YEHUDI WYNER IS AMONG THE MOST DECORATED OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN COMPOSERS. He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Rome Prize, and two Guggenheim Fellowships. He received the Institute of Arts and Letters Award and is currently that society's elected president. Wyner has also contributed significantly to the Jewish music world.
But understanding how he arrived at his current station in life necessitates looking back. What are the tributaries that connect a remote past with the evanescent present and have helped form this once-blank slate into one of America's leading musical voices? Family. History. Culture. Religion. Crucial, inescapable, these are the streams that flow constantly—though to varying degrees at different times—into the seemingly stable yet malleable senses of self and identity that guide us through the world. They are also the sites of some of our greatest paradoxes.
In a 1998 oral history with the Milken Archive, Wyner reflected on some of the most formative experiences of his youth and early adulthood, and the paths that led to his Jewish-related musical works. Permeating the threads that weave through his story are various shades of conflict: with his father, with Judaism, even with music.
Lazar Weiner (Yehudi Wyner's father, featured in part one of this series) was a man of significant work ethic and uncompromising taste. Through his work as a choral conductor, music director, and composer, he showed that Judaically related music could be both spiritually impactful and artistically meaningful. And although Wyner's father built nearly his entire career around Jewish music, he was a staunch secularist. Jewish music was something he came to relatively late in his life and only through a few fortuitous encounters during his first few years in New York.1
But when it came to the fate of his family, Lazar Weiner left little to chance. When a very young Yehudi showed musical ability, he was promptly put into training as a pianist, eventually studying at Juilliard with Loni Epstein. And while he had his father's total support, he also had high expectations to fulfill. Hours of practice were required and there was little leeway.
But the hours of practice and unwavering commitment paid off. Yehudi made swift progress and by the time he was in high school had a budding interest in composition. He would go on to study with some of the most prominent composers of the time, including Richard Donovan and Paul Hindemith at Yale, and at Harvard with Randall Thompson and Walter Piston. But doing so was a source of conflict, as he later related to The New York Times: "I had to reconcile my natural musical impulses with the vestigial resentment that I was forced to give away the normal pursuits of fellowship and childhood."
For the son of a man whose livelihood depended upon it, Jewish music was a noticeable absence in Wyner's musical life. "I was not at all concerned with Jewish music, through all the time I was growing up," he recalled. And though he had a deep respect for his father's music, the little experience he did have with organized Judaism left a bad taste in his mouth: services devoid of feeling; bar mitzvah preparations that insulted his intelligence. "At that time," he remembers, "my relation to my Jewishness was in question." Additionally, his musical inculcation comprised far more Western classical music than Jewish, and his strongest musical memories reverberate from the stages of Carnegie Hall more than they do the Central Synagogue (where his father worked for four decades): being "floored" by the Brahms Requiem; attending concerts by the Collegiate Chorale with his father.
When Wyner graduated from Yale in 1950 there were few signs that he would ever contribute significantly to Jewish music, if at all. Also, for the first time in his life he found himself with nothing to do. His father intervened.
So here he was, a newly minted college graduate, about to embark upon what should be the most formative years of his life, questioning his identity, with nothing to do. As he remembers: "Max Helfman, who was involved with the Brandeis Institute in California, got a hold of my father and said, 'You know, this would be interesting for Yehudi to do.'And I reluctantly acceded to the idea."
However much reluctance he had when he arrived in California, it washed away quickly in the inspirational camp setting of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Set in the Santa Susana Mountains outside of Los Angeles, the Institute was established as an antidote to waning American Jewish identities and to spark interest in the Hebrew-oriented culture of yishuv—the Jewish settlement in British-mandate Palestine—and of modern Israel. For a short time, coinciding with Wyner's attendance there, an arts institute was established with the aim of "nudging" promising young artists toward Judaically related expression in their future work. As Neil Levin has written: "[The Brandeis Arts Institute was] a sort of "Jewish Interlochen," or Jewish version of Tanglewood within the Brandeis framework, where artistically gifted Jewish college-age youth could be trained for leadership within the cultural life of American Jewry."
Students in attendance learned about contemporary Israeli art and music, and studied with leading Jewish artists of the time. In the musical realm, this included Bracha Zefira, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Julius Chajes, Eric Zeisl, Heinrich Schalit, Alfred Sendrey, Izler Solomon, Ernst Toch, and many others.
Though he reluctantly acceded to the idea at the time, looking back, Wyner says, "I was profoundly affected. It was one of those atmospheres which can detoxify or indoctrinate anybody. It was brilliant." So, while he was not committed to Jewish music in any way, nor was he under any pressure from his father to do so, the Brandeis experience provided at least some of the answers to the questions pervading his Jewish identity.
If Brandeis wasn't a complete turnaround, it was, at the very least, an awakening. In the decades since, Wyner has erected a large body of music consisting of more than 100 works for ensembles of various shapes and sizes. And though the vast majority bear no Jewish connections, amongst his oeuvre are two sacred services, several chamber works, incidental music for theater, and a Yiddish song setting. Wyner has also been a major force in securing the legacy of his father, in particular his many Yiddish art songs.
His father was top of mind when Wyner was contacted by the leader of the Aeolian Chamber Players and asked specifically to compose a Jewish piece. Though the music is entirely original, Wyner took the title of the piece, Tants un Maysele, from a pair of pieces his father had dedicated to him when Wyner was just a toddler. Wyner explained in his interview with Neil Levin that he sought to infuse the piece's Hassidic character with "a kind of violence and peremptory rage that you would normally not find in a Hassidic dance," reflecting the "virtuoso Liszt-like" character of the pieces his father had dedicated to him, and which he learned to play in his teens. Wyner, in turn, dedicated Tants un Maysele to his father. Somewhat preternaturally, it was the last composition of his son's that Weiner would hear before his death.
Like his father, Wyner has also delved significantly into the world of Jewish liturgical music. On commission from Cantor David Putterman of the Park Avenue Synagogue, Wyner composed his Friday Evening Service, deemed by New York Times critic Alan Rich to be "one of the best [works] that the synagogue has produced during its long and admirable service to Jewish music."
A second sacred service, his Torah Service, was commissioned by an anonymous patron and premiered in 1966 at a synagogue in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
Throughout his forays into "Jewish" music, Wyner has been unwavering in his commitment to maintaining his own voice as a composer. Though he sometimes does draw on familiar tropes (scales, rhythms, etc.), his Jewish works always have a sense of urgency, brought to bear through his artful infusion of his own musical language. Yet, even when there is no "Jewish" intent in the composer's mind, a certain aura of Jewishness can sometimes be heard. As he commented on a recently completed (at the time) work in the 1998 interview:
If Wyner's case can serve as an example, it illustrates how heavily we are influenced by the foundational forces that guide our lives. Family. History. Culture. Religion. We can respond to them negatively or positively, acknowledge or ignore them. But escape them we cannot.
About the series: Though the adage "like father, like son" remains a salient expression, the world of music has not produced a wealth famous father-son pairs. This four-part series looks at two very different fathers and sons who have made—and continue to make—significant contributions to music both Jewish and otherwise: Lazar Weiner, the sine qua non of Yiddish art song, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning son, Yehudi Wyner; and Gerard Schwarz, conductor and founder of the All-Star Orchestra, and his son, cellist Julian Schwarz.
1. Lazar Weiner altered the spelling of the last name for his children to avoid a common mispronunciation.