Ernest Bloch’s miniature violin and piano piece, Avoda [published as Abodah, according to an archaic, nonstandard alternative pronunciation], is, as its title suggests, based transparently on one of the most easily recognizable and widely preserved seasonal leitmotifs of the Ashkenazi synagogue rite: the recurrent tune in the section of the Yom Kippur liturgy known as seder avoda.
Seder avoda is the minutely detailed poetic description and narrative reenactment of the elaborate ritual atonement procedure of the ancient Temple service in Jerusalem, which, according to the prescription in Leviticus (16), was conducted by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. In a climactic moment in the day’s atonement observances, the High Priest would enter, unaccompanied, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, known as the Holy of Holies, and would pronounce God’s actual name, whose utterance is otherwise forbidden by anyone at any time. The High Priest would prolong the utterance to allow the other priests and the people in the outer court enough time to bow, prostrate themselves, and become purified and cleansed of transgressions by verbally acknowledging God’s supremacy, proclaiming eternal worship of His “glorious, sovereign Name.” The liturgical reenactment, which recounts the High Priest’s preparation for the ritual—his baths, ablutions, and changes of garments; the appointment of a substitute in the event of an emergency; and the various sacrificial offerings—is largely based on the account in the Mishna (Mishna Yoma), the preliminary commentary on the Torah that was redacted in the 3rd century and became the first part of the Oral Law and the basis of the Talmud.
The seder avoda tune, which exudes the awe and almost eerie solemnity of the ancient ceremony, is generally known either as the avoda tune or the v’hakohanim tune, after the text incipit of one of the central recitations in that liturgical section (“And the priests [and the people recited … as they heard the awesome Name pronounced by the High Priest.…].”) The tune is one of the principal constituents of a category within established Ashkenazi tradition known as the missinai tunes—a group of melodic motifs whose formulation and canonization date to medieval southwestern German and Rhineland communities (the original “Ashkenaz”). They are thus, together with biblical cantillation, the underlying historical bedrock of Ashkenazi musical practice. Each of these missinai tunes is associated with, or assigned by tradition to, a specific event on the liturgical calendar—ranging from single prayer texts to entire services of a particular annual holy day or other sacred cyclical occasion. By definition, the missinai tune tradition (at one time also called the tunes of the Maharil, after the 14th/15th-century rabbinic authority who is thought to have stipulated the exclusivity of the oldest of these tunes) is not confined to local communal or regional practices, but pervades the entire Ashkenazi world. To this day, these motifs are considered mandatory for their complementary prayer texts or services in all synagogues that follow the Ashkenazi ritual—whether in Europe or in any other area to which Ashkenazi Jews emigrated from Europe. In a few cases, eastern European and western, or German-speaking, branches of Ashkenazi tradition have acquired separate missinai tunes for the same text or liturgical function, but most are common to both orbits, even if some variations have evolved. This v’hakohanim tune, even when heard in the guise of a piano concerto, will be instantly familiar to all who worship annually on Yom Kippur in traditional Ashkenazi synagogues—as well as in those Reform congregations that have reintroduced parts of the seder avoda liturgy. In addition, by established tradition, the same melody is employed for the k’dusha (sanctification) in the mussaf service on Rosh Hashana as well as Yom Kippur, which provides an aesthetic and spiritual anticipation of the avoda liturgy.
The first known extant musical notation of this v’hakohanim tune is found in a late-18th-century cantorial manuscript compilation assembled by Joseph Goldstein, a cantor in Bayern at that time. It was included therein not as a new composition, but as a traditional motif—a factor that serves as documentation of its long-established tradition by that time. It may also have appeared in earlier Baroque-era compilations that are no longer extant. There is good reason to believe, for example, that it appeared in the Hanover [Hanoverian] Compendium, dated 1744, which was held in a private collection in Berlin until its owner, Arno Nadel, was interned at Auschwitz and murdered there by the Germans and their collaborators. This compendium has never been found, but we know from other sources that it contained many of the missinai tunes. In synagogue music history, which almost completely bypassed the classical period in Western art music, the late 18th century and even the first two decades of the 19th were still an extended part of an arrested “Jewish Baroque” in western and Central Europe. And it was for the first time in that Baroque period that some cantors acquired the skill of music notation. The recurrence of the missinai tunes—and of references to them throughout the body of manuscripts of the 18th century—attests to the centuries-old acceptance of those melodies as canonized seasonal leitmotifs. The Goldstein manuscript also reveals that this tune, which has many known variants and extensions, was also used in the 18th century for the liturgical poem az shesh me’ot on the Festival of Shavuot; and other similar compendia of that period, such as one by Ahron Beer (1738–1821), a cantor at various times in Bamberg, Paderborn, and Berlin, indicate its use in an entry dated 1782 for another text of the avoda service, v’khakh haya omer.
Apart from its theological and emotional link to the Temple era, to Jewish antiquity, to the sacred historical dimensions of ancient Jerusalem, and even to what some perceive as a form of communication with God (the sacrificial system) that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, the inclusion of the seder avoda in the Yom Kippur liturgy is widely interpreted as an expression of the Jewish people’s yearning both for spiritual liberation and redemption and for national restoration—albeit on religious terms.
In Bloch’s piece, the piano accompaniment offers a brief introductory passage built on the first tetrachord of one of the principal prayer modes in eastern European–based Ashkenazi synagogue ritual, which was also a recurrent modality in the secular and quasi-liturgical folk music of eastern European Jewry: the Arabic mode known since the late 19th century as hidjaz, on which it appears to have been founded originally. It features—among various other properties—the lowered second and raised third degrees of the scale (e.g., D, E-flat, F-sharp, G) and the lowered seventh degrees, which avoids the leading tone. This initial piano passage, though not drawn directly from the avoda or v’hakohanim tune, provides part of the harmonic framework for the piece and sets the overall tone that propels the expression of the solo violin line throughout.
The solo violin enters with the statement of the traditional avoda melody as its principal theme. The treatment of that theme thereafter is fairly straightforward, exploiting the emotionally evocative lower registers of the instrument. This is, however, no mere setting of an established tune. Rather, it is a thoroughly original composition constructed upon that traditional melodic and modal material, with subtly worked out development and extension as well as artistic interplay with the piano part at climactic points. An interludal section is initially built upon a liberally conceived retrograde of the initial phrase of the avoda tune. It is then extended and varied with original material in the same vein and mood. In that sense, one may be reminded of the interlude in Max Bruch’s much earlier Kol Nidre setting, which, with its unrelated melodic material partially borrowed from an earlier nonliturgical source, binds together the preceding and following explorations of another even better known missinai melody.
Following the interludal section, the violin reintroduces the avoda theme. But the piece ends with an almost abrupt (to anyone familiar with the traditional melody), albeit slow and reflective recapitulation of only the first part of the melody. The final cadence occurs on what is, in the actual melody, simply a pause. For a fraction of a moment, one might expect the usual sequential melodic continuation. Whether or not the composer intended any programmatic significance, this seems to suggest an aura of timelessness. The piece is finished, but the seder avoda ritual is not; it will recur each year on Yom Kippur.
Avoda gives expression to an uninterrupted soulful mood of mystical reverence and awe. Appropriately, it offers a mediation on the annual recollection of the ancient Temple ritual and the Judaic continuity provided by a melody whose origin probably dates at least as far back as the medieval period.
Performers: Miriam Kraemer, Violin