Toch’s cantata, Vanity of Vanities, is based on the biblical Book of Kohelet. This book is also known to the English-speaking world by its title in the Septuagint, Ecclesiastes, which is generally thought by Bible scholars to have been employed as the Greek equivalent of “member of the assembly”—referring to an anonymous individual (or individuals) who functioned in an assembly as a teacher to the people. Kohelet, which is one of the five m’gillot (scrolls), is found in k’tuvim (sacred writings, or the Hagiographa)—the third of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible. (See notes to Jean Berger’s Two Songs from Ecclesiastes in Volume 11, and to Frederick Jacobi’s Hagiographa in Volume 10.) The title of the cantata is taken from the opening words of the message of Kohelet(1:2), havel havalim, conventionally rendered in English as “vanity of vanities,” and from the related recurrent theme of emptiness, meaninglessness, senselessness, nothingness, and existential absurdity.
This cantata owes its genesis to a commission in 1953 from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (since renamed the American Jewish University), which at that time was a West Coast affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Encouraged by the success of its inaugural annual concert of Jewish music that year, which featured the world premiere of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Queen of Sheba, the school’s fine arts committee turned to Toch for a new work to be presented at its second such event. Toch was already known favorably among local Jewish cultural circles for his earlier Judaically related work, Cantata of the Bitter Herbs (previous in Volume 17), which had received its premiere in Los Angeles. It was Cantor Julius Blackman—a member of the UJ’s fine arts committee along with such important personalities in the music world as Max Helfman, Leon Kirschner, Eric Zeisl, David Tamkin, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, together with lay communal leaders—who first proposed approaching Toch; and it was he who suggested the theme and made the initial approach to the composer.
Vanity of Vanities calls for two soloists—a tenor and a soprano—together with a small instrumental ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. The tenor passages conform largely to an accompanied recitative style, while the more lyrical vocal writing is reserved for the soprano. The characteristic subtle dissonances appear to reflect some of the angst in the text, though they are never jarring or intimidating.
The cantata received its premiere on May 16, 1954, at Temple Israel of Hollywood, as part of the University of Judaism’s second annual concert, under the direction of Hugo Strelitzler—a professor of music at Los Angeles City College. Also on the program according to press reports were Eric Zeisl’s “Brandeis” Sonata, Joseph Achron’s Suite in Ancient Style, Hebrew Palestinian songs in arrangements by Ruth White, and a medley of folk and liturgical music performed by an ensemble of local cantors.
Sung in English
Vanity, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
What profit, what profit has a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away and another generation cometh.
But the earth abideth forever.
All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full, unto the place from where they come thither they return again.
The thing that has been, it is that which shall be, and that which is done, it is that which shall be done: there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there a thing where of it may be said: See, see, this is new?
It has been already of old, already of old time which was long before, was long before us. I, the preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom and knowledge all things that are done under the sun.
And behold, all is vanity and vexation of the spirit.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
I communed with mine own heart and said:
I am coming to great estate and have gotten more wisdom than all that have been before me in Jerusalem.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.
I perceived that this also was vexation of spirit, for in much wisdom is much grief.
And he that increases knowledge increases sorrow, oh …
Vanity, all is vanity.
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