Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 17

Odes and Epics: Dramatic Music of Jewish Experience

by Neil W. Levin

V1JUST AS JEWISH HISTORY, lore, and literature have made for engaging operatic treatment (see Volume 16) during the 20th century and into the 21st, so too these aspects of collective Jewish experience have provided many American composers with fertile material for theatrical-musical expression outside the opera house. The conventional forms of this nonoperatic musical-dramatic medium—unstaged vocal-choral works such as oratorios and programmatic cantatas, pageants, mixed-media pieces, and the dance—are the focus of this volume, along with some newer, creatively combined formats.

Like most other secular Jewish music, nonoperatic musical-dramatic works of Jewish content or substance belong to the modern era. The relatively few historically interesting but short-lived cases in 17th- and early 18th-century Western Europe (principally Amsterdam and Italy) did not establish a tradition. (See in the Introduction to Volume 18.)

Biblical oratorio on a grand scale is of course a prominent feature of Western music—with a long history reaching back to the Baroque (with roots in motets of earlier periods). The oratorio began and blossomed as an extended musical-dramatic form based on religious subject matter. Thus, many important works (as well as hundreds of forgotten ones) in this genre have been based on the New Testament of the Christian Bible, as well as on related events, narratives, and theological convictions and aspirations—best exemplified for the general public today by what is documented as the single most frequently performed and best-known work worldwide in the entire canon of classical music: Handel’s Messiah. And Bach’s two passions—St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion—stand among the greatest works of art in all human history.

Nonetheless, since its inception as a popular medium, biblical oratorio has also drawn repeatedly on subjects, incidents, and personalities in the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha. Indeed, such material informed many of Handel’s other oratorios: Solomon, Jephtha, Esther, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus, Joshua, and Deborah.  

Composers’ attraction to biblical oratorio fluctuated in the ensuing centuries. Still, nearly every period has seen the creation of at least a few, relatively isolated but highly successful, biblically based oratorios that—while often independent of a pervasive contemporaneous trend—have permanently entered the mainstream choral and oratorio repertory:for example, in the Classical era, Haydn’s The Creation; in the Romantic context of the second half of the 19th century, Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem (an oratorio on Hebrew biblical texts that avoids traditional elements of plot, story line, and characters);and, in the 20th century, Arthur Honegger’s Le roi David and Judith, and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. There have also been a few periods during which biblical oratorio (together with biblical opera) has enjoyed a full-blown generic resurgence. One such episode occurred during the first half of the 19th century among a number of composers in the German cultural orbit. No doubt the two most enduring of these oratorios are Mendelssohn’s Paulus (St. Paul) and Elijah. (On the other hand, a performance of Schubert’s 1820 Lazarus would be a rarity today, amounting to a revival.)

But many dozens more were written during those decades by an array of composers who—perhaps still known for their works in other genres—are by comparison less widely remembered. Some of them remain familiar in varying degrees to classical music aficionados, while others have become obscure, recognizable (along with their works) only to a handful of musicologists. Yet that aggregate repertoire—much of which addressed Hebrew biblical subjects—enjoyed substantial if short-lived exposure in its day as a virtual fashion. Beyond a German audience base, many of those biblical oratorios were especially popular in England at the time—in cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool, where much of the local cultural life centered around the activity of flourishing singing societies and choral festivals. These organizations and events provided a ready platform and an enthusiastic reception for such dramatic choral works, whose biblical connections often coincided with popular as well as the Church of England’s attraction to Jewish antiquity and its heroes. The motivation behind that interest, however, was political-historical and theological rather than ecumenical, born partly of a perceived need to underscore a Judeo-Christian continuum with its legitimacy in ancient roots.

The modern-era synagogue, particularly in the 19th-century German cultural realm, reflects the impact of that oratorio vogue, its echoes heard in the enduring oeuvre of one of the titans of Hebrew liturgical music, Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894). It was the plenitude of that German, neo-Baroque oratorio repertoire and its wide popular appeal—not, as is often naïvely assumed, solely Mendelssohn’s oratorios and his other religious choral music—that exerted the transparent stylistic influence on Lewandowski that is typically observed. From his post as music director and de facto composer at Berlin’s first modern, Liberale “organ synagogue” (Orgel Synagoge) in the Oranienburgerstrasse, which he assumed in 1864 (following his tenure at the city’s older, traditional/orthodox synagogue in the Heidereutergasse), Lewandowski became the most prominent, most performed, and most widely recognized synagogue composer in the German-speaking orbit of Ashkenazi Jewry. Only in Vienna and its cultural sphere did the groundbreaking music of Salomon Sulzer, which had served as Lewandowski’s model, continue into the 20th century to predominate over Lewandowski’s in synagogues of German-speaking Jews in the Hapsburg Empire.

Progressive, westward-looking synagogue circles in eastern Europe, too, soon came to reverberate with Lewandowski’s imprint (as they did with Sulzer’s, though eventually to a lesser degree in terms of repertoire content). In many of these cases, his style was assimilated and combined with elements of traditional eastern European hazzanut—a process that produced an emblematic aesthetic result quite different from what one would have heard in German synagogues. But in some of the most westernized eastern European synagogues, even those within the Czarist Empire, Lewandowski’s compositions actually constituted a large part (if not most) of the repertoire by the end of the 19th century.

The first volume of Lewandowski’s magnum opus, Todah W’simrah, was not published until 1876, but he is believed to have begun composing its constituent settings as early as the 1840s. Clearly he absorbed much of the contemporaneous biblical oratorio style and formal structure during his impressionable years, when it was ubiquitous within his cultural environment. He applied those features, along with dramatic aspects of the oratorio format, quite naturally to appropriate (though by no means all) sections of the liturgy—those that appeared conducive to that mode of artistic treatment. He did so, however, in order to stylize and thus reinforce and preserve traditional elements in the context of the modern sensibilities and expectations of his day—neither to dilute nor to abandon tradition, nor simply to ape fashion for want of originality.

The common misinformed attribution of Lewandowski’s style exclusively to Mendelssohn’s oratorios—an assumption found in numerous written accounts—is telling because it reveals a general lack of awareness of the many biblical oratorios of that time by composers whose fame, unlike Mendelssohn’s, was not sustained. But a closer examination of the multiple forces and influences at play with regard to Lewandowski’s music can lead us to explore that mostly forgotten episode in the history of Western music and to rediscover that resurgence of interest in biblical oratorio. Indeed, any such study only confirms the popularity of this musical-dramatic medium in that time frame.

Musical-dramatic works of any era based on Judaism’s Holy Scriptures or on related apocryphal literature do not, solely by virtue of those sources, qualify as music of Jewish experience or as Judaically inspired art. This caveat applies to both those oratorios and cantatas written for the concert stage and those aimed at religious function or occasion. We must be careful to distinguish between works that were intended as Jewish expression—or conceived from Judaic perspectives—and those whose composers understood the Hebrew Bible not so much as the tanakh of Judaism, but rather as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

Non-Jewish composers, especially prior to the 20th century and outside the American environment, tended understandably to express the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and other aspects of Jewish history in terms of their perceived roles in Judeo-Christian heritage—as theological underpinnings and historical background to the New Testament and as harbingers of its central messages. Numerous such works—including some of the most famous oratorios in the standard repertory— thus naturally reflect perspectives, characterizations, motivations, and agendas that are entirely foreign to Jewish sensibilities. At the same time, they can also be interpreted as applauding ancient Israelite heroism, leadership, and victories—but frequently in the name of monotheism, its triumph, and its anticipated universal acceptance in New Testament contexts. Simultaneously, some of these same oratorios might have appealed subliminally to their initial audiences on nonreligious, political levels: as ancient foundations or models, reinforced and legitimized by sacred literature, for contemporary nationalist sentiments and aspirations.

Also, one cannot escape the fact that a number of Old Testament as well as New Testament oratorios contain unfavorable portrayals and negative contemporaneous stereotypes of the Jews of antiquity. But this is not to be construed in all instances as conscious or mean-spirited anti-Semitism (especially in its modern context and connotations). Rather, it was often merely consistent with the teaching to which composers and librettists had been exposed and with which they had been imbued as a natural part of Western cultural traditions, perceptions, and dogma—now commonly disavowed. The most egregious, most troubling, and most widely debated case is, of course, Bach’s St John Passion. It continues to arouse controversy and ambivalence precisely because of its undisputed artistic greatness. Yet the inherent problems stem not from the composition itself, but from the work’s performance life beyond and completely outside the sociological and theological contexts of Bach’s time and orientation. As the renowned musicologist Richard Taruskin has pointed out in the context of his own attempt to wrestle with the issue, the turba in the St. John Passion, following the Book of John itself, is identified not as “das Volk” or “the people” (as it is in the Matthew Passion), but as “die Juden” or “the Jews.” An accusation is being made, one that is no longer supported by responsible historical or theological scholarship, that the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Christ’s death. . . .

Obviously, Bach had no part of that. Nor was he, as far as anyone today can guess, personally anti-Semitic as the term is understood today, except insofar as he probably subscribed to Luther’s doctrine that the Jews should submit to conversion on pain of punishment. In all likelihood he rarely, possibly never, met a Jew and thought little about them. The St. John Passion was intended for performance before a congregation of Christian believers for whom the Gospel text was . . . well, Gospel. The insult it contains to Jews was wholly incidental to its purpose. (The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 2)

A familiar case concerning a Jewish story on its surface that is unrelated to Judaic perspectives is Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. For all its exotic appropriations in the Diaspora during the past century by Jewish choral societies who have performed it in Hebrew and Yiddish translations, especially during the Hanukka season, it is first and foremost neither a Hanukka nor a Jewish oratorio. Nor is it about the Hanukka story as perpetuated and understood by Jewish tradition. (The same is true of a number of other oratorios and operas on the subject of the Maccabean revolt, written by various composers up through the 19th century.) Rather, it is a fundamentally Christian work that celebrates monotheism as having prevailed, heroically and militarily, over paganism, thus setting the stage for the ensuing events that led to the narratives contained in the Gospels and for the arrival of the first phase of the messianic era in Christian terms. Handel’s creative focus was on the righteous defeat of a Greco-Syrian regime that had forbidden the worship of and obedience to the laws of the only true God—the exclusive God not only of the ancient Israelites but, as promoted by Christian theology, of the universe and of all humanity. 

Even if nothing in Judas Maccabaeus is interpreted as offering negative depictions of ancient Jews or disparaging views of their historical as well as contemporary religious tenets, neither is it a particularly philo-Semitic work that might allow us to view it as dramatic music of Jewish experience. Nor was it so intended, despite some 20th-century efforts to attribute the success of its production to London’s relatively small Jewish community of that time—whose members probably could not have grasped the oratorio’s subtext anyway.

Then, too, like several other Handel oratorios, Judas Maccabaeus reflects the English public’s heightened nationalistic spirit and burgeoning imperial pride, which had grown in the decades following the beneficial conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession. In the resulting Treaty of Utrecht, England had come away with a number of commercial, economic, geographic, and colonial benefits as spoils of war—including territorial increases in its spreading empire. The musically dramatized account of the Maccabees’ successful military exploits—especially when perceived as divinely ensured and as pursued under Divine protection for a sacred, privileged purpose—played vicariously and theatrically to that popular mood. Closer to home, English audiences were also basking in the glow of their army having recently quashed the latest (and final) Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland. It was in that connection, therefore, that Handel embarked initially on the project that turned out to be Judas Maccabaeus, which, even before deciding on a subject, he conceived as a means of honoring the Duke of Cumberland for his role in the decisive military victories over the Highland Scots in that war, the triumphal conclusion of which had reconfirmed permanently the 1707 Act of Union that had merged England with Scotland into the entity known thereafter as Great Britain.

Throughout that time frame and into the height of empire in the next century, the English typically harbored imagined analogies between their nationalist-imperial enthusiasm and the “chosenness” of the ancient Israelites—a pretended connection that could offer justification for their ambitions. Oratorios such as Judas Maccabaeus underscored and gave to those attitudes a sense of biblical legitimacy through their identification with the heroes, missions, conquests, and Temple hierarchy. Such productions functioned as desired links to the special biblical and historical relationship between God and the ancient Israelites, which audiences read in their Old Testament and in the Apocrypha, and which was amplified for them on Handel’s concert stages. That phenomenon resurfaces in coronation ceremonies, through various rituals, even in the post-Victorian age. It is worth recalling that Handel composed Zadok the Priest, which refers directly to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, for the coronation of King George II in 1727. It has been performed at every coronation since, including that of the reigning Queen.

Yet neither do such contextual historical affinities for Jewish antiquity, nor anything in the musical substance or in the slant of the libretto, translate to authentic Jewish experience in Judas Maccabaeus. If, for example, the Milken Archive were devoted to music of Anglo-Jewish rather than American Jewish experience, neither this work nor Handel’s other oratorios would be included. The Editorial Board would most certainly have rejected them based on the Archive’s criteria—not that they are in desperate need of unearthing or further recording to ensure their familiarity. (There are, however, a number of 20th-century English composers who have written worthy works of true Jewish connection, including Jewishly conceived Hannuka pieces. Apart from local premieres and occasional performances in narrow surroundings, many of these have yet to receive appropriate international recognition; they would certainly invite exploration and consideration for any such project.)

The inclination to embrace Judas Maccabaeus for Jewish purposes becomes all the more urgent during the season that also features its composer’s Messiah for Christmas-related performances. For it is especially then that Jewish music programmers and presenters seek analogous works of similar merit related to Hanukka. This situation only magnifies the need for more Jewishly inspired Hanukka works and for greater awareness of those that do exist. No composer of Handel’s stature or gifts has yet to address the subject from Jewish vantage points, and indeed, the “great American Hanukka oratorio” (or opera, or cantata) has yet to be written. Still, the Milken Archive offers a number of brilliantly crafted and effective smaller-scale Hanukka pieces that can sometimes fill this role (see especially in Volume 4). And it is to be hoped that the Archive and its revelations will inspire and encourage some of our most talented and accomplished composers to consider the Hanukka story for a universally appealing concert work on a grand scale.

Baroque-era biblical oratorios are not the only musical-dramatic works to which Jewish choruses and other Jewish musical programmers have turned in well-meant but frequently misguided efforts to claim a Jewish cultural stake in the canon of Western classical music. That same sort of adoptive procedure has been applied to a number of biblically based works composed without Jewish intention in subsequent periods—from the classical era on. Especially in the absence, until recently, of an adequate supply of Judaically inspired secular repertoire of artistic merit, Jewish culturally oriented artists and ensembles wishing to perform “Jewishly related music” have often been drawn to some of these important works from the general classical field—endowing them with Judaic dimensions and presenting them in Jewish contexts. Haydn’s The Creation, for example, was sung in Hebrew in Polish cities such as Warsaw and Łódź from the dawn of the 20th century through the interwar years—including a documented performance at Warsaw’s Tłomackie Synagogue. (In this work, though, the text may be considered religiously neutral in terms of its place in Judeo-Christian heritage, and it contains nothing contrary to Jewish tradition—even though, of course, Haydn had no specifically Judaic intentions in his conception.)

The most persistent but ill-advised example of this tendency with regard to the 19th-century classical repertoire is undoubtedly Mendelssohn’s Elijah (Elias). It too has been translated (from its original German) into Hebrew and Yiddish versions for Diaspora Jewish choruses and audiences, ostensibly to advance supposed but misperceived Jewish parameters. (Hebrew-language performances of this or any work in Israel, however, are an entirely different matter, with unrelated motivations. Renditions of classical music in the vernacular of the country for the benefit of Hebrew-speaking participants and audiences do not, especially in post-1950s Israel, constitute Jewish religious or nationalistic pretensions per se. In that practical sense, they are no different from the English National Opera’s present-day performances of Verdi and Puccini operas in English.) The same is generally true of English-language performances of Elijah by Jewish choruses and in Jewish contexts in America and England, when the purpose concerns an experience of Jewish cultural identity.

Like Handel’s biblical and apocryphal oratorios, however, and perhaps more so in several respects, Elijah is manifestly a Christian oratorio—no less so than Mendelssohn’s others: Moses, Paulus, and his unfinished Christus. For Mendelssohn, the eponymous character in his oratorio was the Elijah of the Old Testament, as understood and projected by Christian theology and its interpretation of messianic predictions and sequels, not eliyahu hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic deliberations, and Judaic literature—the “angel of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1) who would one day both restore and adjudicate rabbinic controversies.

This perspective was hardly unusual—indeed logical and expected—for a baptized, self-avowed, and for the most part enthusiastically Christian composer such as Mendelssohn. This reading of the work is not mitigated ipso facto by the happenstance of his father’s Jewish birth, especially inasmuch as he had converted to the German Evangelical Church (Lutheran, in American terminology) before the composer was born and then proceeded to provide and encourage at least a nominal Christian upbringing for his son following his childhood baptism. Moreover, the oratorio’s nature, substance, purpose, and agenda are in no way altered by the fact that its composer’s paternal grandfather (Moses Mendelsohn)—from whom he wanted at least to some degree and at certain times to distance himself—was the founder of the Haskala(the modern Jewish Enlightenment) in Germany and was, arguably, the seminal, most famous, and most significant modern Jewish thinker of his generation in Western Europe.

Even if we allow for the possibility of certain religiously neutral and perhaps deliberately ambiguous aspects of the libretto, it cannot be maintained that Elijah represents any attempt by its composer to “reconnect with his Jewish roots”—which is more or less a late-20th-century cliché anyway. That occasionally voiced wishful supposition simply cannot be supported by the relative weight of evidence, which tells to the contrary and which, divorced from postmodern Jewish emotional biases and agendas, does not reveal that Mendelssohn had any such concerns for Jewish family, historical, or religious heritage. Nor should we assign him any such obligations as an artist or an individual.

Like other important works in the Western musical canon that focus on biblical events or characters, Elijah marks an artistic high point in line with the mainstream directions of its composer’s time and place. It should be accepted on that level as the work of art, enduring beauty, and engaging drama that it is. On that plane, it has the power to transcend its libretto’s sources and particularistic interpretations, in which case it can speak to Jews and non-Jews alike. In a similar vein, many works in the Milken Archive—whether composed from uniquely Judaic religious convictions or from Jewish cultural perspectives—can resonate not only with Jewish audiences but with listeners of all faiths, persuasions, and cultural orientations. Biblically derived musical-dramatic works such as Elijah, however, remain outside the realm of the Milken Archive—not because they should not be of interest as Western art to all people, including Jews, but because the Archive’s mission is to expose and disseminate music that documents and reflects specifically Jewish experience and Judaic heritage.

A respectable number of oratorios and cantatas of genuine Jewish experience were written in Germany from the late 19th century through the early 1930s. A few received performances there, but only in Jewish venues. Most of them remain obscure, known to us—if at all—only because of buried references in bibliographic literature. Judaically inspired concert music of German-Jewish experience in fact remains an area aching for investigation, resurrection, and reanimation. Hugo Chaim Adler, for example, the gifted and prolific composer, Jewish intellectual, and cantor at Mannheim’s principal Liberale synagogue until 1939, wrote five biblical or Jewish historical oratorios—including a sprawling one on Job. None were ever performed.

It is the American Jewish experience of the 20th century that has produced the most significant, the most varied, and the largest repertoire of Jewish musical-dramatic works in the Diaspora. And it is a tribute to the openness of American society that it has hosted so many works geared to general audiences that are nonetheless genuine reflections of Jewish sensibilities. When, for example, Kurt Weill’s gigantic pageant The Eternal Road was billed in 1937 as biblical, it referred obviously to the Hebrew Bible as understood by the work’s Jewish composer, Jewish playwright, Jewish director, and Jewish producer—not to the Old Testament of the vast majority of Americans. (Meyer Weisgal, its producer, nonetheless prevailed upon the cardinal of New York to give special dispensation to Roman Catholics to attend the pageant during Lent, on the grounds of its biblical dimensions.) And its significant Zionist parameters, though not advertised, were fairly transparent in the production. Especially in the 1930s, it was probably only in America that so fundamentally Jewish a work could have sustained the level of public attention that it did. Similarly, a truly ecumenical work such as Thomas Beveridge’s Yizkor Requiem would probably not have been conceived anywhere but in America.

This volume offers an eclectic array of musical-dramatic works. It should come as no surprise that the Hebrew Bible has continued to inspire American composers. Thus we have, in addition to The Eternal Road, Samuel Adler’s The Binding, on the biblical story of Abraham preparing his son Isaac for sacrifice; Genesis Suite, a unique work by seven composers that depicts scenes and incidents from Genesis; two biblical cantatas by Ernst Toch (Cantata of the Bitter Herbs and Vanity of Vanites); two ballet scores to the same libretto about the life of Moses—one by Darius Milhaud and one by Stefan Wolpe; Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Naomi and Ruth; and Lukas Foss’s Song of Anguish.

Other works in this volume include David Diamond’s Aḥava, whichdeals with American Jewish history and was written in honor of American Jewry’s tercentenary, and two stories by the seminal Yiddish writer, Isaac Leyb Peretz—Bontshe shvayg and Oyb nit nokh hekher—form the bases of cantatas in English translations by Lazar Weiner (The Last Judgment) and Sholom Secunda (If Not Higher). Both concern the circumscribed life of unmodernized eastern European Jewry, yet they contain universal truths and sentiments that render them as deeply humanistic as they are Jewish. In that sense, they encapsulate one of the Milken Archive’s most important goals. 


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