Eric Zeisl’s Requiem Ebraeico was conceived originally in 1944 as a setting of Psalm 92 (Tov l’hodot, from the kabbalat shabbat service) for the Jewish portion of an interfaith service at the First Methodist Church in Hollywood. It evolved during its composition, however, into the present single-movement concert work for soprano, contralto, baritone (preferably a cantor), chorus, and large symphony orchestra. After he had begun work on it, Zeisl learned that his father, Sigmund Zeisl, as well as other relatives, had been murdered by the Germans and their collaborators in a death camp—believed to be Treblinka in the case of his father, who had been interned previously at Terezin and then transferred. He determined then that the piece should be a much needed “Jewish requiem”—later to be titled Requiem Ebraeico.
After its successful premiere in Los Angeles in 1945, Zeisl sought its publication, entering into negotiations with Transcontinental Music, one of the principal United States publishers of Jewish liturgical music. Its founder and co-owner was Joseph Freudenthal—grandson of the organist and music director at the nonorthodox synagogue in Braunschweig [Brunswick], Germany, who included in his edition of that synagogue’s hymnal the first known musical notation of one of the most ubiquitous tune contrafacts for the hymn, ein kelohenu. At first Freudenthal was inclined to pass on Requiem Ebraeico, inasmuch as Transcontinental’s focus had always been on functional liturgical music for synagogue services or for typical Jewish choral concerts, for which the work might prove too sophisticated and—because of the orchestra—too costly, with the return of publication costs questionable. Zeisl responded that, owing to the piece’s connection to the fresh Holocaust wounds only then beginning to be felt by Jewry as a whole, a substantial number of performances could be expected: “Its sadness and mood are reflected now, one can safely say, in every Jewish heart….” Eventually Freudenthal was persuaded.
Of course, Psalm 92 is filled with praise and high-spirited gratitude (“It is good to give thanks to the Lord”); hence its inclusion among the Psalms for welcoming the Sabbath with rejoicing and anticipation. There is nothing in it regarding death, memorial sentiments, or lament. Zeisl, however, saw in and beneath its surface an appropriate text for a requiem. As he wrote in a letter to Freudenthal, it echoes the fact that “with a heart full of tears they [the Jews] nevertheless hold on to God and do not cease to thank him….” This was the “message and the consolation” Zeisl personally found in Psalm 92. Freudenthal, however, asked that the following preface be part of the published score, and Zeisl consented:
True to the ancient Judaic tradition, so significantly reflected in the Mourner’s Kaddish, which in the hours of deepest sorrow “glorifies and sanctifies the Lord,” the composer has chosen for his Requiem Ebraeico a scriptural text of praises and consolation rather than of sadness.
Requiem Ebraeico is dedicated to his “dear father and other victims of the Jewish tragedy in Europe.” It became one of Zeisl’s most frequently performed works.
Performers: Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra; Choir of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Rodrigo Esteves; Luisa Francesconi; John Neschling, Conductor; Gabriella PaceAdditional Credits:
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