The title of Yizkor (lit., May He [God] Remember), Stock’s single-movement elegy for string orchestra, refers to the name of the formal Jewish memorial service for specific relatives (hazkarat n’shamot—remembrance of souls). This service is conducted communally, but recited individually, among Ashkenazi Jews on four occasions on the liturgical calendar—usually within the morning Torah service, before returning the scrolls to the ark. Those four occasions are Yom Kippur and the last days of each of the Three Festivals (Sukkot, Pesah, and Shavuot).
Traditionally, yizkor has been observed chiefly with respect to one’s parents, often in conjunction with pledges of charitable donations to honor their memory. But one may elect to recite yizkor in memory of others as well. Indeed, many 20th- and 21st-century prayerbooks, including some with traditional formats, provide for such additional yizkor recitation for children, siblings, spouses, other relatives, and even friends. There are also memorial prayers for collectively martyred fellow Jews (viz., those who were murdered because they were Jews), especially, since the second half of the 20th century, those who were slain by the Germans during the Holocaust. Soldiers who have given their lives on behalf of the State of Israel are also sometimes remembered within contemporary yizkor services.
Originally, the yizkor service was confined to Yom Kippur. Its introduction on the holiest of days may be linked historically to the opening passage of the morning service Torah reading, which refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons (Leviticus 16). One theory also holds that it was instituted as a spiritual vehicle to induce deeper repentance on the Day of Atonement by invoking the memory of one’s parents and resolving to honor them by mending one’s ways. The custom of praying for the departed on Yom Kippur and Festivals was opposed by some leading medieval scholars and authorities (notably Hai Gaon and Nissim Gaon). They stressed the conviction that only worthy deeds of the departed during their lifetimes—not deeds or words of atonement by their descendants on their behalf—are of consequence before God. Nonetheless, this practice gained special significance during the Crusades and the waves of persecution in Europe in the following centuries, and by the 17th or 18th century, hazkarat n’shamot, or yizkor, had become a firmly rooted part of the Ashkenazi synagogue ritual for the Three Festivals as well as for Yom Kippur.
The word yizkor is derived from the text incipit of the principal prayer of the service: yizkor elohim nishmat...(May God remember the soul of ...). The individual private recitations of yizkor may be preceded by optional Psalm verses and readings. Following those yizkor recitations, the service concludes in many if not most Ashkenazi synagogues with the prayer el male raḥamim (God, who is full of mercy), which is intoned by the cantor or prayer leader. In the Sephardi rites, each of those who are accorded the honor of being called up to the Torah—to recite the benedictions in connection with its reading—recites a memorial prayer for his relatives after pronouncing the benedictions.
The piece—which proceeds as a tonal reflection of the mix of solemnity, reverence, sad-heartedness, sorrow, and ultimate acceptance that might typically characterize a yizkor service—opens with a melody in minor that seems defined by its overall descending contour. That initial thematic-melodic material sounds at first against a calm drone of open fifths, followed by harmonies in parallel progression—suggestive of traditional cantorial chant against typically sustained choral underpinning with a hint of antiquity. A second theme, this time with an ascending melodic contour, serves as counterpoint to the first, and the interplay between the two provides the basic substance of the piece. The overall spirit becomes appropriately resolute at the conclusion, with its widely spaced major chord in the final measures perhaps echoing—whether deliberately or subconsciously on the part of the composer—the faith inherent in the concluding line of the yizkor text itself (May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life...), and in the text of el malei raḥamim (Keep his/her soul alive forever under Your protective wings...).
Yizkor is an orchestral adaptation of the second movement from the composer’s Fourth String Quartet. It received its premiere performance in 1999 at the Western Slope Music Festival, in Crested Butte, Colorado, where it was played by the festival orchestra under the baton of Imre Palló.
Performers: Gerard Schwarz, Conductor; Seattle Symphony
Publishers: Norruth Music, Inc. and MMB Music Publishing Inc.
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