Isadore Freed was one of the small coterie of influential composers whose gifts, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, altered the course of music for American Reform worship. Along with the émigrés Hugo Chaim Adler, Herbert Fromm, Heinrich Schalit, and Julius Chajes, he was instrumental in raising modern American synagogue aesthetics to new levels of sophistication and in helping Reform worship gradually shed its near-reactionary physiognomy and its stale retention of long-outdated 19th-century musical practices and predilections.
Freed was born in Brest-Litovsk, Belarus—which was then part of the Czarist Empire—but when he was three years old, his parents moved to Philadephia, where his father ran a music store and also became known in traditional Jewish circles as a wedding band musician. Isadore later studied at the Philadelphia Conservatory and earned his bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time he was still very much focused on the piano, which he continued studying with George Bayle. He had some tuition (the extent of which remains unclear) with the legendary virtuoso pianist Josef Hofmann, and he pursued organ studies with Rallo Maitland.
After his undergraduate years, Freed studied composition with Ernest Bloch, whom he later acknowledged as a profound influence. Describing their first meeting, he wrote:
Given my extreme youth, I could perhaps be excused for thinking that I must have been pretty good as a musician. When I went to see Bloch for the first time with a cantata under my arm entitled “Lochinvar”… with a score running to about 50 pages, I received quite a jolt when Bloch’s remark to me was, “Tell me, do they give degrees in America before you learn anything about music?” This floored me but it made a musician out of me, for I was determined that no one would ever be able to say that about me again.
Writing on another occasion about his experience with Bloch, Freed acknowledged that “his instruction formed the basis of my need to know the very essence of the musical arts, and he provided the tools that could help a student grow.”
Freed taught piano and theory at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia for five years and at the Curtis Institute for one year, and he also served as music director for the YMHA for five years. The premiere of his dance cycle, Vibrations, at a Friends of Chamber Music concert in Philadelphia marked his public introduction as a composer. The work was staged and directed on that occasion by his wife, Riva Hoffman, who had achieved recognition as a dancer and had been a pupil of the celebrated Isadora Duncan.
In 1923 Freed went to Berlin to study piano with Josef Weiss, but by the mid-1920s he realized that his primary artistic ambitions concerned his development as a composer. His works from the 1920s include a suite for viola and piano (1923), his first string quartet (1925), Rhapsody for clarinet, strings, and piano (1925), Ballad for Piano and Small Orchestra (1925), a violin and piano sonata (1926), and Pygmalion: A Symphonic Rhapsody (1926).
Failing to attract the recognition he sought, however, he became disillusioned with the American scene and American audiences, and he determined to leave for Paris, where he believed he would find better reception, and where he could explore further his attraction to the French musical tradition. Indeed, after his arrival there in 1928 a number of his works received performances by internationally known ensembles. He studied composition for a while with Vincent d’Indy, and organ with Maurice Sergent and Louis Vierne. But the most significant benefit of those Paris years resided in his studies with the legendary teacher of so many of the 20th-century’s important composers, Nadia Boulanger. In addition to imparting much in the way of technique and musical understanding, she encouraged him—as she tried to do with all her pupils—to turn not only to inner spiritual dimensions but also to some form of established religion. She was convinced that this was indispensable as a source of inspiration for any creative artist. If he did not, or could not, feel drawn to his own Judaic religious heritage, she told him, then at least he should espouse the Roman Catholic Church—or find another religion with which to affiliate. Eventually, although not until a decade later, this was to translate into his devotion to the music of the synagogue. Although some of Boulanger’s pupils ignored that admonition (and some were even put off), it was to resonate with Freed in a positive way.
Freed’s published works from those Paris years include two orchestral suites, Jeaux de timbres and Triptyque, and several piano pieces. Also while in Paris he made important and artistically fruitful acquaintances: Alexandre Tansman, Arthur Honegger, and Albert Roussel, with whom he collaborated in joint concerts; and, most fortuitously, one of the great conductors of the entire century, Pierre Monteux, who later conducted Freed’s Jeux de timbres with the San Francisco Symphony, which gave many performances of his works.
In 1933 Freed returned to the United States and founded the first American Composers Laboratory in Philadelphia as a forum for budding composers to have their works read. That same year, he accepted a position as organist and music director at Keneseth Israel Temple, a Reform congregation in Philadelphia, which seems to have been the catalyst for his attention to the Hebrew liturgy. He completed his first memorable work of synagogue music in 1938, his Sacred Service for Sabbath Morning, which was published a year later, and after this his dedication to composing for the synagogue remained constant. By the mid-1940s he had come to perceive a spirit of Jewish identity in his earlier secular works.
In 1946 Freed relocated to the New York area, where he assumed the music directorship of Temple Israel in suburban Lawrence. When the first bona fide formal school for cantorial training opened in New York, the School of Sacred of Music—hosted and under the auspices of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (at that time not denominational and not yet an arm of the Reform movement)—Freed was among the initial appointees to its faculty. He became an active member of such Jewish music societies and organizations as the National Jewish Music Council of the Jewish Welfare Board, the Jewish Music Forum, and the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Liturgical Music, and he lectured and wrote extensively. But his landmark academic contribution to synagogue music was his book, Harmonizing the Jewish Modes, which addressed the challenge of developing a harmonic language for synagogue prayer modes that was not reliant on conventional tonality or Western Church modes, even though he acknowledged modal harmony’s derivation from Western practices and traditions. His theoretical deliberations found their practical voice in his own synagogue compositions and were influential in the work of several contemporaries.
In 1953 Freed’s Sabbath Evening Service was the annual commission by the Park Avenue Synagogue and Cantor David Putterman, and it was premiered there at the prestigious annual service of new music. In addition to his several complete services, Freed continued to compose individual liturgical settings—many of which came, along with those of fellow composers Adler, Fromm, Schalit, Chajes, and a few others, to constitute the backbone of Reform repertoire for many years.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Freed continued to compose secular works as well, some of which received major performances and respectable attention. But it is probably his large opera of synagogue music and related Jewish works for which he will be best remembered. Apart from functional liturgical settings, his last major work was his oratorio The Prophecy of Micah. He was one of those composers who eventually and successfully found his niche without regrets. “It takes a strong will and intense dedication,” he wrote retrospectively, “after having established a place in the general world of music, to risk being labeled ‘parochial.’ ” It was a risk that, once taken, resulted in a treasured gift to Jewish liturgical culture.