Hugo Adler wrote his oratorio Balak and Balaam in 1934 for the Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland. Following the National Socialists’ assumption of power in 1933 as a result of the 1932 elections, after Jews were expelled from all German arts organizations (symphony orchestras, opera companies, conservatories, academies, theaters, etc.) and forbidden to participate in performances for the general public, and after music by Jewish composers (or those perceived to be Jewish according to Nazi party doctrine) was banned from public performance venues and airwaves, the Kulturbund (culture league) was established by the German Jewish community to serve as an outlet for Jewish artists as well as provide them with some employment. As most of its events took place in synagogues, Adler included an organ part; and to make performances possible in smaller cities where the synagogues might not have adequate space for full orchestras, he also created a version for strings and piano.
The oratorio is based on the story of a pagan priest who blesses rather than curses the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness from Egypt to the “promised land.” The work was completely rewritten in 1949, ten years after Adler had immigrated with his family to America in the wake of Kristallnacht, and it was produced in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he had assumed a cantorial pulpit. Although he radically overhauled the work, he kept the original orchestration. The overture begins and ends with broad chords and a short, lively passage that is followed by a fugue—ending in the same vein as the opening. Adler had a special affinity for Baroque music, which is evident in the form and content of this overture.
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