At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a guest editorial in one of America’s premiere newspapers addressed the virtual absence of serious, classically oriented art music in Reform as well as traditional synagogues. At the same time, the author did acknowledge an earlier accumulation of a relatively modest amount of such repertoire, which is now mostly ignored. Up to that point, he reported the situation more or less as it is—although he underestimated by a wide margin the richness and quantity of this collective corpus, and he seemed to be aware of only a handful of the many so-called classical composers who, beginning in 19th-century Paris and from the late 1920s through the 1970s in the United States (and in a few cases in Israel), contributed to it. The elevating and once celebrated (even if not widely sung or encored) services and individual Hebrew liturgical settings by such high-profile composers as Bloch, Milhaud, Bernstein, or Castelnuovo-Tedesco are, after all, rarely if ever heard now in their intended context of Jewish worship. There is no synagogue music by Milton Babbitt, George Perle, Leon Kirchner, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, Shulamit Ran, Mario Davidovsky, Steve Reich, Ezra Laderman, or any other composers in the forefront of the world of contemporary or modern serious music who happen to be, or to have been, Jews and were also actively composing during the last quarter of the century—with the exception of Hugo Weisgall and Samuel Adler, among established names. Moreover, those composers of similar degrees of recognition, such as David Diamond, Lukas Foss, or Marvin David Levy, who had indeed addressed the Hebrew liturgy at least once previously (nearly always on commission by a forward-looking congregation), did not continue to do so after the 1970s, when they confined themselves to general concert music or operatic spheres. Nor, as the 20th century has rolled over into the 21st, has synagogue music been produced by succeeding generations of highly accomplished, well-recognized, and frequently commissioned and performed Jewish composers in the general arena (Psalm settings for concert use notwithstanding), such as Aaron Jay Kernis, Bruce Adolphe, Robert Beaser, Paul Schoenfield, Ofer Ben-Amots, Osvaldo Golijov, and a host of others—some of whom have solid personal and communal Jewish commitments and identities.
Why, that editorial writer implicitly asked, did a once promising path of artistic and Hebrew liturgical synergy become one of sporadic instances at best, leading to a dead end? Why, in the long run, is there no real, lasting synagogal counterpart (or why are there only exceptions) to the agglomeration of great works for church worship (Masses, Te Deums, Glorias, Requiems, and other liturgies) by acknowledged “masters” in every generation of European composers who were not primarily church composers—and were not necessarily committed personally to religious doctrine: a roster that ranges from Haydn and Mozart (Bach is excluded here only because he was employed as a church musician and did consider himself a “church composer”) to Beethoven and Schubert; from Gounod and Verdi to Liszt, Bruckner, and Dvořák; and from Poulenc to Britten? Why, imprinted on the title pages of scores from which synagogue choirs and cantors sing, are there no names of the now considerable number of Jews who, as composers, have achieved renown in the wider music world?
Among the explanations offered by the writer were some of the usual, obvious, but also partly evasive ones—largely glossing over the central historical fact that the Western classical musical tradition is congenitally inextricable from the course of Christianity and church music in the West, especially in terms of its artistic origins and inspiration. That musical tradition is not an inherently Judaic phenomenon—notwithstanding prideful but tiresome and exaggerated claims to subterranean foundations in the elaborate unison musical rite of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, which, for a host of reasons, would never on its own have spawned or developed into polyphony and all that ensued in the West. Moreover, it was only after the Renaissance, gradually during the Baroque era (and secondarily and unintentionally in Bach’s hands), and then ultimately with the rise of secular sensibilities ignited by the Enlightenment—and simultaneous with the Classical era in music—that the path of this accumulating Western artistic tradition began to diverge in some of its major works from its earlier religious or religiously related orientation. This tradition eventually came fully into its own as an expanding secular canon equal in perceived “greatness” and permanence to sacred music of the masters.
We need have no shame in acknowledging that only by adoption and positive cultural assimilation did synagogue music come to acquire some of the desirable dimensions, attributes, and procedures of that Western heritage. Yet to be fair, we might also explore with justifiable envy the question of why, once Western Jewish societies emerged from cultural isolation (externally enforced or self-imposed) to participate in Western culture in their newfound diversity and newly won emancipation, the adoptive and assimilative processes did not proceed further to the benefit of modern Jewish sacred music. The pluralism of synagogue aesthetics and the variety of Jewish worship modes in the modern era leave ample room for both maintenance of cantorial tradition and infusion of new directions.
One of the writer’s hypotheses, however, which amounted to an uninformed assumption, was simply wrong: namely, that serious Jewish composers, only recently (in relative terms) accepted by the Western musical mainstream, have been loath to risk potential career-damaging perceptions that might accrue from writing synagogue music, attaching to them an undesirable, parochial label as “liturgical composer”—or, even more confining, “synagogue composer.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Had the voluminous correspondence between Cantor David Putterman—for decades the prime mover in commissioning artistic synagogue music—and the legions of composers (non-Jews as well as Jews) whom he contacted been available to the writer, he could not have made that suggestion. The annual awards of those commissions by New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue were fiercely coveted, and they regularly created a buzz in the contemporary music world. Composers at all career stages were attracted to the programs, and an invitation to participate came to be regarded as a signal honor. Those who declined did so with genuine regret—usually citing lack of time or the priority of previous commitments. Some expressed a reticence based on personal unfamiliarity with the liturgy, which Cantor Putterman was often able to persuade composers to overcome, offering his guidance (but not any form of artistic interference). There is no hint of condescension in any reply, and only rarely was there perfectly acceptable disinterest. Commissions were gratefully accepted by some of the most visible and secure composers, as well as by those still struggling for recognition.
The Park Avenue Synagogue’s program was not the only one, though it was the most comprehensive and most continuous. There were other congregations—Reform and Conservative—that were once willing to sponsor and underwrite the creation of serious new music by composers in the general field. When asked by the end of the 20th century why they had not considered writing for the synagogue, nearly all otherwise potentially interested composers cited as their principal reason the lack of congregational receptivity to serious, artistic music—new or old—not concern for their secular reputations.
This openhearted and genuine desire to apply creative gifts to Jewish liturgy for its artistic enhancement and magnification is well illustrated in the case of Hugo Weisgall. Despite his eventually firm place within the American composers’ establishment, the many accolades and honors as well as commissions from major symphony orchestras and opera companies that came his way, and his reputation as one of the leading opera composers of his day, it was a constant source of irritation to him that he had never been invited to compose for the synagogue. (For complicated internecine political reasons, he was one of the few composers whom Cantor Putterman never commissioned.) His simultaneous professional involvements in the Jewish world as a composer of many Jewishly related works as part of his wider oeuvre, his position as chairman of the faculty of the Cantors Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary from its inception, and his work with synagogue choirs—together with his cantorial family heritage—only rendered that omission all the more irksome. “Don’t you think it extraordinary,” he once asked this writer in the early 1980s, “that I’ve never been asked to write a synagogue service?”
Finally, in the mid-to-late 1980s, that situation changed. Writer, critic, amateur pianist, and literary and political intellectual Samuel Lipman, a personal friend and great admirer of Weisgall, persuaded Temple Emanu-El in New York to commission a Sabbath eve service. Weisgall charged into the task with great energy. He began by composing the settings for Yih’yu l’ratzon / “May the Words of My Mouth” (which was unrelated to a setting of that prayer he had done in 1935); ma tovu, for the opening of the service; shaḥar avakeshkha, which, although it belongs to the morning liturgy, he thought to include as an aesthetic addition (he eventually removed it from the full service); and a few other texts. As he continued addressing the others, he sent the completed ones on to Temple Emanu-El.
Temple Emanu-El’s cantor at that time, along with the music director and others with administrative authority, were put off by Weisgall’s characteristic astringent chromaticism, angular lines, avoidance of traditional tonality, and overall uncompromising sophistication—even though these typical features of his music had been toned down significantly, and even though Weisgall had indulged in writing extensive unison/octave choral passages that lent a more traditional ring to the work. They were unable to appreciate the underlying lyricism and the harmonic richness, and they claimed that the service would be too difficult to perform (which is hard to imagine for a professional choir) and too complex for the congregation to accept. The commission was abruptly aborted and canceled.
Weisgall agonized for a long time over that turn of events, until a new opportunity presented itself. JoAnn Rice, one of his students at the Cantors Institute in the early 1990s, was asked by scouts among the members of the Florilegium Chamber Choir what might be meaningful to her as a gift in celebration of a major anniversary of her founding and continuous directorship of that chorus. Having seen some of Weisgall’s completed settings, as well as sketches for others, she let it be known that the most important gift for her would be the choir’s recommissioning of the completion of Weisgall’s service. She would then conduct the choir’s premiere of the work, which would join its permanent repertory. The chorus members agreed wholeheartedly and undertook to contribute toward the funds with which to pursue that recommission in her honor. The premiere performance of the newly titled Evening Liturgies was given as a concert work in June 1996 at St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Center in New York, although it included only nine of the twelve movements. Cantor Joseph Ness sang the baritone solo role, and JoAnn Rice indeed conducted the Florilegium Chamber Choir.
Weisgall wrote dual independent settings for a few of the prayer texts, with both to be included in each case in the full service as options. Though the work as a whole is nontonal, or not tied to tonality, there are subtle tonal implications throughout, with harmonic and chromatic enrichments. Much attention was paid to the organ part, which, far from being a simple accompaniment, has a prominent role, often with dense textures and nontonal or pantonal harmonic support for diatonic melodic lines in the chorus. The final section is an abbreviated selection of strophes from yigdal, a traditional concluding hymn, and is therefore titled “Verses from Yigdal.” For the melodic material Weisgall turned to a setting composed by his father, which gives the service its sole overtly tonal component. Free interludes connect the cantorially introduced strophes and choral responses, but each one is harmonized distinctly. One of the most effective movements is the descent by a half tone (A flat to G major) in the solo line and choral responses of the final strophe to the accompaniment of brilliantly dissonant chords in the organ part. Also intriguing is the conclusion of the service, in which the choral parts in tandem with the organ modulate gradually and chromatically by half steps to the original opening pitch of A flat, which gives the work both a sense of unity and return and a completed arch.
Sung in Hebrew
Worshiped be Adonai, the Lord, to whom all praise is due.
Worshiped be Adonai, the Lord, who is to be worshipped for all eternity. Amen.
Listen, Israel! The Lord is our God.
The Lord is the only God—His unity is His essence.
Praised and worshiped be His Name whose glorious Kingdom is forever and ever.
The children of Israel shall keep and guard the Sabbath and observe it throughout their generations as an eternal covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, that the Lord created heaven and earth in six days, and that on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.
YIGDAL (strophies 1-4, 7-8, 9-10)
We exalt and praise the presence of the living God;
His existence and being transcend all time—was,
is, and will forever be.
His essence is unity—His uniqueness lies in His oneness,
He is unlike any other unity;
That oneness is inscrutable and without end.
He has no physical form—nor anything even corresponding
His holiness is incomparable, His holiness is unimaginable.
He preexisted all of His creations—
Was and always has been the beginning, the first
of all that ever was.
Never among Israel has anyone appeared who could in greatness
compare with Moses, our prophet,
Whose closeness to God exceeded that of all others.
God gave to His people a Torah of truth,
Through the agency of His faithful prophet, Moses.
He will send our messiah at the End of Days,
To bring redemption to those who faithfully wait.
With the greatest of loving-kindness God will bring the
dead to eternal life;
Praised and worshipped be His glorious Name for all eternity.
Translation from the Hebrew by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman
Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.