag Ashkenaz’s crystallization among medieval Rhineland communities.
The High Holy Day mussaf kaddish tune that Secunda quotes in the first movement here, however, is one of many unrelated secondary tunes that is customarily interpolated into the missinai pattern at the discretion of the cantor or the composer of the setting—usually for two passages beginning with the words b’ḥayyeikhon uv’yomeikhon, and l’ella ul’ella min kol birkhata...Unlike the missinai tune (actually a series of motives rather than a continuous single melody) employed for much of the text, none of these secondary tunes is “official” or mandated as exclusive by tradition, and all of them are of much more recent origin. But the one used by Secunda here—generally attributed to Wolf Shestapol, a.k.a. Velvele Khersoner (ca. 1832–72), a learned modern-oriented cantor in the Ukraine—somehow emerged as predominant in American synagogues and is also now frequently treated as a congregational melody even when sung by the choir. As early as 1926 it was included in Israel and Samuel E. Goldfarb’s groundbreaking and influential collection, Synagogue Melodies for the High Holy Days, which probably contributed to its ubiquity.
Here, this melody is introduced by the cello and then joined by the other strings. It is subsequently developed by rhythmic as well as modal alterations, fragmentation, and alternating diminution and augmentation of its constituent motives. In its rhythmic transformation (from duple to triple meter) it even acquires the flavor of a quasi-Viennese waltz at one point.
The quotation from the special Festival melody for kiddush that constitutes the second theme in the first movement refers to the most widely established and oldest accepted version for that prayer and benediction (though also not generally considered a missinai tune per se), and it is derived from biblical cantillation. The melody is notable for its leap of a major 6th and its hesitation on the supertonic before cadencing on the tonic.
Kiddush (lit., sanctification) is recited or sung over wine as the symbol of joy in Jewish life (“wine cheers a man’s heart”—Psalms 104:15) before commencing the festive meal on the eve of the Sabbath, Festivals, and Rosh Hashana, with text variations applicable to each of those occasions. (A shorter version, usually recited rather than sung, also precedes the daytime meals on those occasions.) Kiddush is a testimony to God’s creation of the universe and an acknowledgment of His having hallowed the Jewish people through the gifts of His commandments, the Sabbath, and the appointed seasons and times of rejoicing: the Festivals. Only the Festival kiddush, however, has a melodic formula prescribed by tradition. (The famous melody for the Sabbath eve kiddush, for example, despite its familiarity now to virtually all Ashkenazi Jewry to the point of perceived oral tradition, is in fact a notated composition by the 19th-century Berlin synagogue composer Louis Lewandowski.)
In Secunda’s quartet, after the initial statement of this Festival kiddush melody, it is manipulated and transformed among all four string parts—in some passages reappearing as a barely recognizable echo, with the flavor of a late-Romantic-era Viennese light operetta song. It returns to its more transparent guise, however, in a recapitulation.
In some respects this movement follows a basic A-B-A structure, in which the B section is combined with further development of elements of the A section, which function as countermelodies and counter-ideas at various points. But it could also be perceived as a continuous development of the High Holy Days kaddish tune interspersed with episodes derived from the Festival kiddush melody as well as other, extraneous melodic bits. Each such episode is introduced by some component of the High Holy Day kaddish tune.
Ever the theatrical composer despite his occasional protestations, Secunda frequently frames both themes from liturgical tradition in tasteful reverberations of Second Avenue, including some of its typical harmonic language and clichés, original melodic fragments with popular hints, and chromatic cascades employed as “fills.”
The second movement suggests a lyrical cantorial improvisation, built on two similar motives that could be perceived generically as reflecting either modal cadential patterns of biblical cantillation, or traditionally ubiquitous events in the complex network of Ashkenazi prayer modes and formulas known in the cantorial world as nusaḥ hat’filla. In the context of a flowing, unfolding recitative, these motives are presented by the cello, then in octaves, and then developed in different registers of all four strings. But cello and first violin are featured. Emblematic ornamentation is broadened and extended to become an organic part of the melodic structure. There are no specifically identifiable tunes here, but there are recurring hints of typical modalities of eastern European brands of the prayer formulas—for example, the flatted supertonic resolving on the tonic. Accompanimental figures from the early part of the movement become the principal concluding material.
The third movement is constructed in the classical minuet form, AA-BB-A(reprise)-Trio-A-B, even though the first theme has more the character of a waltz than a minuet. The melodic material of the A section has a typical Central European waltzlike flavor, though it does not appear to be traceable to any specific source. It proceeds to a radically different exposition, reminiscent of the melos of eastern European Jewish wedding bands of the 19th and early 20th centuries (erroneously called klezmer since the 1970s, despite that fact that the klezmorim—i.e., instrumental band musicians—played widely differing styles and types of music at different periods, from at least the Baroque on, and in disparate regions). Suggestive of uninhibited celebration-oriented dance, the mood here becomes appropriately fast and furious. The Trio section opens with material that evokes the character of classical minuets more than it does Jewish sources. But it is followed by a quotation of a familiar cadential pattern from the prayer modes of the Three Festivals, framed in turn by what appears to be original material more typical of Secunda’s own songwriting aesthetic.
The fourth and final movement takes a quasi-rondo form, with recurring folk dance–like thematic material as an anchor to unrelated episodes that always return to some recognizable statement of that theme, even if altered or fragmented. The episodes contain two more melodies of the missinai tune group. The first is the tune that pervades the evening service for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which, since it is generally employed as a motto applied to several prayer texts, can be called simply the High Holy Day maariv (evening service) tune. The second is the prescribed melody for the aleinu prayer text as it occurs in the mussaf services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—aleinu l’shabe’aḥ la’adon hakol... (We adore the Lord of all)—sometimes known as the “great aleinu,” to distinguish it from the same text that is appended to the conclusion of all services. There is ample evidence to place the origin of both of these missinai tunes in the Middle Ages, and the aleinu melody—with a descending triad forming its incipit, followed by an octave leap that then returns downward, initially in stepwise motion—is traceable to the 12th century.
Only the initial, signature parts of these two missinai tunes are provided during these episodes, unharmonized and in octaves—which gives them additional emphasis. Fragments recur, but the tunes are more suggested than developed. At the movement’s climactic point, the two themes of the first movement reappear, although the High Holy Day mussaf kaddish tune is here more prominent than the more subtle fragments of the Festival kiddush chant. Both elements provide the entire quartet with a cyclical veil. An accelerated coda, which is an extension of the main rondo theme, is both preceded and interrupted by recitative-like solo passages—first by the cello, then the viola, then echoed in the violins.
Secunda’s String Quartet in C Minor received its world premiere on a 1947 radio broadcast of Arturo Toscanini’s weekly Sunday program. It was played by the NBC String Quartet, which was drawn from Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. After a few subsequent broadcasts, it fell into oblivion until its discovery by the Milken Archive among Secunda’s papers and manuscripts.