Kaddish for Cello and Orchestra
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Kaddish encapsulates the Judaic doxology and affirmation of faith, which unequivocally proclaims, confirms, and reminds of God’s omnipotence and magnitude. Although it is part of the Hebrew liturgy, its language is Aramaic—except for a Hebrew congregational response and the concluding sentence of the full kaddish text, which is also in Hebrew. Overall, it embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God’s unparalleled greatness in an ultimate expression of glorification, praise, and worship of God throughout all eternity. Each of its various forms or text variants is reserved for a specific liturgical event or place in the order of prayer (only one of which—kaddish yatom, or the “mourner’s kaddish”—is recited in memory of parents and siblings).
In 1987 Maestro Gerard Schwarz, the music director and conductor of the Seattle Symphony, suggested to David Diamond that he compose a work for cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In thinking about the nature of the work he might create, he turned to an earlier but unfulfilled wish to write a piece inspired by the kaddish text. “I have always wanted to write a kaddish,” he remarked to Maestro Schwarz. “In fact, I tried for years to write one for cello and piano, but the piano seemed too weak for the conception I had in mind. Maybe now I can write a kaddish for cello and orchestra….” He completed it in 1989.
Diamond referred to his kaddish work as a “ritual piece.” Although there are various established melodies traditionally associated with certain parts of the kaddish text in the Ashkenazi rite with which the composer was familiar from childhood, he chose to invent his own melodic material. But he based the piece on his acquaintance with traditional cantorial styles and vocal clichés. Employing the rhythmic articulation of the opening words of kaddish—yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba—and also using what he perceived as ancient biblical cantillation motifs and other elements of traditional synagogue chant, he constructed two contrasting thematic ideas, which, as he subsequently explained, are manipulated and developed “rhapsodically.” The first of those musical ideas, he further commented, is “expansive, heard at the outset in the orchestra. The solo cello then enters with the second theme, meditative and reflective in spirit. It is the cello that takes the role of the cantor … and the orchestra comments on this role.”