Kol nidrei 14:03

Liner Notes

Arnold Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre (op. 39) is his only completed, intentionally liturgical work. Conceived specifically for actual synagogue use, it was also his first foray into the genre of Jewish sacred music—assuming, as we should, that Psalm settings per se do not necessarily fall into the functional framework of synagogue music when not so envisioned by their composers.

As its title indicates, this work is related to Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and is linked to this Day of Atonement’s most obvious and most ubiquitous musical sine qua non in the popular perception of the Ashkenazi world. The piece began its performance life optimistically and adventurously as an imaginative part of a formal Yom Kippur eve service. Moreover, both Schoenberg and his literary-theological rabbinic collaborator on the work had hopes, albeit ultimately futile, for its subsequent adoption by forward-looking synagogues. Yet even those who are generally sympathetic to far-reaching liberal and creative liturgical innovations—as well as devotees of musical modernism on its most rigorous levels—are likely now to acknowledge that this work belongs properly to the realm of spiritually infused concert or art music rather than to any potential synagogue service repertoire. Nonetheless, like much religiously inspired cultivated concert or “classical” music that originated in the context of worship, but whose universal artistic messages have transcended that function, Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre remains a manifestly religious expression. Indeed, non-Jewish as well as Jewish Schoenberg aficionados have interpreted it as both his personal and his highly personalized—if idiosyncratic (and perhaps autocratic)—attestation of faith.

This kol nidrei can hardly be characterized as a new arrangement, however sophisticated, of the traditional Ashkenazi melody or musical version, although it is grounded intervallically in some of the centuries-old motives and pitch cells. Nor is it merely an editorial adjustment of the conventional text, made to conform to modern sensibilities or to remove the edge from some of the historically troublesome ramifications or implications. Rather, this is a highly original artistic approach, in which not only the text and its multiple layers of meaning but also its very purpose and function are reexamined, reimagined, and reinterpreted de novo in light of philosophical, theological, and even—on some planes—political or quasi-political agendas. Some historical aspects have been eliminated as archaic, irrelevant, or, in the composer’s understanding, unethical and undesirable. New dimensions, including extrapolations from other text sources and the introduction of new themes, have been incorporated.

The Standard Text and Its Traditional Musical Rendition

Kol nidrei is recited or sung in the synagogue just prior to sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur. It is neither a prayer nor a petition, but an early medieval, formulaic legal proclamation in Aramaic that absolves Jews in advance from all vows made from one Yom Kippur to the next. These are vows that do not affect the interests of others—vows that might be made rashly, impulsively, unwittingly, or without due consideration of all possible ramifications. Nor does kol nidrei concern transgressions committed against human beings, for which only forgiveness by injured parties can provide atonement (see in Mishna Yoma: VIII). Still, varying degrees of discomfort have surrounded the text ever since its adoption. Indeed, as early as the post-talmudic period of the 6th to11th centuries, some ge’onim (heads of the academies during that time frame) questioned it on the grounds that it might be misunderstood in terms of ethical principles. At certain times in Jewish history—especially within the Czarist Empire—it was even deemed advisable to provide a prefatory explanation that amounted to a de facto disclaimer. Among certain modern rabbinical circles, beginning with the Emancipation era in western and west Central Europe, uneasiness with the text grew.

The exclusive Ashkenazi musical version of kol nidrei belongs to the misinai tune tradition. This is the group of fixed seasonal leitmotifs and melodies whose origin dates to the medieval Rhineland communities, and which constitutes a bedrock layer of minhag Ashkenaz, or Ashkenazi custom (see missinai tune). This melody, actually a conglomerate patchwork of separable, albeit loosely relatable constituent motifs, appears to have been a late addition to the misinai corpus. Although, originally, other apparently unrelated melodies were also employed, the one known today was probably established as the sole intonation by the 15th century. This is confirmed by references in writings of the 16th century. Since that time, it has had no discretionary alternative. (For further discussion of the history of the kol nidrei text and its melody, see the notes to John Zorn's setting of Kol Nidre for String Quartet.)

Tune versus Text in Liturgical History

The historical persistence of the Ashkenazi kol nidrei melody, especially in the face of the widely acknowledged anachronism of the proclamation, provides a forceful example of a liturgical phenomenon whereby musical tradition has taken precedence over text content and function. Were it not for the unwavering attachment to the musical dimension, its emotional association, and its annual anticipation—all completely apart from, if not oblivious to, the meaning and purpose of the words—kol nidrei, in any form, might long ago have disappeared from virtually all traditional as well as Reform Yom Kippur eve services.

Consistent with other reforms of the modern era, many rabbis, liturgical reformers, and new prayerbook compilers and editors early on sought in earnest the removal of kol nidrei from the liturgy. But those efforts were not without compromise necessitated by communal and popular resistance. Among German-speaking Jewry in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries—in virtually all Reform, many if not most traditionally oriented Liberale (centrist), and even some modern or neo-orthodox synagogues—and in most American Reform congregations until the increased diversity of Reform synagogue membership in the post–World War II era, those advocates of removal generally succeeded only in circumventing the issues. The musical dimension was left in place, as popular expectation of the cherished melody could not be suppressed. Thus, by the time Schoenberg embarked on his kol nidrei project, the singing of either altered or substitute texts to the traditional melody was no new thing. (Given that he did not participate in synagogue life, and in view of his unfamiliarity with the liturgy, at least up that point, it is unlikely that he was aware of that history.)

In Germany and Vienna, for example, replacement texts had ranged from Psalm 130 (set to the kol nidrei melody either in the original Hebrew, mi ma’amakim, or in a German version as Aus der Tiefe ruf ich….) to newly fashioned texts with evocative alliterations, and from poetic paraphrases to rhyming hymn lyrics.

In the United States, saccharine rhymed English lyrics such as “Day of God” (see in the notes to Volume IB) were adapted to abbreviated forms of the kol nidrei melody in the 19th- and early-20th-century Reform-oriented hymnals and choral anthologies. Those poems, banal by today’s literary standards, ignored the matter of vows altogether and usually referred to the Yom Kippur themes of sin and forgiveness in only the broadest terms. In some Reform congregations of that period, the aesthetic link to kol nidrei was diluted even further by its confinement to an organ prelude based on the melody. That practice lingered in a small number of residual classical Reform services through the 1960s and, in a few cases, beyond.

Rabbi Leo Merzbacher (1810–1856), who compiled the first prayerbook in America for emerging reform worship, omitted the kol nidrei service altogether. Kol nidrei was also excluded from the original (1894) edition of the Union Prayerbook, which became the quasi-official prayerbook of the recently founded and institutional movement. Isaac Mayer Wise, who championed that prayerbook, also vehemently opposed kol nidrei. Perhaps partly as an accommodation to the nostalgic sensibilities of the growing numbers of Reform worshippers in the post–World War II era—who, from family backgrounds and earlier memories, were accustomed to echoes of traditional services—later revisions and editions of the Union Prayerbook restored a subtle, almost veiled provision for kol nidrei. It did so simply with the two-word incipit printed in Hebrew characters, followed by the parenthetical caption “The Kol Nidre Chant.” There was neither translation nor commentary (the only such case in that prayerbook). The inroductory, typically elegant English prose reading, intended for delivery by the rabbi, avoids mention of vows or their nullification—even though the traditional words might, at the prerogative of individual congregations, still be sung. The nearest that reading comes to the subject of vows is its expression of hope for strength to fulfill well-intentioned resolutions in the coming year. Worshipers were left to attach their own meaning to the words of the cantor’s rendition (or that of other soloists and/or choirs). That restored provision for kol nidrei, which even allowed for the original words that had long since been deemed antiquated, should therefore not be construed as a Reform theological reconsideration of the conventional text’s contemporary relevance, viability, or appropriateness. It was, rather, a practical compromise in light of shifts in, and alterations of, the composition of membership in many Reform synagogues. It was a compromise meant to appease, unify, and appeal equally to diverse elements within a single congregation.

Yet another compromise appeared in the third edition of the Union Hymnal (1932), in which the kol nidrei entry consists of an elaborate, almost virtuoso arrangement of the melody for cantor (or other vocal soloist) and organ accompaniment. But there is no text underlay for the solo line. The space under the solo line is left blank (unlike any other entry in the hymnal), as if it had been intended as a vocalise—which, clearly, it was not. It is left to the cantors to furnish the words, as though their presence in print might be cause for embarrassment or provocation.

These various compromises with earlier classical Reform policy might have satisfied worshipers for whom the auditory association with Yom Kippur (the melodic material as well as the sheer sound of the words divorced from meaning) was sufficient. Not similarly mollified, however, were a number of intellectual Reform rabbis who, even if they acquiesced, remained not only uncomfortable with the conventional text but equally dissatisfied with any of the attempted solutions. Some of these rabbis continued to search for suitable alternatives that would preserve the musical element within an artistically sophisticated context while providing fresh theological interpretations consistent with modern American perspectives.

One such rabbi was Jacob [Jakob] Sonderling, the highly cultured German émigré rabbi of the Society for Jewish Culture–Fairfax Temple in Los Angeles. Fairfax Temple was an independent, predominantly humanistic congregation, which, though clearly in the Reform camp, was not a member of the Reform movement (the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) as of the late 1930s. Prior to his arrival in the United States from Hamburg in 1923, Rabbi Sonderling had served the Reform rabbinate in Germany with distinction, and he had attained a high rank in the chaplaincy of the Imperial German Army during the First World War. After serving briefly the pulpit of a traditional, nominally orthodox synagogue in Chicago, he settled in Los Angeles in 1935. He was also a professor of Jewish thought and homiletics at the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Sonderling was intensely interested in musical and other artistic innovations. He was convinced that overreliance on tradition risked spiritual stagnation and liturgical rigidity. He was instrumental in inspiring a number of composers on the West Coast to compose works on Judaic themes—Ernst Toch, for example, with whom he collaborated on the Cantata of the Bitter Herbs (included in Volume 17: Odes and Epics).

In 1938 Rabbi Sonderling invited Schoenberg to compose an altogether new version of kol nidrei. It was to be an original work based on the text and the melody. Difficult as it may be to imagine now upon hearing the work, both Sonderling and Schoenberg believed that this radical departure, with its poetic-dramatic speaking role for the rabbi in place of any cantorial solo part, and with orchestral accompaniment as well as a full chorus, would resonate sufficiently in progressive circles as to be performable in the context of modern American Reform services.

Political Motivations

Schoenberg is believed to have accepted the invitation out of multiple considerations, one of which involved his apt sense of urgency regarding the plight of fellow Jews who had remained thus far in the Third Reich. His concern for the rescue of Jewish acquaintances and colleagues who were trapped there, but whose immigration was still possible if American legal obstacles could be overcome, had become intensified with the mounting dangers to German and Austrian Jewry during the previous year. Among the hurdles facing prospective immigrants at the time, which were imposed by the State Department, the immigration agency, or other government entities, was the obtainment of affidavits sworn by reliable American citizens in support of the candidates. Those affidavits were required in order to demonstrate guaranteed employment or other sufficient assistance in the United States; to vouch for an applicant’s character; and to address any known political sympathies—viz., to assure the absence of political affiliations that were then considered potentially injurious to American security. Apparently Schoenberg hoped that a working association with Rabbi Sonderling, as well as involvement with the Society for Jewish Culture (at whose Yom Kippur services he would be present to conduct the premiere), might facilitate his introduction to influential Jews who had both the means and the inclination to provide the needed affidavits.

If rescue of fellow Jews was the initial motivation for his acceptance of Sonderling’s invitation (and there is ample evidence to that effect), Schoenberg soon became absorbed with what he perceived as the multilayered ramifications of kol nidrei. For him, these concerned its totemic as well as its personal religious significance, in addition to its liturgical occasion—viz., Yom Kippur and its underlying themes of renewal, return, and recommitment to truth via repentance. At play here were theological convictions and conceptions with which he wrestled, and also perhaps some of his own idiosyncratic Jewish national-political issues and positions (Zionist as well as non- or extra-Zionist)—all of which might, consciously or unconsciously, have been intertwined in his conception of the work.

Theological Factors

Schoenberg was driven continually (even, in some assessments, obsessively) by an idealistic—albeit, for him, nonetheless real—concept of God and, by extension, God’s given Law or Teaching as the Torah. That concept involved an abstract spiritual essence of unity, order, totality, immutable and all-embracing universal law, organic wholeness, and ultimate power. For him, the Divine essence of unity and order amounted to a pure, inconceivable, and ultimately inexpressible composite “God-Head” or “God-Idea” that was divine in itself as the encapsulation of the Almighty. It was, of course, an abstract idea without palpable guise or realization; and it was part of his lifelong struggle with the dialectics of the abstract versus the concrete and conceivable. That unresolved struggle had found artistic as well as religious expression in his opera Moses und Aron, which addresses the issue of faith in an abstract idea (the God-Idea) and the tensions created by the human need for conceptualization. The struggle had emerged even earlier in his play, Der biblische Weg. In his Kol Nidre one finds both a juxtaposition of and a synergy between the abstract and the concrete; the former in terms of unity, supreme authority, and truth over falseness; and the latter in the form of repentance and readmission to the Jewish people.

Schoenberg appears to have become increasingly gripped by his theological formulation of an interpreted (or reinterpreted) but specifically Judaic “idea” during the years following his unnecessarily ritualized “return” to Judaism in Paris in 1933. That symbolically formalized ceremony, witnessed by the painter Marc Chagall, with no basis or provision in Jewish law or custom, was devised to undo his earlier Christian conversion in 1898.

During that same time frame he became fixated on the replacement of his formerly prized German cultural identity with a proudly, even militantly proclaimed Jewish national as well as spiritual persona. The new identity was governed by his radical reading of the historically problematic and misunderstood notion of Jewish “chosenness”—which he expanded overtly to imply superiority as well as a form of immunity—and by his fiercely articulated (though for the most part only privately after the early 1930s), strange brand of universal Jewish solidarity and pan-global nationalism. His nationalistic convictions, secular on the surface, were not entirely divorced from the complex, religiously based exegeses that he incorporated into his Kol Nidre. At the center of both constructions (the religious and the political) was his ongoing preoccupation with infallible autocracy, centralized authority, irrefutable law, and absolute power—power that could dictate order and unity without the possibility of dissent. His awe of that concept of power and its perceived benefits may be viewed as underlying a nexus among his theological, artistic, and Jewish political constructions and tenets.

Thus it may be that Schoenberg saw in Rabbi Sonderling’s invitation an opportunity to express the evolution and development of his theological and Jewish national principles through his own artistic medium, which now, for the first time, would find resonance not only in a specifically Jewish context but also in an actual synagogue environment. As it turned out, his role actually involved two media, since he was eventually in effect to become the author of most of the spoken text as well.

Initially Rabbi Sonderling presented Schoenberg with his own poetic draft of a text in which the traditional advance nullification of “all vows” had been abandoned altogether. Instead, it emphasized God’s omnipotence as the Creator of the universe and the source of eternal light, which the “humble, the meek and the modest” must rediscover in the year to come.

So extensive were Schoenberg’s revisions and additions, however—obviously with Rabbi Sonderling’s blessing—that the final text has been attributed appropriately to the composer. Yet pehaps it might more fairly be credited to both as a joint effort.

Schoenberg altered the original legal absolution and annulment formula, reinterpreting it in the context of modern rabbinical explanations concerning its purported true and intended meaning—as a commitment to avoid in the future all dangerous, unrealistic, inappropriate, wrongful, or insupportable vows and obligations that could jeopardize the Jews’ sacred mission and that not only could not, but should not be fulfilled.

            We shall strive from this Day of Atonement till the next to avoid such and similar obligations, so that the Yom Kippur to follow may come to us for good.

He framed that commitment in relation to what, for him, was the ultimate “original sin”—falseness and falsehood (artistic, religious, or political), allegiance to which he had no compunction about declaring nullification.

Despite the work’s title and its primary association with kol nidrei per se, Schoenberg’s text actually draws upon two other independent liturgical statements that traditionally precede and introduce the kol nidrei:

1) Or zaru’a latzaddik (from Psalm 97:11)

2) Bishiva shel ma’ala: a medieval declaration attributed to Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (13th c.), which renders it legally permissible for the congregation to pray together with those who have openly transgressed, presumably because the transgressors are about to voice their sincere repentance throughout the ensuing Yom Kippur services. This legal sanction, which echoes a talmudic statement to the effect that the presence of sinners actually validates worship, is typically recited thrice during a procession with the Torah scrolls held by the cantor and congregational elders or honorees.

Rabbi Sonderling’s initial draft had emphasized and expanded upon or zaru’a latzaddik, quoting it in the original Hebrew as well as in translation (“A light is sown for the pious [righteous]”) and exploring poetically the theme of light in cosmic-theological, mystical, and spiritual terms. In his interpretation, searching for and finding that light was related to repentance, atonement, and renewal (“Let us find our light!”).

In streamlining and summarizing Rabbi Sonderling’s draft, Schoenberg elminated much of the flowery language and metaphorical imagery while preserving the basic motif in a leaner exposition that leads to Psalm 97:11. When that Psalm phrase reoccurs as a bridge from the section based on bishiva shel ma’ala to the reinvented and reworked kol nidrei, light becomes extended in the composer’s interpretation to relate directly to repentance: “A light is sown for the repenting sinner.” And when that new twist is echoed in the penultimate line of the narration, it is the final recapitulation that reemphasizes the leave now granted to the transgressor to “be one with us in prayer tonight.”

The primary context of this reunion and reconciliation is, of course, religious and spiritual in terms of the Yom Kippur occasion. The invocation of unity (“to be one with us in prayer”) coincides with Schoenberg’s theological view of God as an idea that is the essence of oneness. On another, perhaps (for Schoenberg) intersecting plane, however, that affirmation also transparently recalls his desiderata of an all-encompassing Jewish political-national unity. It was an ideal that he advocated vehemently in his extramusical writings and statements. At the same time, the affirmation reverberates with his uncompromising conception of artistic unity, which he sought to ensure by means of the ordered technical procedures and compositional systems he espoused—and through his musical-theoretical pronouncements.

It was Rabbi Sonderling who first incorporated the reference to the Creation story in Genesis with respect to the origin of light in the universe. That element is altogether absent from the traditional kol nidrei and from its surrounding liturgical texts. Curiously, it is only in Schoenberg’s revision that we first find mention of Kabbala as the source of those light-related images and metaphors: the bursting flame, the crushing of the flame into particles, and the resulting “hidden sparks” in the world that can be observed only by the “meek and modest.”

Coincidentally (and almost certainly unbeknownst to Schoenberg, whose knowledge of Hebrew liturgy appears to have been nonexistent), kabbalistic sensibilities and conceptions also underlie the imagery suggested by bishiva shel ma’ala, even though its putative author cannot be considered a kabbalist. The incipit of that declaration translates mystically as the imagined supreme y’shiva “above”—viz., “in the heavens.” This suggests an ultimate talmudic academy where Torah-based law, truth, and Divine teaching are construed with a finality superceding any interpretations emanating from earthly academies or courts. Bishiva shel ma’ala is thus most commonly understood to mean “in the heavenly tribunal”—the court of supreme authority. In this case, the declarations of the y’shiva shel mata (the y’shiva “below,” or the earthly tribunals) and those of the heavenly tribunal are in accord. (In some rites, the phrases bishiva shel ma’ala. and al da’at hamakom v’al da’at hakahal—“with Divine sanction and the sanction of the congregation”—are reversed.)

In any event, it is unlikely that Schoenberg was familiar on his own with Kabbala, which at that time was hardly part of Jewish consciousness outside circumscribed Hassidic circles, obscure mystical (and secretive) sects, and the relatively small number of readers of objective scholarship on the subject. It would be decades before the term (signifying the embracive body of Jewish mystical literature) and its collective substance find its way into popular culture via Hollywood celebrities and questionable commercial enterprises. We can only imagine that the subject of Kabbala might have arisen during a working session with Rabbi Sonderling.

The Composer’s Personal Repentance

The reinterpreted focus on the text of bishiva shel ma’ala provided Schoenberg with an opportunity to dwell creatively on his own version of the repentance theme, which he explored on converging levels of religious faith, Jewish identity, and communal readmission. Moreover, it gave him a bridge to the reimagined and reworded kol nidrei text.

Notwithstanding its unimpeachable sincerity, Schoenberg’s invented ceremony of return in Paris had been Judaically superfluous. This new kol nidrei undertaking, however, offered historical grounding for that return in the context of established Yom Kippur atonement rituals, liturgies, supplications, and regrets. The interdependence of the two words, repentance and return, could have heightened significance for him. (The two Hebrew equivalents have the same root: to repent is, in Judaic terms, literally to seek return to mandated ways.) Clearly, the image in bishiva shel ma’ala of repentant transgressors—most important for Schoenberg, those who have sworn false allegiances or espoused false doctrines and values—being permitted both religiously and socially on Yom Kippur eve to rejoin the Jewish people still struck a sensitive nerve with reference to his prior Christian conversion. As he fleshed out his approach to the narration and to its musical expression, that lingering, unresolved concern for confirmation of Jewish repatriation would become tethered to the vows and oaths of the kol nidrei text, which he would reframe and refract through the lens of his personal past. In the process, however, he was abetted by a common misunderstanding of the origin and purpose of the absolution formula. Like many, he was misled at first by ill-advised sources to assume and accept the unsupportable myth connecting kol nidrei historically to forced or pressured conversions, particularly among medieval Iberian Jewry. That supposition was argued publicly in 1917 by Joseph S. Bloch, although it has earlier roots and a long mythic history. The premise, logical as it might seem, has been refuted by most modern scholarship. Nonetheless, Schoenberg’s own notes in connection with the work reveal that he had accepted the mistaken notion that kol nidrei originated as an antidote to regretted conversion. One who had felt forced in the face of persecution or social pressure to convert to another faith could, therefore, he assumed, be considered fully repentant through the historical mechanism of the kol nidrei declaration. Through it, he could rejoin the Jewish people—to “pray with the community as a Jew among Jews.”

His reworking of the repentance theme, however, went far deeper than his own personal experience with conversion. He developed the theme into a communal disavowal of allegiance to all doctrines, religious or secular, that he deemed false for Jews. With no opprobrium attached to Christianity or any other faith, he viewed as false all diversions of Jews from their historical foundations and beliefs, and all diversions from what he understood and promoted as the distinct mission of the “chosen” Jewish people. That mission encompassed advocacy and transmission of the principles of ultimate law, order, and unity—the concepts that constituted, for him, the essence of the abstract “God-Idea.”

Still, the personal component in the work was recognized almost immediately and mentioned by many observers thereafter. Eric Werner, for example, one of the leading avatars of Jewish musicology, referred in 1958 to the piece as a whole as “an offer of expiation.” It was Alexander L. Ringer, however, who, in his 1990 book Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew, reinforced and reemphasized the significance of that personal stake perhaps more so than any previous studies. In calling the work “as personal a testimony of faith as any in the history of music,” he echoed previously voiced sentiments, but he also astutely tied attestation of faith to the recitation’s opening biblical recollection of light as a Divine creation; and he connected the theme of faith to Schoenberg’s (and, to be fair, to Sonderling’s) exploration of light in tandem with the annulment of false vows and with the repudiation of falseness. Hence, the interweaving of or zaru’a latzaddik and kol nidrei, rather than their usual presentation as separate pronouncements, as if to illustrate that illumination precedes, induces, and guides repentance and return. Illumination and repentance are, here, synonymous; illumination and falseness are opposing, mutually exclusive forms.

There is some irony in the fact that the mistaken notion of the origin of kol nidrei as a provision of relief from conversion vows proved to be of some benefit to Schoenberg’s text. Once he accepted that notion, he was disabused thereby of his earlier assumption (about which he expressed revulsion in a letter to fellow composer Paul Dessau, calling the declaration immoral and unethical) that the absolution formula had been intended to apply to inter-human obligations. As radical a departure as it is, his narration may be viewed on one level as a restoration of kol nidrei’s legitimacy and moral relevance. In the traditional text, the distinction between the two types of vows—those between persons and those made to God—is understood (by those who are Judaically informed) but not stipulated. Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre makes it clear that the vows and oaths at issue—whatever their subject or nature—exclude any obligations, promises, assurances, or even relationships between or among human beings.

Artistic Ramifications of the Theological Construct

Ringer, among others, has argued effectively that Schoenberg applied and extended to art his abstract vision of Judaism’s Divine totality, order (which the composer called “God’s will”), and universal, irrefutable, and monopolistic truth. The transference of his theological-philosophical formulation to techniques and procedures of musical composition could thus account at least partly for his demand not only for structural order in modern music, but also for a broader sense of artistic totality and unity. This insight of course applies most transparently in the context of his serial, twelve-tone procedural system of pitch organization. But it can pertain more generally to his entire oeuvre—whether or not a piece is complexly bound or tightly organized by dodecaphonic procedures, as Kol Nidre is not. Both in the text and in the music of his Kol Nidre, Schoenberg was able to intertwine and mutually reinforce his twin visions of unity and totality in terms of their religious-philosophical and their purely artistic manifestations.

Although this work is not atonal (or pan-tonal) in the sense of twelve-tone serial procedures, Schoenberg derives pitch content from constituent motives of the traditional kol nidrei, which he treats as tone series. Motivic groupings of, or drawn from, the composite melody, its phrases, or its sections can become non-dodecaphonic rows of their own.

Political-National Implications

Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre might also be examined from the perspective of his Jewish national-political pronouncements and advocacies. Beneath the surface, these are not always theoretically separable from his theological constructs, spiritual quests, artistic principles, and technical composition procedures. In analogous ways, his proposed solutions to the historical plight of the Jewish people revolved around a preoccupation with order, unity, unanimity, absoluteness, authoritarianism, and infallible autocracy. Whereas his religious formulations concerned the supremacy of an ultimate lawgiver—the “God-Idea” or “God-Awareness”—as the author and ensurer of absolute order and totality in the universe, Schoenberg's Jewish politically related certitudes concerned the required, unchallenged, and, if necessary, enforced acceptance of national unity and of totalitarian, even dictatorial leadership of world Jewry. These views are transparent in his various propagandistic writings (public as well as private), his correspondence, and his public statements.

We have observed that his text emphasizes the theme of repentance and renunciation of falseness and false doctrines. Bearing in mind his near obsession with totality, and viewed in the context of his extramusical writings, the unspecified array of those false doctrines may be understood as encompassing not only religious belief systems and artistic-intellectual pretensions that he renounced but also all political sympathies and positions contrary to those he espoused as true and correct.

In the years immediately following his emigration from Germany and the loss of his place in the German cultural world, and during the period leading up to the Kol Nidre commission, Schoenberg became ever more fixated on an idiosyncratic brand of authoritarian, even militant Jewish nationalism. He saw this as the exclusive antidote to an otherwise perpetually and unalterably uncertain position of world Jewry. He was won over by Zionism in principle and committed to its nationalist cause—eventually taking pride in the accomplishment of statehood and giving the new polity his allegiance. Yet the antidemocratic, illiberal nationalistic visions he enunciated in the 1930s and 1940s were his own. They bore little if any relation to the policies and procedures of the mainstream Zionist movement and its tributaries, or even to Vladimir Jabotinsky’s opposing Revisionist Zionist program. Neither Schoenberg’s public nor his private writing gives any concrete evidence of informed familiarity with those currents; curiously, even Jabotinsky and the militancy associated with Revisionism are not mentioned. Moreover, he blamed the entire Zionist leadership for the dire consequences of British immigration policy with regard to Palestine both before and during the war. In his view, Jewish refugees would have been better served had Jewish leadership expended its efforts on securing a place other than Palestine for Jewish resettlement rather than adhering to the established Zionist ideal. He had in common with Zionism the emotional and spiritual attachment to Palestine as the logical historical location of a Jewish national home, to which, he acknowledged, the Jewish people had a right. Yet at times he appeared outwardly to be contradicting himself—by proposing, for example, the irrelevance of geographic location to the united national objective, or when he bemoaned the Zionist Congress’s earlier vote to reject the British offer of Uganda in place of Palestine. That “fatal mistake” had been, in his view, the fault of the Zionist movement’s misguided commitment to democratic structure. Elite rule by fiat would have prevented it: “How different would be today’s Jewish situation were there now an independent state in Uganda … able to provide homes for ten to twenty millions…. Had Herzl alone at that time possessed the right to decide, Uganda would be ours, and we would now know where to place Jewish refugees,” he wrote in 1938 in his radical call for action, “A Four-Point Program for Jewry”, which waspublished posthumously,

His readiness to forego Palestine, however, was neither a dilution of his feeling for the Land of Israel nor a disavowal of its historical legitimacy. It was, rather, a purely practical position, albeit vehemently adopted. Until it actually materialized, he was convinced that the world powers would never permit either a Jewish state there or an autonomous homeland with its own jurisdiction over immigration policy. He viewed the establishment of a dedicated land somewhere (anywhere, if necessary), whatever its political status—sovereign, colonial, or federated—and whatever its form of government, as the “only one way to save Jewry.”

It is sometimes difficult to know how seriously some of Schoenberg’s most extreme political tirades should be taken, or how much face value should be accorded them. His eerily Orwellian 1934 manifesto, “Jewish United Party Program,” for example, called for a “fight to the point of extermination [against] all those [other Jewish] parties which—as parties—are opposed to its [the UJF’s] goals.” It demanded absolute and unconditional obedience to party leadership, it proposed expulsion for apathy, and reminiscent of Leninist and Stalinist party purges, it characterized dissent as treason.

How to understand these and subsequent polemics is a question that has yet to be explored adequately from psychological and psychoanalytical perspectives. Should they be assessed in the context of the composer’s own resentment and frustration at perceived artistic rejection or cultural exclusion should they be attributed, jointly or in part, to a degree of narcissism, to unchecked ego, to internal identity conflicts, or to some form of immature “acting out” (to invoke later 20th-century jargon), even if only as a misguided albeit justifiable response to contemporaneous events in Europe and what seemed like international indifference.

Then, too, Schoenberg was not the only intellectual at the time who, aided both by effective but mendacious propaganda from the Soviet Union and by the swiftness with which Germany had been transformed, was misled by what appeared to be the overall success of totalitarian regimes—whatever the nature of their objectives. (Generally overlooked, then and now, was the fact that the National Socialist regime of Germany and the subsequent absorption of Austria were the results of free, democratic elections.) Schoenberg’s political writings suggest the possibility that he thus assumed that in bypassing the frustrations and obstacles inherent in liberal democracy, similarly dictatorial authoritarian procedures could efficaciously be marshaled in pursuit of worthy goals connected to Jewish survival. But this was not necessarily a manifestation of social pathology. Rather, such commitments to predetermined political convictions, which allow for no review, can fall under the banner of what political theorists characterize as political theology—which, in itself, amounts to a quasi-religious belief system.

Musicologist Klára Móricz (Jewish Identities: Nationalism, Racism, and Utopianism in Twentieth-Century Music) has aptly called attention to the likelihood of direct echoes in Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre of some of his propagandist political writings and pronouncements. Intuiting in the work reverberations of his appeals for Jewish national unity, with which he was particularly absorbed in the same time frame during which it was composed, she interprets the piece partly as a ritualistic mechanism through which that desiderata “could be created on a religious basis.” Some of the composer’s most belligerent political-national expressions are seen as “utopian fantasies,” with all the dangers that attend dogmatic utopianism. Ringer was more sympathetic and more inclined to serve as an apologist—indulging Schoenberg in some of those bizarre fantasies by placing the emphasis on their causative contexts. Móricz, however, proposes a more direct linkage between his writings and outright fascist inclinations (assuming, of course, that he actually meant—and would today stand by—all that he said and wrote).

By the time Schoenberg was engaged in composing Kol Nidre, he must have been well along the road to completing “A Four-Point Program for Jewry”;it was finished only two months later. This document, worthy in its tone of the most outspoken pamphlets of causes in Western history, comprises four spelled-out polemics. It calls for abandoning altogether the fight against antisemitism, which he characterized as “cowardly” and “undignified,” as well as ultimately unwinnable—a meekly defensive and fatal diversion from the fight for an independent Jewish nation, which would render antisemitism irrelevant and inconsequential. It once again demands a United Jewish Party, in which democracy must give way to enforced solidarity (“The decision over the fate of a nation seems to be much too important a question to submit to a majority”), and it condemns the democratic structure of the Zionist movement and its congresses. It advocates a party of elites and hints at emulating the tactics of odious totalitarian regimes to enforce Jewish unity (“Never enter into discussion!”). Finally, it blames attachments to Palestine for having precluded, over the centuries (i.e., not only with reference to the Uganda proposal), a Jewish national home elsewhere. Moreover, preference of one political or social system over another should be irrelevant to Jewish politics, whose only goal should be a national home. Even though he solicited the help of Thomas Mann, among others, Schoenberg was unsuccessful in his attempts to have this manifesto published—partly because he was unwilling to soften its tone. It awaited its appearance in print until 1990, as an appendix to Ringer’s volume.

It might be a bit of a stretch to consider some of the echoes of this document as a subtext in the Kol Nidre script, were it not for the fact that Schoenberg deliberately joined the manifesto to his notes concerning the composition (“Notes on Kol Nidre”). In addition to sharing a demand for unity (spiritual in one case, political in the other), both Kol Nidre and “A Four-Point Program”contain the notion of a chosen elite people pursuing its mission. In linking the two items, it is certainly possible that he meant to include in his condemnations of falsehood the policies of both world Jewish leadership and the Zionist movement. In that case, misguided allegiances to such leadership might be considered “vows” that should now be annulled in favor of aligning with the “true” path toward Jewish survival. Both the spiritual and the political paths to truth would now be illuminated by the light of which the Kol Nidre script speaks: the light of or zaru’a latzaddik, the light of the world’s creation, and the kabbalistic, atomic particles of light that are “hidden in our world,” awaiting rediscovery through repentance.

Performance Forces and Their History

Schoenberg scored Kol Nidre for mixed chorus and orchestra: two flutes, oboe, three clarinets, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion (two players), and strings, the last specified in correspondence as “a minimum of 10 pieces and a maximum of 20.” In a letter to the Kalmus publishing firm 16 months after the premiere, he noted that, with full orchestra, a choir of 24 to 28 singers would be satisfactory.

The composer conducted the world premiere at the 1938 Yom Kippur eve services of Fairfax Temple, which were held at the once stately but now-demolished Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (in the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, one of the earliest venues for Oscar ceremonies). Rabbi Sonderling narrated the script. Despite the wealth of Schoenberg scholarship in the second half of the 20th century, uncertainty lingers about whether that premiere was performed with orchestra or whether Schoenberg and Rabbi Sonderling had to settle for the piano reduction that the composer’s assistant, Leonard Stein, had made (which would have been used in any event for choral preparation and rehearsals). There are conflicting references, but none are definitive.

Schoenberg did not compose Kol Nidre primarily as a concert work. He considered it an artistic, functional liturgical expression, and he anticipated future Yom Kippur performances in synagogues (to which he referred quaintly but innocently in his letter to Kalmus as “churches,” revealing his continued unfamiliarity with even the most basic aspects of Jewish communal life). He assumed that the work might become an acceptable replacement for the traditional renditions in liberal and progressive Reform congregations—a hope that did not come to fruition. Soon realizing that few if any synagogues could accommodate an orchestra, and that the piano sonority would be considered incongruous for a service (as well as contrary to his own artistic conception), he planned to create a sophisticated organ version based on the orchestration. He did not live to pursue that task, which was accomplished by Leonard Stein only many years later. It was published with a provision for optional percussion ad libitum and with organ registration by Mark Robson. The percussion parts, which include tam-tam, hanging cymbal, base drum with cymbals, flexation, and three timpani, can be played by one or two players. In the absence of percussionists, the flexation can be played by one of the choristers.

The world premiere of the organ version was given in 1992 at the Gindi Auditorium of the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. Mark Robson played the hired organ, and Cantor William Sharlin narrated the script. That concert, titled Lebewohl Wien as a retrospective of émigré Jewish composers from Vienna who resettled in Los Angeles, was produced by the Los Angeles–based pianist, lecturer, and founder of the local Jewish Music Foundation, Neal Brostoff. It was part of a two-year series of events of a serialized international conference-festival, "A Voice for Our Time", which was organized and directed by Neil W. Levin to commemorate the life and work of Cantor Salomon Sulzer in connection with his 100th yahrzeit and with Jewish musical life in—and related to—Vienna, of which Schoenberg was a native. Other cities that hosted the conference-festival were London, New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Washington, D.C., and Ottawa. Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, however, was performed only at the Los Angeles event.

By: Neil W. Levin



Text by Arnold Schoenberg

The Kabalah tells a legend: At the beginning God said: "Let there be light!" Out of space a flame burst out. God crushed the light to atoms. Myriad of sparks are hidden in our world, but not all of us behold them. The self-glorious, who walks arrogantly upright, will never perceive one; but the meek and modest, eyes downcast, he sees it—"A light is sown for the pious."

Bischivo Schel Malo Uvischivo Schel Mato. In the name of God, we solemnly proclaim that every transgressor, be it that he was unfaithful to Our People because of fear, or misled by false doctrines of any kind, out of weakness or greed: we give him leave to be one with us in prayer tonight. A light is sown for the pious, a light is sown for the repenting sinner.

All vows, oaths, promises, and plights of any kind, wherewith we pledged ourselves counter to our inherited faith in God, Who is One, Everlasting, Unseen, Unfathomable, we declare these null and void. We repent that these obligations have estranged us from the sacred task we were chosen for.

We repent.

We shall strive from this Day of Atonement till the next to avoid such and similar obligations, so that the Yom Kippur to follow may come to us for good.

All vows and oaths and promises and plights of any kind, wherewith we pledged ourselves counter to our inherited faith in God, Who is One, Everlasting, Unseen, Unfathomable, we declare these null and void. We repent that these obligations have estranged us from the sacred task we were chosen for. We shall strive from this Day of Atonement till the next to avoid such and similar obligations, so that the Yom Kippur to follow may come to us for good.

Whatever binds us to falsehood.


May be absolved,






Made void and of no power.

Made void and of no power. Hence all such vows shall be no vows, and all such bonds shall be no bonds, all such oaths shall be no oaths. We repent. Null and void be our vows. We repent them. A light is sown for the sinner.

We give him leave to be one with us in prayer tonight.



Composer: Arnold Schoenberg

Length: 14:03
Genre: Liturgical

Performers: BBC SingersAvner Itai, Conductor;  David Pittman-Jennings, Speaker;  Hugh Potton, Organ

Date Recorded: 11/01/1999
Venue: St. Paul's Church (A), Knightsbridge, London, UK
Engineer: Hughes, Campbell
Assistant Engineer: Weir, Simon
Project Manager: Schwendener, Paul

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Boelke Bomart Inc.


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