Weinberg’s Piano Concerto in C Major provides a transparent illustration of some of the aesthetic ideals of the Jewish national art music movement as promulgated by his former Gesellschaft circle in Russia. Here we have a virtuoso showpiece in a basically Western form, modeled on piano concertos by other—quintessentially Russian—composers, which uses classically established developmental as well as pianistic techniques but is founded on manifestly recognizable, historically Judaic melodic and rhythmic materials and motifs.
The first movement is built upon two basic but unrelated elements of centuries-old canonized Ashkenazi liturgical melos:
1. A fragmentary motive—and in some statements a combination of two motives—of biblical cantillation, which forms the oldest stratum of Ashkenazi musical tradition. This motive opens the movement, following an introductory timpani roll that momentarily suggests, to anyone versed in the classical music canon, that one is about to hear the famous Grieg piano concerto—until the orchestra snuffs out any such expectation with its resolute pronouncement of this cantillation motive.
2. One of the most easily recognizable and widely preserved seasonal leitmotifs of the Ashkenazi rite: a recurrent tune in the portion of the Yom Kippur liturgy known as the seder avoda—the minutely detailed poetic description and narrative reenactment of the elaborate ritual atonement procedure of the ancient Temple service, which, according to the prescription in Leviticus (16), was conducted by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. In a climactic moment in the day’s atonement observances, the High Priest would enter, unaccompanied, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, known as the Holy of Holies, and would pronounce God’s actual name, whose utterance is otherwise forbidden by anyone at any time. The High Priest would prolong the utterance to allow the other priests and the people in the outer court enough time to bow, to prostrate themselves, and to become purified and cleansed of transgressions by verbally acknowledging God’s supremacy, proclaiming eternal worship of His “glorious, sovereign Name.” The liturgical reenactment—which recounts the High Priest’s preparation for the ritual; his baths, ablutions, and changes of garments; the appointment of a substitute in the event of an emergency; and the various sacrificial offerings—is largely based on the account in the Mishna (Mishna Yoma), the preliminary commentary on the Torah that was redacted in the 3rd century and became the first part of the Oral Law and the basis of the Talmud.
The seder avoda melody, which exudes the awe and almost eerie solemnity of the ancient ceremony, is generally known either as the avoda tune or the v’hakohanim tune, after the text incipit of one of the central recitations in that liturgical section (“And the priests [and the people recited ... as they heard the awesome Name pronounced by the High Priest....].”) The tune is one of the principal constituents of a category within established Ashkenazi tradition known as the missinai tunes. This v’hakohanim tune, even when heard in the guise of a piano concerto, will be instantly familiar to all who worship annually on Yom Kippur in traditional Ashkenazi synagogues—as well as in those Reform congregations that have reintroduced parts of the seder avoda liturgy. In addition, by established tradition, the same melody is employed for the k’dusha (sanctification) in the musaf (extended morning service) on Rosh Hashana as well as Yom Kippur, which provides an aesthetic and spiritual anticipation of the avoda liturgy.
The first known extant musical notation of this v’hakohanim tune is found in a late-18th-century cantorial manuscript compilation assembled by Joseph Goldstein, a cantor in Bayern at that time. It was included therein not as a new composition, but as a traditional motif—a factor that serves as documentation of its long-established tradition by that time. It may also have appeared in earlier Baroque-era compilations that are no longer extant. There is good reason to believe, for example, that it appeared in the Hanover [Hanoverian] Compendium, dated 1744, which was held in a private collection in Berlin until its owner, Arno Nadel, was interned at Auschwitz and murdered there by the Germans. This compendium has never been found, but we know from other sources that it contained many of the missinai tunes. In synagogue music history, which almost completely bypassed the classical period in western art music, the late 18th century and even the first two decades of the 19th were still an extended part of an arrested “Jewish Baroque” in western and Central Europe. And it was for the first time in that Baroque period that some cantors acquired the skill of music notation. The recurrence of the missinai tunes—and of references to them throughout the body of manuscripts of the 18th century—attests to the already centuries-old acceptance of those melodies as canonized seasonal leitmotifs. The Goldstein manuscript also reveals that this tune, which has many known variants and extensions, was also used in the 18th century for the liturgical poem az shesh me’ot on the Festival of Shavuot; and other similar compendia of that period, such as one by Ahron Beer (1738–1821), a cantor at various times in Bamberg, Paderborn, and Berlin, indicate its use in an entry dated 1782 for another text of the avoda service, v’khakh haya omer.
Apart from its theological and emotional link to the Temple era, to Jewish antiquity, to the sacred historical parameters of ancient Jerusalem, and even to what some perceive as a form of communication with God (the sacrificial system) that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, the inclusion of the seder avoda in the Yom Kippur liturgy is widely interpreted as an expression of the Jewish people’s yearning both for spiritual liberation and redemption and for national restoration—albeit on religious terms.
The first thirty-six measures of the opening movement, marked “Maestoso,” are devoted to the introduction and modest development of the biblical cantillation element. Allusions to pentatonic modality in some of the harmonic treatment contribute to a flavor of antiquity as much as to a sense of timelessness. A mutation of that motive, achieved primarily by its dotted rhythmic alteration—which gives it an entirely different, joyful character—acts as a contrasting second subject (a’, if we consider the cantillation motive as “a” and the v’hakohanim tune as “b”). The v’hakohanim tune, set up by a harbinger of its rhythmic incipit (intervalically altered), begins in earnest at measure 76. There, following an inventive modulation to E major/C-sharp minor, one hears its emblematic and identifying upward-moving sequence of triplets—introduced in a solo piano passage with quiet authority (Lento). Those triplets (which, in some other traditional variants, can comprise unequal note values) seem in this artistic context inherently to invite development through extended pianistic displays of motoric octave passagework; and the composer exploits that invitation to its fullest throughout the movement. Punctuated by ornately arpeggiated, cadenza-like solo passages, the three themes alternate and become intertwined until they fade away at the conclusion of the movement with a final echoed reference to the cantillation motive.
The brief second movement is based almost entirely on the tune of Artza alinu, one of the most familiar and enduring Zionist-oriented songs associated with the ḥalutzim—the pioneer settlers in Palestine during the decades prior to statehood (For more on the songs of the Ḥalutzim, see the notes to Max Helfman's Israel Suite, also included in Volume 8.)
Artza alinu, whose lyrics proclaim “We have come to our beloved land, we have plowed and planted, but we have yet to harvest,” was composed in Palestine in 1928 by Shmuel Navon. He conceived the words during a visit to one of the communal agricultural settlements, Kibbutz Geva, in the Jezreel [Izreel] Valley in the Lower Galilee. Observing Jewish workers in the field, he spontaneously composed these words and set them to an anonymous tune that, as he described later, was “in his head”—but of whose actual identity he was unaware. In fact, the tune’s identity has been established by Yaakov Mazor, a leading Israeli authority on Hassidic song whose uncle had known the tune in the late 19th century as that of an old Hassidic niggun (religious melody) from Europe that was sung originally to a prayer text of the morning service (ashreinu ma tov ḥel’kenu). Students at the school where Navon taught in Tel Aviv, upon hearing him sing his “new song,” immediately adopted it for a hora dance as well. Eventually it became one of the most popular vehicles for that quintessential Israeli circle dance, as well as an addition to the repertoire of songs associated with the ḥalutzim. The words apply more broadly and symbolically as well to extra-agricultural sentiments and concerns, in terms of the general observation that while the work of rebuilding and resettling the land has begun, the full fruit of those labors on all fronts remains in the future. In America, Artza alinu became one of the songs popularly associated with modern Israel that enjoyed general familiarity beyond Zionist circles per se. More than one Hollywood film, for example, automatically employed it as an associative device for accompanying music to scenes in, or in reference to, Israel.
The Artza alinu tune is introduced by pizzicato strings following an introductory passage of solo piano scales. It is developed and manipulated throughout the movement, with particular exploitation of its syncopated rhythm and with intricate pianistic idioms. After a passionate, broadened Rachmaninoff-like restatement of the tune, a brief cadenza toward the end leads into the third and final movement.
The Finale combines new material with reworked and augmented fragments of the first movement’s themes—together with some rhythmic echoes of the Artza alinu tune. An orchestral interlude interjects an expansive, romantic melodic gesture—introduced in a duet between clarinet and cello before finding its way to the piano—which reemerges periodically among the thicket of other material. The driven, motoric, and almost teasing ascent to the rousing ultimate climax is typical of similar sections in a number of Russian piano concertos. Its dramatic springboard, with its pause on the dominant chord, ignites an anticipation of the concluding section of Rachmaninoff’s C-minor concerto, while the immediately succeeding measures simultaneously hint at parallels to the finale of his D-minor one. Both works had to have been in Weinberg’s ear.
On the whole, this concerto, while unique in its reliance on Judaically related source material, is noticeably derivative in its pianistic parameters: “pleasantly reminiscent,” as one critic observed following its premiere. It suggests Weinberg’s working familiarity not only with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but also with once popular piano concertos by several other Russian composers whose works are little known today in America outside the circumscribed circle of avid pianophiles and collectors. Both in the delicate filigree passages and in the overall grand sweep, there are, for example, overt nods to concertos by Arensky and Medtner. And there are harmonic reverberations of Taneyev (Weinberg’s teacher) and Balikirev. Yet Weinberg managed to combine those influences and derivations into a fresh artistic statement, as well as a successful partnership between piano and orchestra, without unnecessary pretensions to profundity.
One cannot ignore the programmatic significance of so obvious an amalgam as Weinberg’s juxtapositions of age-old sacred and modern Hebrew secular musical source materials. In terms of their Jewish embrace, both relate overtly here to the Land of Israel, to Zion, and to Jerusalem. Since so much of Weinberg’s music is infused with references to, or influences from, modern Hebrew culture in relation to the Zionist undertaking and its underlying ideology, it cannot have been an accident that he chose for a liturgical representation the v’hakohanim tune, which conjures up a central aspect of Jewish life and sovereignty in Jerusalem before the dispersion. Nor, most likely, was his use of a biblical cantillation motive an arbitrary artistic consideration, inasmuch as it represents the sacred core text that is the primordial foundation of Judaism, the Jewish people, and its historical and spiritual relationship to the Land of Israel. Interfacing these two musical references with an emblematic tune of modern Zionist sensibilities provides in itself a reforged tether between ancient and modern Israel. It is almost as if Weinberg sought in this work to bridge the two-millennia chasm between antiquated and contemporary Jewish experience, between what some in his generation perceived as the “old,” exclusively religious form of Jewish identity and its new, youthful secular manifestation—which in itself echoes the very notion of national rebirth and rejuvenation at the heart of modern Zionist thinking.
The concerto was featured (and is presumed to have received its world premiere) in a 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall titled “Palestinian Night,” presented by Carnegie “POP” Concerts, Inc., an independent concern. It was played by Lotte Landau, with the Carnegie “POP” Orchestra conducted by her brother, Siegfried Landau, a gifted German-Jewish émigré composer as well as conductor who was also the first music diretor of the Brooklyn Philharmonia (now the Brooklyn Philharmonic). The program that evening, whose subtitle noted that it offered “Palestinian folksongs, music and dancers”—in keeping with the perceived interrelationships between “new” Jewish music and the creative inspiration spawned by the flourishing Jewish enterprise in Palestine—also included works by Solomon Rosowsky, one of Weinberg’s fellow principals in the disbanded Society for Jewish Folk Music in pre-Bolshevik Russia who had also resettled in New York; Max Helfman; Landau; and three prominent composers active in the yishuv in Palestine: Marc Lavry, Mordechai Zeira, and Sholom Postolsky. The New York Post critic thought the concerto, for all its nostalgic reliance on earlier pianistic models, was “as much fun to hear once in a while as the latest Prokofiev or Milhaud.” Although it was performed subsequently at least once in Canada by pianist Samuel Levitan (and possibly in Israel, although documentation has not been found), the concerto soon fell into oblivion until it was rediscovered by the Milken Archive in 1997 and restored expressly for this recording. Even then, however, it took further diligent research, outright detective work, and tenacious persuasion to locate and obtain the full orchestral score, which was found in an archive at the AMLI Music Library in Haifa among a batch of Weinberg scores that his son had deposited decades earlier at the Israeli consular office in New York. The Milken Archive is grateful to the City of Haifa Culture Administration, under whose aegis that library operates, for its assistance in making the score available, and to Edwin Seroussi, who facilitated the process.
Performers: Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia; Jorge Federico Osorio, Piano; Karl Anton Rickenbacher, Conductor
Publisher: Theodore Presser, Inc.
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