Wyner’s Friday Evening Service was commissioned by Cantor David J. Putterman and the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York for its 1963 annual Sabbath eve service of new liturgical music. It was part of Cantor Putterman’s ambitious and nationally celebrated commissioning program, inaugurated in 1943, which sought to encourage both established and promising younger composers to contribute their artistic gifts for the enhancement of the Hebrew liturgy. Originally, those annual services comprised individual prayer settings by various composers. But beginning with the 1950 service and its premiere of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve in its entirety, with the exception of special commemorative anniversaries or retrospectives, those annual events were devoted to complete services by single composers. The premiere of Wyner’s service involved an additional aspect: It coincided with the congregation’s celebration of Cantor Putterman’s thirtieth anniversary as its cantor.
The complete work includes settings for a prelude and thirteen prayer texts from the preliminary kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) and Sabbath evening (arvit) services. Seven have been excerpted for the Milken Archive recording.
Wyner has emphasized that he exercised complete artistic freedom—motivically, melodically, harmonically, and modally—in composing this service. He deliberately chose neither to employ nor to follow the established Ashkenazi prayer modes (nusaḥ hat’filla) historically applicable to those sections of the liturgy; nor did he observe consciously any preexisting musical strictures. The work contains—and the musical ideas are advanced by—contemporary idioms along with Wyner’s own brand of mid-20th-century musical language. Yet throughout there is a remarkable, almost uncanny feeling of spiritual connectedness in terms of an aggregate Ashkenazi tradition, even including eastern European elements; and at the same time, the work’s originality and stylistic unity give a sense of a continuum vis-à-vis the learned approaches of modern Western synagogue composers.
An ancient responsorial format guides the flow of ma tovu. The setting of the Psalm text, shiru ladonai, evokes ancient psalmody here recast in contemporary and imaginative guise, with no loss of its purity and mirroring the structural properties and cadences of the Psalm verses. An overall atmosphere of both mystery and mysticism is appropriately transparent in the l’kha dodi, a kabbalistic text. Simple and direct declamatory style informs the proclamation of faith and unity in sh’ma yisra’el (the setting of which also includes the phrase barukh shem …, which is sung aloud in traditional contexts only on Yom Kippur, and only in the Reform movement at other times). An abiding tranquility permeates the hashkivenu setting, as it expresses the evening hope for Divine shelter, punctuated by the dramatic images contained in the text as well. V’sham’ru exudes the desiderata of Sabbath peace and spiritual rest. And the setting of r’tzei provides an opportunity for restrained but intense cantorial chant. The cantorial solo part in general abounds in vocal lines that are, remarkably, at once logogenic and emotionally expressive, and perhaps above all, there is a penetrating mood of kavana (devotion), which allows this music to function as a powerful aid rather than an aesthetically entertaining hindrance, to communal prayer. Wyner once related an incident that illustrates how this basic underlying spirit can emerge and speak to worshippers with quite traditional reference points. Immediately following the premiere, a very old congregant approached him and said, “You know, for the first time since I arrived in the United States from Odessa, I felt that I was home in my little [in Europe]”—that reaction, despite the advanced techniques and musical sophistication of this music. When the congregant asked Wyner how he had managed to accomplish such an evocation, he replied simply that he did not know. “But that was an amazing accolade,” Wyner later reflected, “and I then felt somehow justified in everything I had done.”
Of course, commitments to artistic freedom aside, whether a complete aesthetic vacuum can exist in the sensibilities of a composer so attuned, as Wyner has been since childhood, to a composite eastern European Jewish melos is highly debatable—the more so when addressing so tradition-laden a literary-poetic form as the Hebrew liturgy. Indeed, Wyner has acknowledged that this service probably does bear the subconscious, instinctive imprint of traditional character. “Certainly, by that time there had been quite a lot of absorption of things from my early days,” he explained. “Even if I didn’t go to the synagogue, I still heard many cantors around our family home in my youth—even though they came to coach Yiddish songs with my father, not liturgical music…. the traditionalism of this service stems more from absorbed experience than from applied method.”
The service is also awash in references to biblical cantillation motifs. These represent the one traditional source upon which Wyner did draw consciously and liberally, which provides historical linkage. But those cantillation motifs are used freely, even arbitrarily, as musical subject matter rather than incorporated out of conformity with traditionally required formulaic patterns for rendering these texts. Other devices that contribute to a Hebraic flavor are the astute juxtaposition of open fifths and other intervals—more suggestive of antiquity than conventional triadic harmony—and syncopated rhythms of an eastern European folk character.
In the preface to the publication of this service, Wyner provided the following additional commentary:
In composing this service, I tried to create an expression of directness and intimacy, relevant to the modest, undramatic conduct of worship in the traditional synagogue. The atmosphere of the music seeks to draw the congregation in, to encourage a reverent yet joyous communion. To this end the voices have been given absolute primacy, and the organ [or, in its later version, the instrumental ensemble] the role of punctuation and color. Forms have been kept simple, polyphony avoided, and all elaboration of material kept to a minimum. Indeed, were it possible to reduce further the texture to a single line of adequate strength and richness, I would gladly do so. For, I am more interested in the image than in its elaboration—the bare theme more than its variation and extension… I have confronted the multiple traditions that are my inheritance, and have extracted the essence of those that have meaning for me in my effort to create a new expression of tradition.
Following the Park Avenue Synagogue premiere, this service was performed a number of times elsewhere, but usually in a synagogue prayer context. For a long time Wyner resisted what he called “the temptation to detach this music from its synagogue function” by bringing it to the concert hall. Thus he also resisted any inclination to orchestrate the organ part. He had not intended the work to be presented as a cantata or oratorio, in which case, he claimed, he would have designed the structure, dramatic flow, and connection between movements quite differently. However, he did come to view the religious and potential concert contexts of this work as not necessarily mutually exclusive, seeing the spiritual possibilities in its performance outside the synagogue. He thus orchestrated this service for chamber orchestra in 1991, and that version of the work received its premiere in 1992 at Brandeis University, conducted by his wife, Susan Davenny Wyner.
New York Times critic Alan Rich was most favorably impressed by Wyner’s Sabbath Eve Service at its Park Avenue Synagogue premiere in 1963. Referring to the substantial body of liturgical music that had been commissioned by Cantor Putterman since 1943, Rich deemed Wyner’s “one of the best [works] that the synagogue has produced during its long and admirable service to Jewish music.”
Sung in Hebrew
How lovely are your dwellings, O House of Israel.
O Lord, through Your abundant kindness I enter Your house
And worship You with reverence in Your holy sanctuary.
I love Your presence in this place where Your glory resides.
Here, I bow and worship before the Lord, my maker.
And I pray to You, O Lord, that it shall be Your will
To answer me with Your kindness and grace,
And with the essence of Your truth that preserves us.
SHIRU LADONAI (PSALM 96)
Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His Name, proclaim His victory day after day.
Tell of His glory among nations, His wondrous deeds, among all peoples.
For the Lord is great and much acclaimed, He is held in awe by all divine beings.
All the gods of the peoples are mere idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
Glory and majesty are before Him; strength and splendor are in His temple.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His Name, bring tribute and enter His courts.
Bow down to the Lord majestic in holiness; tremble in His presence, all the earth!
Declare among the nations, “The Lord is king!” the world stands firm; it cannot be shaken; He judges the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult; let the sea and all within it thunder, the fields and everything in them exult; then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy at the presence of the Lord, for He is coming, for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples in faithfulness.
Beloved, come—let us approach the Sabbath bride and welcome the entrance of our Sabbath, the bride.
STROPHES 2, 5, and 9:
Let us go, indeed hasten to greet the Sabbath,
For she is the source of blessing.
From creation's primeval beginnings that blessing has flowed.
For on the seventh day—the end of the beginning of creation—God made His Sabbath.
But He conceived of her on the first of the days—at the beginning of the beginning of creation.
Your light has come.
Arise and shine,
Speak a song! Sing a poem!
The glory of the Lord is revealed to you.
Sabbath, you who are your Master's crown,
Come in peace, in joy, in gladness
Into the midst of the faithful
of a remarkably special people.
Come, O Sabbath bride—
Listen, Israel! The Lord is our God.
The Lord is the only God—His unity is His essence.
Praised and honored be the very name of His kingdom forever and ever.
Cause us, O Lord, our God, to retire for the evening in peace and then again to arise unto life, O our King, and spread Your canopy of peace over us. Direct us with Your counsel and save us for the sake of Your name. Be a shield around us. Remove from our midst all enemies, plague, sword, violence, famine, hunger, and sorrow. [And also remove evil temptation from all around us, sheltering us in the shadow of Your protecting wings.]
For indeed You are a gracious and compassionate King. Guard our going and coming, for life and in peace, from now on and always. Spread over us the sheltering canopy of Your peace. [Praised be You, O Lord, who spreads the canopy of peace over us and over all Your people Israel, and over all Jerusalem.]
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.
Our God and God of our ancestors, grant that our worship and rest on this Sabbath be acceptable to You. Make us holy with our observance of Your commandments, and provide us with a share in Your Torah wisdom; satisfy us with Your goodness, cheer us with Your deliverance. Purify our hearts so that we may truly serve You. Lovingly and willingly, cause us, God our God, to inherit Your holy Sabbath, and may all of Israel, sanctifying Your name, rest on this day. You are worshiped, O Lord (He is worshiped, and his name is worshiped), who hallows the Sabbath. Amen.
Publisher: Yehudi Wyner
Text: Translation by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman