Cantata of the Bitter Herbs
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Cantata of the Bitter Herbs is a musical-dramatic concert work liberally based on the Passover Haggada—the annual retelling and reconsideration of the biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and deliverance from slavery, which forms the core of the Passover home ritual known as the seder (lit., order, or arrangement, since the various elements of the ritual occur in a rigorously prescribed and arranged order). The cantata's title refers to one of the key components of the seder ritual, the mandated eating of bitter herbs—to symbolize the pain of the Egyptian bondage; to remind anew each generation of it, and of its unacceptability; and, especially for the children at the table, for whom the ritual is designed to have special significance and pedagogic effect, to teach the story of the exodus by providing a related sensory experience. In fact, in the haggada shel pesah, the book containing the texts of the seder ritual, the sage Rabban Gamliel is quoted as including the bitter herbs (marror) among the three things—along with the matza and the paschal lamb—that must be mentioned specifically and explained during the seder in order to fulfill the obligation to recount and in a sense relive the Passover story.
Cantata of the Bitter Herbs owes its genesis to a chance meeting in 1937 between Toch and Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, then rabbi of Fairfax Temple, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles. The scenario is not an altogether infrequent one for religiously unaffiliated American Jews when confronted with grief. Upon learning of his mother’s sudden death in Vienna in December of that year, Toch felt impelled to connect with his family’s Jewish roots by participating in some formal Judaic memorial ritual, and he sought out the comfort of a synagogue—for the first time, one presumes, in his adulthood, and certainly for the first time in America. Since attendance at the funeral and burial was obviously not possible, this undoubtedly meant participating in a recitation of the mourners’ kaddish, which, unlike many liturgical texts that may be recited in private, requires a communal context (a quorum of ten in orthodox or traditional practice, but also the company of a congregation in classic Reform settings, where the entire assemblage, not just the mourners, usually stands during the recitation). Toch therefore attended Fairfax Temple’s regular Sabbath service, probably on the first Friday evening following the receipt of his sister’s telegram from Vienna (Reform synagogues at that time would not have held regular weekday services), knowing that communal mourners’ kaddish recitations would always occur toward the end of the service, perhaps preceded by a collective memorial sentiment in English. In recalling the incident later, Toch observed that his mother, whom he described as nonorthodox but still “adhering strongly to some of its rites,” had always been careful to observe traditional memorial rites for her own parents (even though kaddish is not legally required for women in orthodoxy)—which itself suggests that his family had not been entirely divorced from Jewish tradition in Europe. He therefore felt it both obligatory and natural to do at least something of the same: “All I could do was to dedicate myself to her way and spirit in reaction to my loss.”
Following that service, Toch engaged in conversation with Rabbi Sonderling—a highly educated German rabbi who had come to America much earlier, not as a refugee, and who was easily conversant with Central European high culture. There appears to have been an instant simpatico between the two, and one can easily imagine that they spoke German to each other. That Rabbi Sonderling was familiar with Toch’s earlier prominence in German musical circles could only have facilitated the newfound relationship.
Rabbi Sonderling suggested that Toch might want to bring his daughter to the upcoming children’s Hanukka celebration in the synagogue, to which Toch agreed; and Sonderling also invited Toch to write some simple new music for the occasion, which he declined. But the conversation evoked a forgotten idea of Toch’s: to use the Haggada and the Passover story in general as the basis for an oratorio or cantata—with Psalm and other biblical texts as well as Haggada passages and some new lyrics for the musical numbers, together with an original narration derived from the spirit of the Haggada. He shared that idea with Rabbi Sonderling, who expressed immediate support and enthusiasm, offering not only to collaborate on the libretto and narration but also to guarantee the necessary forces for a premiere performance in his synagogue. Rabbi Sonderling then envisioned fusing the premiere performance with the synagogue’s communal seder the following Passover, intertwining the actual seder rituals with Toch’s original work. Twenty years later Toch would reflect on his thoughts and emotions as he worked on the piece, and how his childhood Jewish experiences were evoked in the process:
The simplicity of the Haggada story as I experienced it as a child, not part of a religious [i.e., synagogue] ceremony, but as part of a festive occasion, the reading of a breathtaking account of history, the impact of the strong emotions it carried along, stayed with me and made me welcome the task to convey with corresponding simplicity how this story had moved me at a time when we were as yet blissfully unaware of its pending revival in the fate of our generation.
Toch felt that it had been assumed that he would incorporate at least some traditional Passover melodies in the cantata. But having been given a free hand (as he in turn gave to the librettist), he chose not to, believing that entirely original music without traditional reference would have broader appeal and give the work the nonparochial and nonexclusive character he wanted.
As the author of the text, Rabbi Sonderling consulted with two other individuals, especially for dramatic advice: Leopold Jessner, who had been a respected theatrical director in Berlin and who was also interested in Judaica; and Borris Morros, an eastern European Jewish émigré who was then a music director at Paramount Studios.
Despite the childhood seder memories and emotions that ignited Toch’s renewed interests in the Haggada, he conceived this work as transcending the confines of Jewish history and experience to express a universal theme: the equal injustice of all human oppression throughout the world, the natural longing for freedom by all such victims, and the legitimacy of struggle for liberation in all such cases. That approach departed from the conventional Jewish view and purpose of both the Exodus narrative and the seder ritual. Indeed, Judaism has always repudiated human subjugation and injustice, and has celebrated human freedom and dignity. But from traditional Judaic perspectives, the Exodus story in itself is not the metaphor for universal liberation—nor for protest against human suffering, nor for human freedom. In the classic context and interpretation, it is about the unique redemption of the Israelites for a specific mission: to receive the Torah, to be given the opportunity to accept its governance, and thereby to become a “holy people” worthy of the fulfillment of the Divine promise—or, as Mohammed would later characterize the Jews (initially including Christians as well), “the people of the Book.” In that conventional conception, the mandate annually to retell the story concerns Jewish national identity inextricably bound up with the theological mission. And in fact it is traditionally expected that each Jew at the seder regard himself as personally having gone out of Egypt that very night.
The alternative universal application of the Passover story, however, has also found adherents in the modern era among both Jewish and Christian circles. Indeed, tension between particular and universalThe alternative universal application of the Passover story, however, has also found adherents in the modern era among both Jewish and Christian circles. Indeed, tension between particular and universal conceptions of Judaism—especially vis-aÌ€-vis liturgy and theology—informed the history and development of the American Reform movement in the 19th century and into the 20th, with the universal view often prevailing. Toch’s and Rabbi Sonderling’s universalist approach thus could find legitimate resonance not only among the general public, but also in the sensibilities of a growing segment of American Jewry. Moreover, there were historical precedents in America for borrowing elements of the Exodus story for inspirational purposes. American blacks in the South, both during and after slavery, had sometimes identified with it and turned to it for hope in their yearnings for freedom, in sermons and songs—as exemplified in the well-known Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses.” On a different plane, socialist- and leftist-oriented American Yiddishist groups often used aspects of the story for a transformed secular model in their utopian quest for political, social, and even economic liberation. And a century after slavery had ended in America, the story was still providing powerful emotional symbolism and analogies in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, including most famously some of Martin Luther King’s celebrated speeches, with their biblical echoes and Mosaic references. In that sense, the path Toch and Rabbi Sonderling followed was manifestly contemporary.
For Toch, the circumstances surrounding the genesis of Cantata of the Bitter Herbs lent it special personal and emotional significance. His later reminiscences about its evocation of childhood Passover memories might seem like a faint echo of Heinrich Heine’s account in The Rabbi of Bacharach: “The master of the house reads the Haggada with an old, traditional chant; repeatedly, the others at the table join him in chorus...Even those Jews who long since turned away from the faith of their fathers...are touched when the well-remembered chants of Passover reach their ears.” Does Toch’s labor on this project and the pride he took in it suggest any measure of his private spiritual return or reconnection? His outward lifestyle and habits do not necessarily provide an answer, but we do know that this was the first time he chose to draw upon either Jewish heritage or Judaic identification for musical expression; and there followed three further works related to Jewish experience.
Following its premiere at Fairfax Temple, Cantata of the Bitter Herbs was performed at Los Angeles City College in 1941, conducted by Hugo Strelitzer and narrated by Dana Andrews. Among subsequent performances were one directed by Paul Salamunovich at the Los Angeles Ernst Toch Festival, a New York premiere at Town Hall in 1962 directed by Johannes Somary, and, in 2002, a joint presentation by the L.A. Zimriyah Chorale and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, conducted by Noreen Green.