Within the orbit of Jewish life, Passover’s themes of freedom, family, and (of course) food have broad appeal to Jews across the spectrum of religious observance and cultural identity. As such, it is not surprising that its commencing event—the seder—has been called “the most celebrated and beloved of Jewish home rituals.”
In conjunction with the seder, the most important ritual associated with Passover is the reading of the Haggada, the text that specifies the “order” of the ritual event and relates the story of Jewish liberation from Egyptian bondage as told in the Book of Exodus. The seder also involves the preparation and consumption of specific foods and drinks that have symbolic significance. And, like so many rituals of Jewish tradition, Passover would not seem complete without the music that encapsulates and helps enshrine it in our collective consciousness.
From the prayers to the songs, to the entire seder reading, Passover has spawned a fair amount of music, including sacred services, operas, oratorios, and instrumental pieces. Some of these are directly related to Passover and its associated rituals; others utilize it more as a jumping-off-point.
One of the beautiful aspects of Passover is its reflective nature and universal theme. The holiday effortlessly lends itself to contemporary analogies of oppression and bondage, hope and freedom. These themes and the stories that illustrate them have, in turn, spawned music in many genres and languages.
Explore the various works in the Milken Archive, below, and scroll to the bottom to stream all of the music now on Spotify.
PASSOVER SEDER FESTIVAL—SHOLOM SECUNDA | View Work
One of the more famous examples in the repetoire is the 1953 Passover Seder Festival album by Sholom Secunda and Richard Tucker, a full-length seder service for cantor, chorus, and organ with narration. It grew out of the public seders Secunda held annually at the Concord Hotel in the Catskill Mountains, where he served as music director for twenty-eight years. The service opens with an explanation of the ritual’s purpose:
The aim of the seder on the first night of Passover is to bring the events and miracles of the exodus from Egypt into the present, so that each of the celebrants, old and young, is made to feel as though he [or she] had personally come out of Egypt.
The Milken Archive’s collection of Passover music juxtaposes these Secunda/Tucker settings with several more contemporary ones by Cantor William Sharlin and Michael Isaacson, and classic recreations of famous performances by Yossele Rosenblatt and Moishe Oysher.
THIRD SEDER OF THE ARBETER RING—VARIOUS COMPOSERS | View Work
Though the orderly nature of Passover is fairly rigid, other aspects of the holiday have been amenable to change. Among the many ritual transformations and variations that have occurred in America is the Third Seder—a secular, communal ritual that recasts the narrative of the Haggada in terms of the social and cultural concerns of the day. The Milken Archive has recreated the Third Seder of the Arbeter Ring, a popular event among secular and socialist oriented Jews in the early and mid twentieth century. It combines texts from the traditional Haggada with contemporary ones by Yiddish poets like Avraham Reisen and Eugene Malek, with music by Lazar Weiner, Mikhl Gelbart, and others.
CANTATA OF THE BITTER HERBS—ERNST TOCH | View Work
The title of Ernst Toch’s Cantata of the Bitter Herbs points to the part of the seder where bitter herbs such as horseradish are consumed in a symbolic gesture that commemorates the pain of enslavement. Toch also expanded the traditional narrative to address injustice and oppression on a more universal level.
DI NAYE HAGODE—MAX HELFMAN | View Work
Conductor Nick Strimple and members of various choirs. Di naye hagode recording session. Royce Hall, UCLA.
Itsik Fefer composed his epic Yiddish poem, Di shotns fun varshever geto (The Shadows of the Warsaw Ghetto), to commemorate the 1943 organized resistance to Nazi deportation by Jewish underground fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. (Fefer was later assassinated in one of Stalin’s infamous anti-Jewish purges.) Max Helfman took the title for his choral tone poem, Di naye hagoda (The New Haggada), from a phrase that appears throughout Fefer’s poem, imploring people to remember and retell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as they do the exodus from Egypt. The story is related through both sung text and narration, provided on this recording by Theodore Bikel.
A QUEEN FOR PASSOVER | View Work
This humorous song by Louis Gilrod originated in a 1922 Yiddish theater production called Tants, gezang un vayn (Dance, Song and Wine). The seder here simply provides context for a typical vaudeville bit on marriage.
PASSOVER OFFERING | View Work
Yehudi Wyner’s Passover Offering is a dramatic depiction of the Exodus narrative compacted into a five-movement chamber suite scored for flute, clarinet, trombone, and cello. It utilizes or alludes both to biblical cantillation and eastern European Jewish folk music, and the instrumentation is meant to approximate certain instruments from the biblical era.
ALEIKHEM EDA K'DOSHA | View Work
Modeled on the “four questions” of the Passover Seder, “Aleikhem eda k'dosha” is part of the Milken Archive’s collection of Chants and Elegies for Tisha B’av. It comes from the early American Sephardic repertoire, which dates to 17th-century Amsterdam and was the first Jewish musical tradition transplanted and developed in North America.
VARIATIONS ON ELIAHU HANAVI | View Work
One familiar ritual of the Passover seder involves the fifth cup of wine that is left on the table for the prophet Elijah. At the conclusion of the birkat hamazon, people open their doors in a symbolic gesture to invite the prophet in to sip a drop of wine from his cup. There are a number of poems and songs that deal with the theme of Elijah, but one in particular is quite well known and was used by the composer Michael Shapiro for a set of Variations on Eliahu Hanavi for solo cello.
THE FINAL INGREDIENT | View Work
David Amram’s opera The Final Ingredient is set in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. The fictional account involves a group of prisoners determined to hold a seder, who scour the camp for the required ingredients of a seder plate. They manage to find something to represent all the required items, except for the egg, which serves as a memorial to the burnt sacrificial Festival offering in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (zekher l’hagiga). Then, they discover a bird’s nest just outside the camp’s fence and attempt to retrieve one of its eggs to complete their plate.
DANSE DE SALOMÉ | View Work
While the text of Joseph Achron’s Danse de Salomé is based on the biblical character of Salomé (who has no relation Passover), this complex choral composition borrows two melodies from a Samaritan Passover sacrificial ceremony he witnessed in Palestine in 1924. Achron was well known as a pioneer in the use of cantillation motifs in artistic compositions. But this piece is unique even within his oeuvre.
PIRAMIDN | View Work
An anonymous melody set to a poem by David Edelstadt, Piramidn (In dem land fun piramidn) is yet another example of the secularization of the Passover narrative. In this case, Edelstadt has created a simple children’s poem that briefly describes the period of enslavement and liberation, but omits the name of the “great hero, who fought for the Jews, with his wisdom and his sword.”
Passover Playlist I: The Whole Seder Plate (Total playtime: 5 hours)
Passover Playlist II: Just the Sandwich (Total playtime: 55 minutes)
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