Hassidic Inspiration

From the curator

When I give lectures on “Jewish music” in the context of a general or “world” music course, I start out by leading the students through the singing of a niggun. I do so for three reasons. First, niggunim are generally sung to vocables rather than actual text, so they can be sung easily with one or two previously agreed upon syllables. Second, niggunim are generally sung in groups, and tend to have fairly straightforward and repetitive structures. It doesn’t take long to learn one, and once the students are singing it’s easy to keep them going. Finally, I do so because the particular example I use is a very simple niggun arranged for accompaniment by a contemporary klezmer band. The accompaniment helps propel the energy and increasing tempo; it draws students into the ecstatic and collective dimension of the performance, which illustrates music’s purpose in Hassidic life; and it demonstrates that niggunim are no longer solely the province of Hassidic practice.

This final point speaks to the thematic orientation of Echoes of Ecstasy, which features music by American Jewish composers that make use of or reflect elements of Hassidic music and culture.

As Neil W. Levin points out in his introduction to this volume, the Hassidic movement began in the 18th century in eastern Europe and burgeoned rapidly as a popular, antielite movement. A linchpin of its teaching is an intricately developed conception of inner joy and ecstasy both as a Divine mandate and as the ultimate goal of spiritual/Jewish existence. Paired with this concept of joy is the conviction that the most effective vehicle for its attainment lies in the realm of song—a belief that dates to the very birth of the Hassidic movement, and is rooted in the notion that words and thoughts can impede spiritual experience.

The volume begins with a piece firmly ensconced in Hassidic tradition: a setting of Ben Zion Shenker's Eshet ḥayil. Arranged by Stanley Sperber (founder and former director of the Zamir Chorale), it became popular in the 1960s in both the U.S. and Israel. Use of Hassidic niggunim by non-Hassidic musicians and composers remains common today, illustrating the fact that music is a chief means by which the two groups have intertwined their otherwise mostly separate communities.

We continue with a spritely Hassidic Dance about which we know very little aside from the fact that its composer, Emily Gresser, was a Brooklyn-born violinist who was considered on par with some of the 20th century’s finest. The upbeat tempo and accompanying rhythmic handclaps suggest a lively and festive context. Other pieces by the same title here include one by famed Yiddish theater composer Abraham Ellstein, and two by Leon Stein.

Herman Berlinski’s From the World of My Father, an orchestral suite that evokes the world of eastern European Jewry prior to the Second World War, began its life as music composed for a Paris-based émigré Yiddish theatrical troupe with whom the composer worked from 1933 to 1940. Berlinski lost the music in the course of his narrow escape from the Nazis, but later reconstructed it into the form presented here.

Isadore Freed composed his Hassidic Sabbath Eve Service in 1954 for a Jewish music festival. Interestingly, though it bears very little connection to Hassidic liturgical practice, it was, as Neil W. Levin argues, one of the primary vehicles by which Reform congregations became acquainted with the basic contours of Hassidic music.

Rounding out the volume are Yehudi Wyner’s The Mirror, composed initially to accompany the performance of an I. B. Singer play by the Yale Repertory Theater; a series of ethereal choral pieces by Israeli-born composer Ofer Ben-Amots from his opera, Fool’s Paradise, also based on an I. B. Singer work; a string quartet by noted Jewish music scholar and composer Abraham Wolf Binder; and an unpublished orchestral miniature by Jacob Weinberg that was discovered in the Simon Bellison Archives in Jerusalem. As a these pieces illustrate, a number of the works included here reflect Hassidic life and culture in spirit more than musical materials.

Whether non-Hassidic adaptation or portrayal of Hassidic musical traditions represents homage, acknowledgement, the age-old practice of composers utilizing folk music, or perhaps even a kind of exoticization of the “other within,” American Jewry’s fascination with Hassidism has been accompanied by a genuine interest in its musical culture. Echoes of Ecstacy is thus a reflection of a multifaceted attraction to this unique culture in which music and mysticism are an inextricable part of the celebration of life and faith.

—Jeff Janeczko, Curator 


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