Solo and Ensemble Music of Jewish Spirit

From Jerusalem to Odessa: Excursions in American Jewish Chamber Music

Part 2

A Virtual Exhibit
Curated by: Jeff Janeczko

This is part two of a multi-part exhibit on the history of Jewish Chamber music in America.

Part 1 

Poets, Promises, and Prenuptials

Three Pieces for Chamber Ensemble and Voice

Bellos Portrait2

The Shadows of Jerusalem

As the historic center of Judaism and a spiritual anchor for Jews around the world, the city of Jerusalem is a highly symbolic place. Its significance is embodied in expressions like “Next year in Jerusalem,” said every year at the conclusion of Passover and High Holy observances across the world.

They were always in some kind of awe whenever they said ‘yerushalayim.’

For composer Meyer Kupferman, hearing his parents and relatives say the word “yerushalayim” was one of the more salient indices of Jewishness he experienced as a child. “I kept hearing this word, ‘yerushalayim,’ ‘yerushalayim.’ I didn’t know what the heck it meant. And they were always in some kind of awe whenever they said ‘yerushalayim.’” 

As an adult, Kupferman turned to poetry to help cope with his feelings surrounding the Holocaust. He composed a poem titled The Shadows of Jerusalem, about which he stated the following during a 1998 interview with the Milken Archive:

I thought about a lot of things pertaining to philosophy, to theology, and images since my childhood.  How important it was to my mother to light the candles.  And there is a reference of the, the candle-lighting there, and the idea of being called to be a part of a minyan, even if you didn’t want to be, you know, and, and the idea of the ten required. And, and I remember, when I was child, I had to read about the, protecting the scrolls, and the image of the scrolls having gone, like people have gone, through terrible times.  That the scrolls themselves were damaged by either fire or time or God knows what, you know. So, all of these images played in my mind, and they came out into the poem.

In 1992, Kupferman turned his poem into a chamber work for mezzo-soprano and a trio of clarinet, cello, and piano. At fourteen minutes long the piece is much more than a poem setting. In fact, the voice plays a quasi-instrumental role, with many extended melismas. But the text is crucial, and the symbolic nature of Jerusalem plays a key role in the piece’s Jewish connection. The line “And we were touched forever by the tears and shadows, the shadows of Jerusalem” appears twice, near the beginning and as the poems’ closing line. An Eastern European folk flavor pervades much of the melodic design.

Oracle II

For any piece that utilizes the voice, text is key. It aids listeners in interpreting a piece’s meaning and can profoundly influence musical choices the composer makes in the course of writing. The same is true of instrumentation, which in many cases is dictated by the terms of the commission.

For Oracle II, Richard Wernick was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore to compose a piece for piano, oboe, and voice. Several years prior, Wernick had been composing a Sabbath evening service and had come across a text by the 2nd-century sage Shimon bar Yochai in which God admonished the Jewish people that He would refuse to be “their God” if they would not be “His witnesses.” Wernick found the text intriguing, but it was not suitable for the sacred service. So, he held onto it and later used it in a trio for piano, voice, and cello, which he titled The Oracle of Shimon Bar Yochai.

“I very often do this,” he remarked in a 1998 interview with the Milken Archive.  “I will collect texts without having a specific context for what kind of work they will go into. This particular text was very powerful for me.  In English, it translates, “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God.  If you are my witnesses, I am God. And if you are not my witnesses, I am not God.”

Some years later, Wernick received the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore commission and was reminded of his earlier work, The Oracle of Shimon bar Yochai. (The new commission was also for a trio that involved piano and voice, but the third instrument was oboe instead of cello.) He set off to find a text and was drawn to a statement attributed to the 19th-century Hasidic leader known as the Rebbe of Kotsk—or the Kotsker Rebbe—which he’d read in Chaim Potok’s novel, The Promise. In that text, the rebbe is imploring God to live up to His promise of redemption. “The text is the opposite. The text is ‘Master of the Universe, you’d better stick to your bargain with the Covenant.  Otherwise, we’re not going to be your chosen people.’”

As an additional Jewish signifier, Wernick wrote the oboe part in a way that emulated a shofar. Neil W. Levin has expounded on another point that connects Oracle II with the High Holy Days liturgy:

At the conclusion of the piece the oboe’s plaintive line is doubled by the soprano singing in Hebrew the cautionary words “Take heed!” These words are drawn from the Rosh Hashana liturgy in connection with the shofar service: “Take heed of the sound of the shofar.” But there is a double meaning here, since the Kotsker Rebbe is cautioning God to “take heed” as well.

The same text was used, at Wernick’s suggestion, by Ralph Shapey in Psalm I. And Shapey incorporated excerpts from it in a later composition titled Psalm II, which is included in the Milken Archive in Volume 18: Psalms and Canticles. Oracle II was premiered by the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore in 1987.

Nuptial Scene

by Samuel Adler

Interlude: A Prayer

by Shulamit Ran

The act of composing is setting up boundaries, and then finding ways to deal with them.”

—Shulamit Ran


From Vitebsk to Odessa

Vitebsk: A Study on a Jewish Theme

Aaron Copland Piano

by Aaron Copland

Copland’s piano trio, Vitebsk: A Study on a Jewish Theme, was composed between 1927 and 1929 and is based on a melody from the famous Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, written by the celebrated author, playwright, and folklorist S. An-Ski (1863–1920).

An-ski was born in Vitebsk, Belarus and became an ardent adherent of the Haskala (enlightenment) movement. He developed an interest in Jewish folklore and headed the watershed Jewish Ethnographic Expedition from 1911 to 1914. The expedition collected folklore, artifacts, music, and other documentation of Jewish life in small towns and villages throughout regions of the Russian Empire.

An-Ski’s play The Dybbuk, which he based on a legend he encountered during the expedition, provided a new window on a world of superstitions among Jews in areas of eastern Europe that had yet to be affected by westernization and the Haskala. He used the particular story or folktale as a framework for depicting the mysterious world of Hasidic Jewry. He wrote the play originally in Russian, but also translated it into Yiddish for its production in Vilna (Vilnius) in 1920 by the famous Yiddish theatrical troupe the Vilner Truppe. For its production in Berlin during the 1925–26 season by the Habima troupe from Moscow, it was translated into Hebrew by Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik—the leading figure of the modern Hebrew cultural renaissance and Israel’s de facto poet laureate. That production marked Habima’s entry into the European theatre world, and it was received as a cultural revelation. A non-Jewish critic for a Berlin newspaper wrote: “Of course, I could not understand one word of it, but I could hear that this elegant Hebrew must have been the language in which God spoke to the ancient Israelites when He was in His best mood!”

In that interwar period, An-Ski’s drama about demonic possession evoked a very real way of life that was still being played out. It bespoke a world in which daily life was still governed by centuries-old folk beliefs and rituals. That immediacy appealed to Berlin critics and contributed to the play’s general success—lifting a veil on an utterly foreign world, so near and yet so far. Chemjo Vinaver, the distinguished Jewish musician, critic, and scholar of Hasidic music who had come from a Hasidic environment but was living in Berlin, reacted to the play less as a conventional drama than as “a loosely woven dramatic legend based on Hasidic lore and Jewish folkways.”

Copland had seen an English-language production of The Dybbuk few years early and was taken by a Hasidic melody that composer Joel Engel, who provided the incidental music for An-ski’s play, had utilized. The melody has since been traced to the Vitebsk region of Belarus, which was also the city in which An-ski was born.

Copland wrote the following in a note for the work’s publication:

The Trio Vitebsk was completed in 1929 and first performed at a concert of the League of Composers in New York in February of that year. The Jewish folk theme, which is used as an integral part of the work, was heard by the composer during a performance of An-sky’s play The Dybbuk. The particular version of the folk tune used in the play was first heard by An-sky in his birthplace Vitebsk. That circumstance supplied the composer with his title.

The premiere performance was reviewed in The New York Times by noted critic Olin Downes, alongside a glowing appraisal of a Carnegie Hall performance by Sergei Rachmaninov. Also on the program at that Town Hall performance were the Third Sonata of Karol Rathaus, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Dances of King David, and Arnold Schoenberg’s second String Quartet with Voice.

Downes’s review described Vitebsk as containing some “striking ideas” but within a treatment that was “too extended and often rather strained.” But perhaps this assessment is fair, considering Copland himself called the work “a dramatic character study.” The trio is divided into three fairly well-defined sections, providing a clear ABA structure in which a fast middle section is bracketed by two slow ones.

The primary melodic motif upon which the piece is based can be heard toward the end of the audio sample featured here.

Niggun of the Seven Circles

Since its creation nearly 100 years ago, The Dybbuk has inspired an astounding number of musical works. In a 1998 interview with Milken Archive, composer Shulamit Ran related that there had been eleven operas written on The Dybbuk. And that’s only opera. The estimate doesn’t encompass, for instance, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’s ballet, or other staged musical productions, such as the collaboration between Tony Kushner and The Klezmatics. (Ran's opera, Between Two Worlds, premiered in 1997.)

Israeli-born composer Ofer Ben-Amots took on The Dybbuk in a big way in 2007 with a chamber opera adaptation of the story that turned An-ski’s version “on its head,” by making the possessed main female character, Leah, more central to the story and turning several of the male characters into instrumental parts.

Ofer Ben-Amots originally wrote Niggun of the Seven Circles for the last scene of Act II of The Dybbuk. The scene portrays a marriage ceremony and focuses on the custom of sheva hakafot—seven circles, viz., the bride circling the bridegroom seven times under the Ḥuppa, or marriage canopy. It is in this scene that the main character, Leah, is haunted by the spirit of her deceased love, Ḥanan, and becomes possessed. In its original version, the piece was scored for clarinet, piano trio, and percussion. This version is for viola and piano.

"Beyond that lies complete chaos"

The reasons that his date of birth is impossible to pin down are but the tip of a very compelling iceberg when it comes to the life and music of Leo Ornstein. Though he was once poised to be one of the most famous (and infamous) American composers of the 20th century, his retreat from public life and concert performance early in his career have rendered him virtually unknown outside of specialized music circles.

Leo Ornstein 1Leo Ornstein, age 40 (Source)

Born in the town of the Kremenchug, Ukraine, Leo Ornstein’s musical abilities appeared at an early age. And therein lies the crux concerning his date of birth. His parents reportedly falsified his age on several occasions. Some reports suggest that he was made to appear older for the sake of gaining entry into prestigious conservatories, while he may also have been made to appear younger for the sake of prolonging his early career as a child prodigy. Whatever the case, Ornstein’s unusually long life allowed him to live through three centuries: he was born sometime between 1892 and 1895 and died in 2002.

I just simply drew back and said, ‘beyond that lies complete chaos.’”

Ornstein studied with several major pianists and gained entry into at least two of the region's major conservatories before his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1906 and he enrolled at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School). He made his New York debut as a pianist in 1911 with a program drawn from the standard piano repertoire, but soon after became a proponent of modern music and began composing. Neil W. Levin notes his subsequent impact on the American music scene: 

For roughly the next fifteen years he became an unrelenting proponent of modern music in general. He provided American audiences with some of their first engagements with music of the first quarter of the 20th century, ranging from composers whose works were still unfamiliar in America and considered “new music”—only later to find broad appeal (Debussy, Ravel, Franck, and Albeniz, among others)—to those such as Bartók and Scriabin, whose fresh language and extended harmonies, though hardly modern by subsequent (or any) standards, still departed in their originality from habituated tastes and expectations. His introductions also included iconic modernists, notably Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Moreover, his performances of certain works by these composers were world premieres.

Ornstein was also a prolific composer. A website maintained by his son catalogues more than 100 compositions. But Ornstein was known for being both disorganized in terms of keeping records and unmotivated when it came to putting pen to paper. So, it is likely that he composed far more than has been preserved. 

Leo Ornstein 2Leo Ornstein with his wife, Pauline. (Source)

While his early compositions pushed the envelope and tested the limits of what audiences were willing to consider “muisc,” Ornstein eventually tempered his approach and incorporated more tonality and lyricism into his work. Among these later pieces was his Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano, the second movement of which is included in the Milken Archive’s Volume 10. Neil W. Levin discusses the piece’s Jewish relevance:

The second movement in particular, marked Andante sostenuto, betrays unmistakable hints of intervals, emotive gestures, and inflections emblematic of perceived eastern European Jewish melos. And although it would be going too far to claim to know whether the incorporation of these elements was consciously intended as specifically Jewish, the long cello line, too, can be heard as a slow, chantlike cantorial expression.

The turn toward Romanticism was something that even Ornstein seemed confused by: “Why I should have heard this romantic piece at the same period that I was tumultuously involved in the primitivism of [other works] is beyond my understanding.” The piece to which he referred as contrast was Violin Sonata, Op. 31, of which Ornstein once remarked that it had “brought music just to the very edge. . . . I just simply drew back and said, ‘beyond that lies complete chaos.’”

Odessa Trio: In Memory of a Mentor

Composer Joseph Dorfman’s relationship with the Soviet Union was contentious. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1940, he went on to study piano and composition at the Odessa Academy, and musicology and composition at the Gnessin Musical Institute in Moscow (1967-1971). Though thoroughly Soviet in terms of his training, he was also drawn to Jewish music and to Hindemith, two currents that ran against the general stream of "Soviet" music.

Teachers and colleagues warned him of the perils of composing Jewish music, but it was a muse he could not ignore. He applied to immigrate to Israel in 1971—at which point he lost his teaching position—and finally moved there in 1973. But the move had consequences, as the Los Angeles Times later noted, “The Soviet establishment replied [to Dorfman’s emigration] by banning his music from the country's concert stages and radio stations.”

In Israel, Dorfman lectured at, and eventually lead, the Rubin Music Academy of Tel Aviv, and also served as artistic director of the International Festivals of Jewish Art Music, initiated. He also became Ofer Ben-Amots’s teacher and mentor. With the democratization efforts that accompanied the end of the Cold War, Dorfman was “un-blacklisted” and he was invited to hear his music performed in five Soviet cities. He died suddenly and unexpectedly after a 2006 performance in a synagogue in Encino, CA.

The Soviet establishment replied by banning [Dorfman’s] music from the country's concert stages and radio stations.”

In reflecting on his Odessa Trio, Ofer Ben-Amots has pointed to a Russian tradition of composing piano trios in memory of great artists, mentors, or close friends. And he has employed a diverse array of devices in the work’s composition.

The first movement of Odessa Trio is based on the manner in which Ben-Amots intones the liturgical incipit elohenu velohei avotenu (Our God and God of our fathers) when he serves as a ba’al t’filla (lay cantor) for synagogue services. The other movements are based on a musical cryptogram of Dorfman’s name Do-Re-Fa-Mi-La (C-D-F-E-A), which appears for the first time in the second movement. The initial statement is vigorous and pronounced, but proceeds to what the composer calls a “dark, romantic, and somewhat ‘Chopinesque’ mood.” The third movement, also based on the cryptogram, is a tango that offers light, nearly humorous contrast to the others. The concluding movement returns to modalities of Hebrew liturgical delivery, moving from slow passages that evoke the mood of prayer and cantorial recitatives to a climactic burst of loud shofar calls. The musical material for this movement was also drawn from Ben-Amots’s  chamber opera, The Dybbuk. The middle section, “Toccata Exorcista,” is the depiction of the exorcism scene. The movement concludes with a wordless prayer.

Un, Deux, Trois


Solo: Variations on Eliahu hanavi

Eliyahu hanavi (Elijah the Prophet; 9th c. B.C.E.), is often viewed as one of the most cryptic and colorful personalities in the Hebrew Bible and its exegetical literature. According to the Bible, Elijah predicted the drought that followed King Ahab’s introduction of idol worship to the Israelites, transcended to the underworld without ever dying, and will appear as a presage to the coming of the Messiah.

The most widespread and familiar Jewish custom associated with Elijah is the fifth cup of wine reserved for him at the Passover seder. In keeping with this folkloric symbolism, Elijah is said invisibly to visit each Jewish home for a brief moment during the seder to sip a drop of wine from his cup. In Jewish homes the world over, the Passover meal concludes with the birkat hamazon and the doors are opened as a symbolic invitation to Elijah, while those present proclaim their hope for Divine justice and spiritual redemption.

Among the vast literature of liturgical and extra-liturgical poetry written by paytanim (poets) beginning approximately in the 10th century C.E. in Babylonia and Palestine and extending through the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe, there are a number of poems and hymns that address the theme of Elijah. By the 11th century, it had already become customary in many if not most Jewish communities and rites to include sung versions of one or another of these hymns at the ceremony marking the conclusion of the Sabbath. It also became customary in many traditions to do so at the seder, usually when the door is opened to invite Elijah in. A refrain, which is probably the oldest element in this body of poetry, is shared by at least several of the otherwise unrelated or distinct poems.

When composer Michael Shapiro’s son was an infant, he included the song Eliahu hanavi among the more standard lullabies and children’s songs he would sing to him, because he wanted to expose the child to some Jewish music. He later used the melody for a theme a variations composition for solo cello. “I just love the melody,” he remarked in an interview with the Milken Archive. “It was one of the easiest pieces I’ve ever written. Writing typically is torture for me. This particular piece was just a total joy.”

The piece was premiered in Berlin as part of program organized by Gottfried Wagner (grandson of Richard Wagner) about Jewish composers before, during, and after the Holocaust. Other composers on the program included Viktor Ulmann and Kurt Weill.


Duo: Counting the Omer

Lag ba’omer is the thirty-third day of the seven-week ritual of “counting the omer (the biblical measure of barley)” that was offered daily in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from the sixteenth of the Hebrew month of Nissan (i.e., the second night of Passover) until the Pilgrimage Festival of Shavuot. The word shavu’ot translates literally as “weeks” and serves to connect the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt and the liberation from bondage with the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. That entire interim period, known as s’fira (counting), is one of obligatory national semi-mourning among traditionally observant Jews. It commemorates the Jewish people’s suffering under Roman domination and the history of massacres during this season—from the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples through the three medieval Crusades (1096–1192). Consistent with legally mandated and traditional mourning restrictions in general is the required abstention from all weddings and festivities, instrumental music, haircutting, and other activities so specified under Jewish law.

The thirty-third day of this period, however, lag ba’omer, is the one of day of this period on which these restrictions are suspended and celebration ensues. Lazar Weiner composed Lag ba'omer initially in 1929 to accompany a ballet depicting the day’s themes of harvest, freedom, and celebration. This arrangement for two pianos dates to 1942.


String Trio: Reconcillation

Among the hundreds of synagogues and other Jewish-owned properties that were destroyed on Kristallnacht was the centuries-old synagogue in Aachen, Germany. More than a half century later, the Gesellschaft für Christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit (Society for Christian-Jewish Reconciliation) in Aachen commissioned Jan Radzynski to compose his String Trio to commemorate the opening of a new synagogue in that city.

Radzynski, a native of Warsaw and pupil of the renowned Krzystof Penderecki, incorporated Jewish liturgical melodies into each movement. In the first, a setting by Zavel Zilberts of the Hebrew memorial prayer el malei raḥamim (God, who is full of mercy), which in most Ashkenazi synagogues concludes the Yizkor Service. And, in the second, a traditional melody notated by Max Wohlberg for the prayer recited in connection with the dedication of a new house or building, mizmor shir ḥanukkat habayit.

The work was premiered in May 1995 at Aachen’s city hall by Trio Arco.

Links & Credits

Featured Recordings:

Shadows of Jerusalem
Oracle II
Nuptial Scene
A Prayer
Niggun of the Seven Circles
Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano
Odessa Trio
Variations on Eliahu hanavi
Lag ba'omer
String Trio

Featured Composers:

Meyer Kupferman
Richard Wernick
Samuel Adler
Shulamit Ran
Aaron Copland
Leo Ornstein
Ofer Ben-Amots
Michael Shapiro
Lazar Weiner
Jan Radzynski


Liner notes by Neil W. Levin
Exhibit curated by Jeff Janeczko


LA Times:
Jewish Music Research Centre:
The Dybbuk:


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The playlist below includes selected tracks from the works featured in this exhibit. Much more is available on our Spotify Channel.