String Quartet op. 55
on Jewish Themes
Choose a track to play
00:00 / 00:00
No Work Selected
The String Quartet op. 55 is yet another illustration of the aesthetic agendas of the Jewish national school that were promulgated by the Society for Jewish Folk Music in pre-Revolutionary Russia and were advanced in America by those former Society members and affiliates who immigrated to the United States—such as Joseph Achron, Lazare Saminsky, Solomon Rosowsky, and, of course, Weinberg himself. This work is a transparent vindication of their conviction—and that of the non-Jewish Russian composers and teachers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, who encouraged them—that there was tremendous artistic potential in the deep wellsprings of genuine Jewish musical tradition and lore, sacred as well as secular. The first two movements of this quartet, for example, depict the Jewish High Holy Days (yamim nora’im, or Days of Awe)—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—by drawing upon two of their oldest and most familiar signature melodies in the Ashkenazi rite and treating them subtly and sensitively with master craftsmanship and artistic inspiration in equal measure. Both melodies are prominent constituents of the missinai tune tradition.
The first movement is built partly upon the traditional melody associated with the evening service (ma’ariv) on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Although certain prayer texts or their concluding words are virtually always sung in those services to some recognizable form of this tune, it usually also recurs—almost ubiquitously throughout the High Holy Day evening liturgy—in solo cantorial renditions, choral settings, and responsive congregational singing, often at the discretion of the cantor (or of composers of formal settings). It is properly known, therefore, not reductively by the text incipit of any one prayer text—even those for which it is required by cantorial tradition—but, more inclusively, as the “High Holy Day ma’ariv tune.” In effect, it is the historical Ashkenazi leitmotif of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur evening worship (the signature Yom Kippur eve kol nidrei tune actually precedes the evening service), a tradition universally honored in Reform and traditional synagogues alike—so much so that in German-Jewish liturgical tradition it was also employed for several prayer texts on Sabbaths prior to Rosh Hashana during the preceding Hebrew month of elul, as a mood-setting harbinger of the High Holy Days. In some family traditions it was even sung during that season to the text of shir hama’alot (Psalm 126) at the Sabbath table for its customary group rendition as a prelude to the birkat hamazon (“grace” after meals).
Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882–1938), the seminal visionary scholar who often is justly considered the father of Jewish musicology, famously compared this tune with a Gregorian hymn, Iste confessor, which apparently was current during the period of the earliest formulation of the missinai tunes (its text is attributed to an 8th-century source). He discerned some parallel features in their melodic contours, although, inexplicably, his supporting musical illustration contains substantive alteration of pitches in that Church hymn, which renders the two melodies more alike than they actually are. Far too much has been made of that observation by subsequent dilettantes, who have delighted in citing it out of historical context. In reality, Idelsohn was merely demonstrating the acknowledged and documented existence in principle of a musical and aesthetic interrelationship between the development of Ashkenazi synagogue song and the melos of the surrounding sacred as well as secular culture in the early medieval southwestern Germanic and Rhineland wombs of the Ashkenazi rite. Indeed, both influences and skeletal features of Church chants and melodies, and even sometimes entire tunes, have on occasion found their way into the Ashkenazi synagogue from that time on, whether consciously or inadvertently. That issue was in fact addressed by medieval rabbinic authorities and their successors, who have disagreed among themselves on the admissibility of tunes that were also known in Christian worship. Secular tunes from the repertoires of minnesingers and troubadours also played a role in shaping Ashkenazi tune traditions. Yet even the path between Church and synagogue was not always necessarily one way. We know that the cultural reciprocity sometimes leaned in the other direction, especially in the 9th and 10th centuries, when relations between Jews and Christians tended to be closer in certain communities within the empire of Charlemagne and Louis I (Louis the Pious) and their immediate successors. Church officials in that region are known to have felt it necessary to issue warnings and even to request imperial prohibitions against Christians attending synagogue services, participating in or visiting Jewish ceremonies and celebrations, or—in at least one documented case as late as the 12th century—learning songs from Jews. Those Christian rulings against the dangers of intercourse with Jews are testimony in themselves to the temptation and the tendency—even if they concerned only a minority of Christians—and any fascination with Jewish ritual during that early period of encounter with the Jewish émigrés from Italy and the Levant was bound to include musical parameters. Despite such prohibitions (which operated in both directions at different times), some Christians, including aristocrats and minor royalty, are known to have been attracted to synagogue services as late as the 15th century.
Thus, while many of the missinai tunes, including this High Holy Day ma’ariv motif, may partly reflect that Christian-Jewish interaction in one way or another, it is impossible to ascertain their precise genealogy or the actual histories of their composition. And we must also consider the acknowledged category of “wandering tunes”—melodies that have traveled spontaneously from one geographical, ethnic, cultural, or religious context to another. Whatever its origins and genesis, this particular ma’ariv tune survives now exclusively as a canonized part of synagogue tradition.
In the String Quartet, this tune provides contrast to the muscular statement and initial working out of the first theme (apparently original) in the form of a lyrical second theme. Throughout this first movement the two are interwoven, alternated among the voices, and juxtaposed in various registers and modulating tonal contexts. The ma’ariv tune is developed continuously through carefully manipulated augmentation and fragmentation, but it is always transparent.
The second movement (Lento) is a fluent unfolding and development of the complex musical sine qua non of the Ashkenazi Yom Kippur evening service—the kol nidrei melody. This is the same melody that was introduced to the general music world in its setting for cello and orchestra by Max Bruch (1838–1920), a Protestant composer who, like virtually all who encounter the melody in any of its many variants, was beguiled by its haunting character when he heard it through his friendship with Abraham Lichtenstein, the cantor at one of Berlin’s major synagogues. That piece by Bruch, which contains an additional original melody in its interlude and has been rearranged for cello or violin and piano (or organ), is played on Yom Kippur eve to this day—separately from any cantorial rendition—in many Reform congregations, where the traditional and legal prohibitions against instrumental music on holy days do not apply. But unlike Bruch’s fairly straightforward setting, which, apart from its interlude, tampers very little with the simple exposition of the melodic line as it is sung traditionally by cantors and choirs, Weinberg’s treatment involves a relatively sophisticated contrapuntal and motivic development that demonstrates mastery of the string quartet medium.
The kol nidrei text is an early medieval legal formula in Aramaic that annually absolves Jews, in advance, of all vows—made from one Yom Kippur to the next—that do not affect the interests of others and that might be made rashly, impulsively, unwittingly, or under duress. The additional historical association of kol nidrei recitation with relief from forced vows of conversion or renunciation of Judaism is a more recent supposition; and indeed, many of the g’onim (heads of academies in the post-talmudic period of the 6th–11th centuries) objected to the text on ethical grounds. Though recited by the cantor in the name of the worshippers, kol nidrei is a petition for release from vows between man and God, not between persons. The text originally concerned vows made during the previous year, but it was emended in the 11th century to apply instead to the coming year, based on talmudic support (N’darim 23b).
The first confirmed extant musical notation of this kol nidrei melody, which probably was established as the exclusive universal Ashkenazi intonation of the text by the 16th century at the latest, is contained in a ca. 1765 cantorial compendium by Ahron Beer. The entry, however, is dated 1720, indicating that Beer might have notated it from an earlier source. A variant in a later Beer compendium (1791) is dated 1783; and the melody appears in other notated collections of that time frame, which come from various regions in Central and western Europe. Like the v’hakohanim tune discussed here in the note to the piano concerto, its appearance among those manuscript compilations is evidence of the solidity of its tradition and of its wide geographic embrace by that time. And it too is likely to have been included in some form in the Hanover Compendium, and perhaps in other unpreserved contemporaneous sources as well. The kol nidrei melody, however, is probably one of the late annexations to the missinai category as a fixed melody with no discretionary alternative apart from reasonable variation and extension—possibly as late as the 15th century. Even the Maharil (identified here as well in the note to the piano concerto), who is believed to have insisted on the perpetuation of, and exclusive adherence to, many of the other seasonal fixed tunes that were already established by the late-14th to early-15th-century, is known to have applied various melodies as well as improvisation to the kol nidrei recitation, prolonging it in order to accommodate latecomers. The first reference to the present melody as a fixed tradition for kol nidrei is found in writings of the 16th century.
Yet by the dawn of the modern era and until today without diminution, the melody was ingrained in Jewish collective consciousness more so than any of the other missinai tunes—and arguably, more deeply than any other synagogue melody. Not only did its recorded formal rendition become expected of famous star cantors and of those who aspired to recognition in the heyday of cantorial recordings, but it also spilled over—whether appropriately or not—into the popular entertainment realm, divorced from its liturgical context altogether. And eventually it acquired pop versions and arrangements even for non-Jewish performers, such as Johnny Mathis, who included it in a slick but “soulful” rendition on an LP recording in the 1950s.
The history of the kol nidrei melody in fact provides a useful example of liturgies where the music has taken precedence over the content and original function of the text. It can be argued successfully that, were it not for the unwavering attraction to the melody and its annual emotional anticipation, recitation of the kol nidrei text might have been eliminated from the Yom Kippur ritual as a perceived anachronism in modern synagogues—including even manifestly traditional ones. (The text also remains in Sephardi rites, but with other, unrelated melodies that vary from one geographic or regional tradition to another; still, kol nidrei recitation among Sephardim has nothing like the perceived centrality, fanfare, or vocal display it has in Ashkenazi custom. In the Amsterdam, or western Sephardi rite, for example, the text is usually chanted simply and unobtrusively prior to the evening service by the rabbi, not the hazzan, to an established, more syllabic melody; and in other, eastern and Mediterranean rites it is sung by the congregation alternately with the hazzan. In the now nearly extinct Carpentras, or Provençal rite, kol nidrei was virtually whispered without any melody.) Indeed, a number of modern rabbinical thinkers have questioned its retention, expressing discomfort both with the implied ethical issues of the text when taken at face value, and with its unnecessary potential provision—through misunderstanding or misinterpretation—of fuel for anti-Semitic accusations of Jewish untrustworthiness or trickery. In many otherwise traditional and even prominent orthodox synagogues in 19th- and early-20th-century Germany and Vienna, for example (as well, of course, as in Reform ones), rabbis did succeed in its removal.
But the melody had become so inextricable from communal association with the solemnity of this holiest of holy days on the Jewish calendar that worshippers were unwilling to relinquish it and cantors were not prepared to forgo it. Replacement texts were therefore often adapted to it in Germany, including emendations to the original words; newly written Hebrew poems with some parallel evocative alliterations; paraphrases of various unrelated liturgical or quasi-liturgical passages (for example, kol nidrei b’nei yisra’el asher hema nod’rim l’kha avinu...); alternative German words (O Tag, des Herrn!); and Psalm 130, mima’amakkim (Out of the Depths), sung either in Hebrew or in a German version (Aus der Tiefe ruf ich, Dich o Ew’ger!).
In Reform synagogues, completely unrelated rhyming hymn texts were sometimes substituted for kol nidrei and sung in German to a compact variant of the melody. In classical American Reform services of the 19th century, whose musical format was supposedly distanced from European gravity and unfashionable Old World sensibilities (even though some American congregations continued for a while to sing hymns in German and to listen to German sermons), English texts provided the kol nidrei substitution; and in some of those synagogues, the aesthetic link was reduced even further and confined to an organ prelude based on the melody. The 19th-century classic Reform format and ambience extended well into the 20th century, but then, especially outside the South, began gradually to lose its predominance after about 1930—giving way to some introduction and rejuvenation of genuine musical tradition with the revised third edition of the Union Hymnal. Eventually the traditional kol nidrei text reemerged in American Reform and is today no longer the exception. We may, therefore, rest assured that this unique and poignant part of Jewish musical heritage is not in jeopardy.
The kol nidrei melody is really a conglomerate series and assortment of loosely related, individual, and separable motifs and phrases that have acquired variation over time and from one region to another, rather than a precise tune in the Western sense (i.e., a “closed form” with a fixed beginning, middle, and conclusion or an established order of phrases and sections). Its complexity probably reflected structural properties of certain ornate, labyrinthine Western medieval song forms. But its free form—in which those constituent motifs can be alternated, reordered, repeated, repositioned, and even improvised in different ways, almost as a “mix-and-match” procedure—reflects the equally significant inherited Near Eastern influences that were operative even on the early formulation of Ashkenazi musical tradition. Weinberg exploits this motivic independence by extracting and developing specific motifs throughout the movement—sometimes only hinting at one or more and at other times articulating clear statements of them. An interruption by a pungent countermelody with the flavor of a biblical cantillation motive is paired with yet another, apparently original lyrical theme—initially as a response and then in counterpoint. But the kol nidrei motifs are never abandoned altogether, and they are even made to flirt momentarily with altered major tonality and with a gentle brief chromatic touch prior to a final restatement.
Although the souvenir program booklet for the 1952 Carnegie Hall world premiere of this quartet—at the twelfth annual Festival of Jewish Arts—subtitled the third movement Sukkot (descriptive titles of the movements are contained on the cover of the published score but not above the movements themselves, which are marked simply I, II, and III), none of its material is remotely related to that Festival or to its well-known Ashkenazi leitmotif tune. Rather, this brief movement incorporates fragments of phrases of Hassidic melodies and dance tunes, which are not in themselves exclusively liturgical.
In all Diaspora communities (i.e., those outside the Land of Israel, whether pre-state Palestine or present-day Israel), the eighth-day extension of the Festival of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, is followed immediately by Simhat Torah—the holy day that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of readings from the Torah (Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses) in the synagogue and inaugurates the new cycle with the reading of the first chapter of Genesis. Simhat Torah is postbiblical and post-talmudic and is thought to have originated not earlier than about the 9th century in Babylonia, where the one-year cycle of reading the Torah was the prevalent practice. In the Land of Israel, however, where the postbiblical Diaspora institution of an additional holy day appended to those Festivals does not apply, Simhat Torah and Sh’mini Atzeret are combined and observed on the same day. Sukkot is designated in the liturgy as z’man simḥatenu (the time, or festival, of rejoicing); and indeed, in ancient Jerusalem during the Temple era, the eve of the second day of Sukkot was an occasion for elaborate ritual rejoicing and pageantlike processions that might have approached a form of dancing in connection with the ancient water-drawing ceremony (simḥat bet hasho’eva), which lasted throughout the night and was based scripturally on metaphoric references to the purifying and life-giving properties of water in relation to the Torah. But joyous dancing—especially in the Hassidic mode and in environments influenced by Hassidic aesthetics—has come to be associated in modern times more specifically with Simhat Torah than with Sukkot in general.
It is likely therefore that Weinberg intended this third movement as a portrayal of his associations with Simhat Torah, and that he titled it under the umbrella of Sukkot from his experience in Palestine, where the two were fused. The American Reform movement also eliminated the additional holy days for Festivals (and even for Rosh Hashana, where the rationale is entirely different, since its two days are not separable on the same grounds), but it is unlikely that that Reform practice influenced Weinberg’s relating the movement to Sukkot, since neither such overtly uninhibited dancing nor any reflection of Hassidic melos would have been heard, or even permitted, in Reform synagogues of Weinberg’s day (nor until at least the late 1960s). Such incursions would have been perceived as incongruous with the dignity of worship and with American sensibilities. When, for example, one of New York City’s prominent Reform synagogues gave the premiere in the early 1950s of Isidore Freed’s Hassidic Service for Sabbath Eve—a formally composed, restrained, and stylized contemporary work for the typical musical forces in Reform services of that time (baritone cantor, mixed choir, and organ) that was based on dignified Hassidic melodies—the rabbi of the congregation, Judah Cahn, felt it prudent if not necessary to mollify potential objections by addressing what he acknowledged to be “the seeming paradox of Hassidic music in a liberal American temple.” His remarks were also included as a preface to the published score, which was intended primarily for Reform congregations. Like the Hassidim, he explained, who excelled in expressing faith through joy and song apart from their very different approaches to Jewish observance and life, “we in our own day are beginning to understand that Judaism can be for us and our children a never-ending source of joy. Could there be a greater fountain from which to draw our inspiration than the musical tradition of those who expressed their ecstatic love of faith in dance and song and prayer?” Still, some objections remained.
The practice of dancing on Simhat Torah began as an extension of the seven hakkafot—the carrying of the Torah scrolls in processional circuits around the synagogue on the eve of Simhat Torah, which in some traditions extend to the outdoors and even the streets. The custom was established in the 16th century, originally as a way of appealing to the children and fortifying their association of joy and pleasurable ceremony with the centrality of the Torah and its study. In many traditions, the children would also follow the processions carrying little flags emblazoned with a magen david (Star of David) or slogans that expressed rejoicing over the gift of the Torah. But the hakkafot are not confined to the children, and by tradition, they are repeated until every adult has been given the honor of carrying one of the scrolls. The hakkafot are repeated as well during the morning service. Hassidim also engage in the hakkafot after the ma’ariv (evening) service on Sh’mini Atzeret in the Diaspora.
The hakkafot, while relatively subdued at one time outside insular Hassidic circles—in more controlled but nonetheless cheerful and lighthearted processions, especially in formal western and Central European and American services—eventually took on the form of outright dancing and even exuberant fervor in imitation of Hassidic habit. But, especially outside eastern Europe, neither genuine Hassidic dance melodies nor dance styles spilled over much into the wider Ashkenazi synagogue realm until well after the mid–20th century. Prior to that, altogether different types of melodies usually accompanied the hakkafot in mainstream synagogues, where, in the 1930s and 1940s, secular tunes of the ḥalutzim were often fashionable—as they were in secular Sukkot observances on kibbutzim and workers’ settlements in Palestine. We may imagine, therefore, that Weinberg’s depiction of Simhat Torah (as part of Sukkot) stems from one or more visits to authentic Hassidic celebrations in their enclaves in Palestine, where he might have heard these and similar tunes, upon which he could have drawn for this movement.
Weinberg treats these Hassidic melodies with appropriate mystical zeal and with string writing as well as harmonic language that reminds one of Bartók’s quartets. These motifs eventually become interlaced with recapitulations and echoes of the opening phrase of the kol nidrei melody, ultimately giving way to it altogether as the movement draws to its authoritative conclusion.