Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 20

L'dor Vador: A Celebration of Children's Voices

by Neil W. Levin

V1CHORAL SONORITIES OF CHILDREN'S VOICES have played an important historical as well as sociological role in both sacred and secular music of Jewish life. One could divide such music into two basic categories with respect to intentions and function: music of pedagogic origin and purpose, intended not only for singing by children, but also geared primarily for children’s audiences; and music written for (or to include) children’s voices but not aimed necessarily at children as listeners. The music in this volume concerns the latter. It is music for children’s or young people’s voices but not principally for children’s ears! Many of the works herein feature appealing, easily embraced melodies and negotiable harmonies; others, such as Darius Milhaud’s Cantata from Proverbs or Paul Dessau’s Song of Songs, might prove difficult for nonprofessional children’s choirs. All of the pieces presented here, however, require child or youth choristers with adequate vocal training and preparation—not necessarily by voice teachers per se, but at least by choirmasters who have specialized in the specific techniques of refining children’s vocal production. These selections were not composed as recreational vehicles for school or camp singing groups, whose raison d’être is not first and foremost artistic performance.

Our earliest knowledge of children’s choral performance in specifically Jewish contexts dates to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and its Levitical choirs. The musical dimensions of the Temple ritual included young boys with unmatured voices singing along with, or in alternation with, the adult men. Indeed, there are references to their required period of training and, on a lighter note, to incidents (or at least hints) of mild resentment by the adult choristers over the attention accorded to the boys.

As part of the development of Ashkenazi synagogue custom and cantorial practice, medieval Jewry gave rise to an institutionalized trio format for liturgical delivery in Rhineland communities and, then, in other German-speaking areas. That format consisted of a minimum of three singers, two of whom functioned as the cantor’s or precentor’s vocal “assistants” (m’shor’rim) at the pulpit—the bass, whose voice range was bass, baritone, or bass baritone; and the singer, who was either an adult high tenor or a boy soprano. The soprano was often preferred, in which case he was known as a singerl (little singer). His performance consisted of renditions of metrical or quasi-metrical tunes that punctuated the free-flowing nonmetrical cantorial delivery—either as solos or perhaps as duets. The singer or singerl could also join with the bass and the cantor to create primitively harmonized cadences ad libitum. Often singerls were the repositories of their cantors’ tune repertoires (a function sometimes filled by a bass as well). So prized were these m’shor’rim by cantors, who relied on them for knowledge of unnotated tunes as a kind of stock-in-trade unavailable to competitors, that rivalries sometimes expanded to feuds or worse. There are legendary stories of cantors “stealing” each other’s singerls for their own trios. 

Thus, prior to the modern era, good singerls became coveted trump cards of cantors, who relied heavily on them all the way through the 18th century and, in still unmodernized settings, during the early 19th century. The hazzan-bass-singer trio, which, as a formalized synogogal practice, spread to Poland and then other parts of eastern Europe along with Jewish migrations from western Europe, may be considered the initial, admittedly primitive forerunner of later four-part synagogue choirs in both the western and eastern spheres of Ashkenazi Jewry.

By the late Middle Ages or shortly thereafter, there were apparently also synagogue choirs with multiple boys, the evidence of which is found in colorful images in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. The earliest documentation concerning four-part harmony with boys and men as an established practice, however, does not predate the late 18th century.

The unique, short-lived episode in Italy in the 17th century concerning the Hebrew liturgical settings of Salamone Rossi would have involved boys singing the upper voices together with men on the lower parts. This assumes that these settings were actually performed in any synagogue as part of services during Rossi’s lifetime—or even that they were so intended originally. In any case, no continuum was established by that music, and it remained until the modern era for four-part synagogue choral singing to take root in Ashkenazi synagogues of all types. (See the notes to Lukas Foss’s Salamone Rossi Suite in Volume 11 and to Isadore Freed’s Rossi adaptations in Volume 4.)

Until the mid-19th century in England, and later in America and in some European cities (notably in France and Vienna), choirs in Western Sephardi synagogues of the so-called Amsterdam tradition sang completely without harmonization. When four-part arrangements were adopted, boys sang the upper parts. In eastern Sephardi and other non-Ashkenazi synagogues, on those occasions when choral singing has amplified liturgical renditions, boys have sometimes sung in unison or in octaves with the men.

Women’s voices have always been excluded from synagogue choirs in orthodox (and quasi-orthodox traditional) synagogues, where Jewish legal prohibitions preclude female voices in delivery of the liturgy as well as for other roles. This prohibition, which also became an aesthetic tradition and a matter or propriety even apart from purely legal considerations, has excluded young girls’ voices as well. Thus, the history and evolution of the four-part traditional Ashkenzi synagogue choir revolves around the sound of unmatured boys’ voices on soprano and alto. (The latter appears as “Soprano II” in original printings of music of the groundbreaking Wiener Ritus [Viennese Rite], whose musical dimension was established beginning in 1826 by Salomon Sulzer. That was in keeping with contemporaneous nomenclature.) The tenor and bass lines are, of course, assigned to adult male voices. This combination remained the standard sonority in orthodox synagogues in western and German-speaking Europe (while Reform as well as more traditional middle-of-the-road Liberale German synagogues—including the so-called organ synagogues of the centrist stripe—eventually introduced women’s voices to their choirs). With a few curious exceptions or experiments (in some Neologue synagogues in “Greater Hungary,” and perhaps even in a handful of the most westernized synagogues in eastern Europe, about which we still know relatively little), it also remained the exclusive practice throughout the Czarist and Hapsburg empires (and the kingdom of Romania) and, after their demise by the end of the First World War, in nearly all their former territories. That quintessential eastern European synagogue choral voicing (SATB with boys on the upper parts) was transferred automatically to the world of orthodox and traditional cantorial choirs in all regions to which eastern European Ashkenazim emigrated: England, Australia, South Africa, Palestine (and then Israel), and the New World. It gave way eventually to the männerchor TTBB format in those new environments, including in America, only as various sociological, socioeconomic, and sociocultural factors—including an array of competing activities for children—made it increasingly difficult to attract, train, and sustain boy choristers. But until then, in America as well as elsewhere, in orthodox and traditional circles, participation by talented boys in such cantorial choirs was often considered a coveted honor by them and their peers.

Thus, until the transference to the TTBB format was well established as a replacement, virtually all composers whose music was aimed at orthodox and traditional choirs wrote their settings and arrangements according to that SATB voicing. They did so with expectation of the boy choir sonorities in a blend with those of the adult men. A work such as Sholom Kalib’s The Day of Rest in this volume, for example, was conceived to recall that sound.

With the birth of secular Jewish folk choruses in Europe, mixed-gender children’s choruses came on the scene as part of that partly political, partly cultural phenomenon. Their repertoire, like that of their adult counterparts, was mostly devoted to Yiddish folksong; and it was often connected to the ideological agendas of their sponsoring organizations. In America, secular Yiddish cultural choruses also became a prominent feature, and these too often included children’s choirs. A work such as Charles Davidson’s A Singing of Angels, for example, would have been a logical vehicle for children’s choruses sponsored by organizations such as the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), one of whose missions was—and remains, even in the absence today of its own choruses—the perpetuation of secular Yiddish language and culture. If composed in the original Yiddish of its folksong components (which a composer such as Davidson would have done with a Yiddish-speaking youth chorus in mind), it might have been widely performed by such choruses.

The Zionist movement, in America and throughout the modern Jewish world, created yet a new role for children’s and youth choruses. These came to be sponsored by a number of Zionist organizations and their branches in numerous cities. Except for Yiddish-speaking groups affiliated with Zionist or pro-Zionist organizations, such as the Labor Zionists in the United States, these Zionist children’s choruses quite naturally sang in modern Hebrew—which served both a pedagogic and an ideological function. Their repertoire included Hebrew Palestinian folk and folk-type songs, songs of the Land of Zion, songs of the pioneers and settlers in Palestine, and kibbutz and aliya songs—all of which imbued the children with enthusiasm for the Zionist enterprise and created and reinforced emotional attachments to the land. In addition to creative arrangements, a number of composers wrote individual SSA pieces as well as full-length cantatas for these choirs, based on a variety of texts that promoted familiarity with and commitment to the Zionist cause as well as an identification with modern Hebrew culture. Those texts could range from biblical passages, adopted in those cases for secular purpose, to modern Hebrew poetry, and from folk lyrics to original librettos fashioned by the composers themselves. Thus, a work such as Issachar Miron’s A Hallel Oratorio (Psalms of Israel), excerpts of which are included in this volume, provides an example of some of the more interesting types of repertoire that might have been sung by Zionist children’s and youth choruses had it been composed earlier than it was—not only prior to the establishment of the state but throughout the 1950s and a bit beyond. Other examples in principle, which may be found in Volume 8, include Max Helfman’s Israel Suite and his Ḥag Habikkurim.

Over the years, occasional attempts have been made to establish one or more American Jewish secular children’s choruses on a sophisticated artistic plane potentially in line with that of some of the fine professional-level ensembles in England and Europe—or with choirs in Israel such as the Ankor Children’s Choir. There are indeed a number of respectable American Jewish school choirs, whose objectives, however, are necessarily more circumscribed. But the more far-ranging goal of serious concert choirs has been thwarted—not by any lack of talent, but by a combination of commanding Jewish communal priorities and an array of competing attractions and activities that vie for American children’s attention and participation.

This situation is not confined to the Jewish community. It is, rather, part of a wider cultural backdrop vis-à-vis the arts in American education. Moreover, notwithstanding several notable exceptions, the United States does not have a long-standing serious children’s choral tradition on a par with that in England (and its echo in some former parts of the British Empire), Germany, Austria, and other countries within the German cultural orbit. At the Zimriya international choral festivals in Israel from the 1950s through the 1970s, Jewish as well as other amateur adult and children’s choirs came regularly from disparate parts of the world to participate. Among the children’s choirs, the most highly cultivated, sensitive, and refined performances were consistently those by ensembles from Central Europe, England, or—perhaps the most dazzling case of all—from South Africa: the Drakensberg Boys Choir, which stole the limelight repeatedly. Some of the Israeli children’s choirs, too, such as one from Petach Tikva, outshone most others, including those from America. This may be due partly to the fact that Israel had an exciting choral tradition dating to the days of the y’shuv and its kibbutz as well as urban choral activity.

In the 1950s, Israeli-born Cantor Zvi Aroni, who had developed a special technique for training young boys in classical voice production, established a boy choir in Toronto that sang with extraordinary polish, precision, and clarity. But it was exclusively a synagogue choir, affiliated with a traditionally oriented congregation within the Conservative movement. In many ways it nearly equaled the quality of first-rate English and European children’s choirs. Listening to its recorded renditions today, it is difficult to imagine that so refined a sound by youngsters not associated with any classical choir school could have been achieved in the postwar North American environment—even in view of some of the sociological and cultural differences between the Canadian and American Jewish communities. Their sound stood in direct opposition to the deliberately rough-hewn, throaty, and perceived soulful timbres of the yeshiva boys’ choirs among New York orthodox circles in that time frame and in ensuing decades—the so-called pirchei groups, whose popular, often Hassidic-infused melodies with band accompaniment expanded into a broader fashion in Jewish schools outside the orthodox world in the 1970s. The Toronto choir, neither much known nor celebrated outside its home city, ceased to function when Cantor Aroni left to take a position in New York.

Standards of foreign choruses aside, there is also no Jewish counterpart in the United States to such professional quality American children’s choirs as the American Boychoir (actually a full-time choir school), the Phoenix Boys Choir, the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus, the Chicago Children’s Choir, or a handful of others of similar artistic level—all of which have national (in some cases international) reputations. The nearest any American Jewish children’s choir devoted to Jewish repertoire has come to similar dedication and prominence within the American Jewish community was probably the mixed-gender Beth Abraham Youth Chorale, based in Dayton, Ohio. It toured North America, Europe, and Israel and appeared on several recordings—the last of which was with the renowned Jan Peerce as tenor soloist. It also commissioned a number of composers to write works for its concerts, thereby increasing the Jewish repertoire for children’s voices (see the notes to Abraham Kaplan’s Psalms of Abraham and Sholom Kalib’s The Day of Rest in this volume). The chorale’s disbandment was due partly to population shifts in its home city; partly to reduced if not eliminated exposure to music in public schools, which in turn can be responsible for diminished interest in singing; and partly to insufficient national support—though the chorale should rightly have been treasured as a unique product of American Jewry. Also, it had been the singular vision of its tenacious founder and director, Cantor Jerome Kopmar, for whom the chorale was an intense labor of love until his retirement from that role. No one else appears to have taken up the cudgel.

More recently, there has been a Jewish choral renaissance among interested high school–age singers. The Zamir Choral Foundation’s development of a Jewish high school chorus on a national level—which comes together in subgroups for sectional meetings and rehearsals in individual locales and then for an annual choral festival in New York State—is an important contribution to American Jewish culture. This is, however, a chorus of matured albeit youthful voices that sings four-part SATB repertoire, rather than a children’s ensemble.

It still remains for organized American Jewry to find a way to establish and support a sophisticated Jewish children’s choir, devoted to Jewish repertoire and capable of performing serious, sometimes intricate music with ease and polish for objectively critical audiences whose expectations go beyond parental pride. Ideally, their repertoire could include not only the full range demonstrated in this volume, but also works of even greater complexity, such as Milton Babbitt’s Psalm 150—which was written for a consortium of professional boy or children’s choirs. This endeavor would, of course, face a number of obstacles and difficulties, but it would not be impossible. Perhaps this volume, as well as performances by children’s choirs of pieces in other volumes (Volumes 8 and 14, for example), will inspire and arouse the requisite interest to pursue this goal.

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