Despite his rich opera of Judaically centered as well as general secular works, Weinberg was most intensely and personally intrigued by the challenge of liturgical creativity. “My real interest lies in religious composition,” he told an interviewer following a well-received performance of his setting of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the 1936 spring festival of the Federal Music Project—one of the arts initiatives of the Roosevelt era’s Work Projects Administration, which was designed to facilitate recovery and mitigate unprecedented unemployment during the Great Depression. “In no other way can I better express the Jewishness of my nature.”
Although Shabbat Ba’aretz—a setting of the Sabbath morning liturgy according to the American Reform liturgical format as contained in the Union Prayer Book—was actually written in America well after Weinberg’s immigration to New York and was intended chiefly for American synagogues, it was initially conceived during the composer’s five-year sojourn in Palestine. While observing a young pioneer workers’ settlement on a Saturday morning near Talpiot, an outlying neighborhood of Jerusalem, he was inspired to fashion a spiritual-aesthetic bridge between the antiquity of Jerusalem—and all it connotes historically and emotionally in terms of the Land of Israel and the sacred foundations of the Jewish people—and Jewish modernity and national renewal, as exemplified by the enthusiasm of those youthful rebuilders of the ancient land. In his preface to the published service, he wrote that the music is “profoundly influenced by the colorful environment and the soil out of which the Bible grew. The music, so rooted both in ancient Judea (cantillation of the Pentateuch) and contemporary Palestine (secular lore), links Israel’s past to the present.”
Weinberg’s earlier Sabbath eve service (Servizio Pentatonico, 1935) was based on a novel artistic approach (for a formally composed synagogue service) in its construction according to the theory, advanced and developed by the distinguished musicologist Joseph Yasser, that biblical cantillation is founded to a great extent on a pentatonic scale. Both the melodic and the harmonic parameters of that service were thus confined to, or derived from, the narrow limitations of a five-note range, and to modulations of a five-note scale. The “Pentatonic Service” had been performed in Berlin during the Nazi era, under the auspices of the Berliner Jüdische Gemeinde (the institutionalized Jewish communal and religious structure there), and it had been received warmly. The Gemeinde’s request for another service, together with the encouraging response in American synagogues to Servizio Pentatonico, apparently acted as the catalyst for Weinberg to shape the musical ideas he had first conceived in Palestine into a formal Sabbath morning service.
In Shabbat Ba’aretz, Weinberg abandoned the pentatonic strictures and turned instead to a combination of musical influences from the yishuv—including some of the melodic and rhythmic flavor and vitality of the secular songs of the ḥalutzim (pioneers) there, reconsidered here in a purely religious context. That influence is echoed, for example, in the spirited setting of L’kha adonai—a text in the introductory part of the Torah service that forms a prelude to the biblical readings with its proclamation of God’s absolute sovereignty and holiness, and which inaugurates a procession of the Torah scrolls among the congregants. There is also a pervasive imprint of the so-called Mediterranean style, often used to describe the musical language of the first generation of Israeli (pre- and post-state) composers such as Paul Ben-Haim, Marc Lavry, Odeon Partos, Alexander Boskovich, and others of that circle in the yishuv. Among the characteristic properties of that stylistic school are a reliance on certain modes—especially Dorian, Mixolydian, and Phrygian—frequent interchanges between major and minor tonality within a single harmonic progression, Arabic motifs, and perceived Near Eastern gestures, idioms, and ornaments. Augmented seconds create a reminiscence of eastern European liturgical expression, even though the emblematic eastern Ashkenazi mode called to mind by that intervallic feature is really Arabic in origin. There are also echoes of ancient Psalmody in the brief recitation passages on a single tone (V’ahavta, and Sh’ma yisra’el from the Torah service, which leads directly into L’kha adonai), and some pentatonic passages as well; and hints of biblical cantillation motives permeate the entire service.
The prominent three-tone motive in the opening Bar’khu, which has been set up in the introductory organ sinfonia as a prelude (not recorded here), serves, through its many mutations and transformations, as a unifying and organic thematic anchor throughout the work. Its multiple recurrences, however—in Etz ḥayyim, for example, where its extension recalls part of a melody that Brahms used in two works, or as the finale, Hal’luya (Psalm 150), draws to a close—have freshness and originality, without the monotony of simple repetition. There are contrasting moods and textures throughout the work, ranging from the solo cantorial voice without choir in the lyrical V’ahavta and the serene, reflective Etz ḥayyim to the assertive contrapuntal treatment in the setting of L’kha adonai, with its brief canons between male and female voices and the fuguelike imitative entrances of the individual voice parts.
The setting of Psalm 150, which concludes the service, is marked “Fiery and with growing excitement, á la Hora,” and its motto comes from the image in II Samuel 6:14 of King David dancing before the Lord “with all his might.” The hora—one of the most popular and quintessential secular dances of modern Israel—is based rhythmically on a gradually and continually accelerated syncopation and on unabated motion. In this setting, that rhythmic feature is prominent in the accompaniment, against a basically homophonic choral texture. The spirit and tempo of a typical hora, however, is restrained here in keeping with the liturgical function of the piece and the requisite relative sobriety in American Reform as well as Conservative services of that era.
Only excerpts of Shabbat Ba’aretz are recorded here. As Weinberg acknowledged in his preface, this work, as Gebrauchsmusik (functional music), is separable into its distinct settings. They work equally well as individual pieces and as parts of a unified whole in a performance of the entire work, in either a religious or a concert context.
Because Weinberg intended the service primarily for American synagogues, he did not attempt to follow strictly the quasi-Sephardi or modern Hebrew accentuation that was the norm in Palestine and is now the official pronunciation in Israel. Although modern Hebrew pronunciation is now the adopted mode of worship in the vast majority of American Reform and Conservative synagogues, in the 1930s that was not the case, and Sephardi Hebrew would have been heard only in Sephardi (or other non-Ashkenazi) synagogues. Nonetheless, he stressed his preferences for modern Hebrew in the performance of this service, even though the accentuation would then not be consistent throughout.
Sung in Hebrew
Worship the Lord, to whom all worship is due.
Worshiped be the Lord, who is to be worshiped for all eternity.
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these words with which I command and charge you this day. Teach them to your children. Recite them at home and when away, when you lie down [to sleep at night], and when you arise. Bind them as a sign on your hand and to serve as a symbol between your eyes [on your forehead]; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
SH'MA YISRA'EL (FROM THE TORAH SERVICE)
Listen, Israel! The Lord is our God.
The Lord is the only God—His unity is His essence.
Greatness, might, splendor, triumph, and majesty are Yours, Lord—all that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong sovereignty and preeminence above all.
It is a tree of Life to those who hold on to it steadily, and all who uphold it find happiness. Its ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peaceful.
HAL'LUYA (PSALM 150)
Praise God in His holy sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty heavens.
Praise Him for His magnificent deeds; praise Him for His abundant greatness.
Praise Him with shofar blasts; praise Him with nevel and kinor.
Praise Him with tof and dance; praise Him with minim and ugav.
Praise Him with resounding tziltz’ile; praise Him with ringing tziltz’ile.
Let every soul praise the Lord. Hallelujah!
Publisher: Bloch Publishing Co.
Translation from the Hebrew by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman