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ClassicsOnline Home » HANUKKA CELEBRATION (A)
Hanukka, the Festival of Dedication, is celebrated by Jews everywhere to commemorate the heroic Maccabean victory in 165 B.C.E. over the Greco-Syrians in the fight for religious freedom. It marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the legend of the miraculous eight-day endurance of the light in the candelabrum. Traditional Hanukka songs from many parts of the world, along with music composed in America, enrich the experience of this beloved holiday. This recording brings old favorites and new discoveries together for a unique American Hanukka celebration.
The Electric Review
A Hanukka Celebration
The Festival and Its Music
HANUKKA, the postbiblical Festival of Dedication (actually, rededication), is an annual eight-day celebration of the Hasmonean-Maccabean victories of the Jews in 168-165 B.C.E. against the tyranny of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire ruled by Athenian-born Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes), and of the people's fifteen-year struggle against the prohibition of Judaism and against enforced paganism. It is also known as hag ha'urim, the Festival of Lights, in commemoration of the rekindling of the candelabrum at the rededication of the Temple in 165 — and the legendary "miraculous" eight-day duration of the single day's worth of undefiled illumination oil on hand after the Temple's cleansing and purification. The historical basis of the festival's eight-day duration, however, stems from its original connection to the "retroactively postponed" simultaneous celebration of the eight-day autumn pilgrimage Festival of Sukkot. This celebration was held belatedly as part of the Temple 's rededication: The people had been prohibited from its observance for three years, and public memory of having to forgo Sukkot was still acute, since its actual date occurred less than twelve weeks earlier. Hanukka commences on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of kislev, the date assigned historically to the rededication and also accepted as the date on which pagan worship of Greek gods had been instituted forcibly in the Temple three years earlier.
During the period of these struggles, ancient Judaea was under the domination of the pagan Greeks of the Syrian-based Seleucid Empire, which they attempted to "civilize" by imposing their version of Greek culture, especially within Judaea and its capital, Jerusalem, which Antiochus aimed to transform into a Greek-oriented city — architecturally, socially, and spiritually. That late Syrian phase of Seleucid-imposed Hellenism, however, was a much-decayed and diluted Greek culture, representing the residue and debris of the former glories of classical Greek civilization and those attributes most prized by the West since the Renaissance. That debased guise of Hellenism was not the Greek culture of philosophers, poets, or artists, but of expeditionary armies, camp followers, and slave traders. Nor, obviously, should Seleucid Hellenism be confused with the legacies of earlier Athenian democracy, nor with the worthy contributions that define ancient Greece at its zenith.
Our historical knowledge of the Hanukka episode is derived from a variety of chronicles, legends, and Talmudic references and commentary — including much taken from the two Books of the Maccabees, which are the last two books of the Apocrypha. In the initial years of the Hellenization effort, a portion of Judaea's population was indeed attracted to things Greek — as perceived "progress" — and was ready to flirt with some of the enticements of introduced Greek values and mores. But in 168 the Seleucid effort entered a brutal phase, when — partly to unify Judaea as its southernmost provincial outpost in its fortification against Egypt as a rival power — the fusion of all peoples in the empire was ordered. Judaism was outlawed and its practices forbidden as capital crimes in many cases; pagan worship of Greeks gods was established and required in the Temple and elsewhere by imperial authority and force; and sacred venues and artifacts were defiled or destroyed.
In Judaism, idolatry has always been considered among the most hideous of offenses, even requiring martyrdom rather than submission. By attacking so viciously the Jews' central system of sacred values at its core, Antiochus's Hellenization campaign now sowed the seeds of its own backfire. The revolt was begun and led by Mattathias, an elderly priest of the House of Hasmon, and his five sons — of whom Judah (to whom was subsequently attached the sobriquet Maccabee, "hammer,") became the supreme commander of the partisan forces. Joined by bands of followers, the Hasmoneans-Maccabees conducted a three-year virtual guerrilla war against the Greco-Syrians as well as against their pro-Hellenistic Jewish supporters, and this involved insurgent operations as well as pitched battles. These led eventually to a truce and partial surrender, followed by an imperial edict rescinding the anti-Jewish measures and restoring freedom of Jewish worship and observance. Judah was permitted to reenter Jerusalem with his followers and retake control of the Temple, which, under his leadership, was purified and rededicated with elaborate music and Psalm singing. Therefore, the reference to miracles in the Hanukka liturgy concerns the unlikely victories of untrained resistance fighters as well as the legend of the oil lasting for eight days.
Some historians see in the Hanukka episode the first instance of a successful war for religious liberty and minority religious rights. From a narrower Judaic perspective, apart from its other extended theological, ethnic, and national-political connotations, Hanukka is essentially about resistance to Hellenism. It thus commemorates the spiritual survival of Judaism, and its revival after a period that had threatened to bear witness to its total disintegration and assimilation.
The celebration of Hanukka is a family event, and it is also expressed in the liturgy. The first three selections here, B'rakhot L'hanukka, Hannerot Hallalu, and Ma'oz Tzur, are expressions of the principal musical manifestations of Hanukka — the kindling of the lights.
The Hanukka ceremony on each of the eight nights commences with the rabbinically ordained kindling of the Hanukka candles or oil-burning lights, preceded by three benedictions and ending with two succeeding liturgical texts ( hannerot hallalu and ma'oz tzur ). The Hanukka lights were originally kindled only in the home, but were later introduced into the synagogue as well. There, it occurs immediately following the minha (afternoon) service on weekdays.
The benedictions and liturgy are generally sung at home with the assembled family and guests. However, additional public candlelighting ceremonies are well-established events often associated with Hanukka concerts. The tradition of annual Hanukka concerts dates to pre-20th century Europe and has been perpetuated and even enlarged in many American communities. Cantorial-choral settings of the candlelighting benedictions have thus been created by composers and arrangers throughout the 20th century, in a wide variety of styles.
Two benedictions are recited (preferably sung) before the lights are kindled. The first one praises and acknowledges God for enabling the Jewish people to attain holiness (closeness to God) through observance of His commandments, which in the context of Hanukka extend to the postbiblical legal requirement to kindle the lights. Since the Hanukka episode is itself postbiblical, there is no reference to it in the actual Torah. Yet the wording of the first benediction, "Who [God] has commanded us to kindle the Hanukka lights," is a reminder that religious obligations ordained by the sages — beginning with the "men of the Great Assembly" ( anshei Knesset hag'dola ), the spiritual leaders in the period of Ezra the Scribe who are considered the prophets' successors — have the same force of divine commandment in Jewish law and practice as those stated in the Torah.
The second benediction praises and acknowledges God for His role in ensuring the victorious outcome of the Hanukka episode — for His having "wrought miracles for our forefathers in those former times at this same season" (i.e., this date on the Hebrew calendar for the rededication of the Temple following the Maccabean victory).
On the first night of Hanukka, the kindling ceremony includes a third benediction that is also recited on other occasions out of similar sentiment. It expresses gratitude for having been sustained and preserved thus far, and therefore able to reach and witness the current season.
Unlike certain other parts of the Ashkenazi liturgy, there is no single authoritative melody for the Hanukka benedictions. The B'rakhot L'hanukka (Benedictions for the Kindling of the Hanukka Lights) heard here is a setting for cantor and choir by Raymond Goldstein that utilizes unrelated melodies by three traditional cantorial composers — Solomon Ancis ; Joshua Lind ; and Zeidl Rovner — the last two of whom were famous synagogue composers in the quintessential eastern European folk-oriented mold. Goldstein's paraphrase here as a single unified setting evokes a typical traditional Hanukka concert or public candlelighting, but it is cleverly fused with a more contemporary harmonic character.
Immediately after the lights are kindled, the assemblage sings hannerot hallalu, which underscores the exclusive function of the lights in recalling God's miracles and wonders and His deliverance. The admonition concerning the sanctity of the lights — and the prohibition of any profane or practical use other than simply looking at them — necessitates the use of a separate ninth flame (the shammash ) to kindle the others. The present choral setting, Hugo Adler' s Hannerot Hallalu, with its contrapuntal sections juxtaposed against more homophonic treatments, is appropriate for a public candlelighting ceremony.
The candlelighting ceremony concludes with ma'oz tzur, probably the most widely known Hanukka hymn text, sung after each light appropriate to the particular sequential night has been lit. The poem is the creation of one "Mord'khai," apparently a 13th century Ashkenazi poet whose name appears as an acrostic in the initial letters of each of the five stanzas.
The text refers to four principal instances of deliverance of the Jewish people from its oppressors. The fifth and final stanza offers a twenty-four-word summary of the Maccabean struggle, along with the traditional legendary account of the miraculously burning oil.
The singing of ma'oz tzur apparently was well established as part of the Hanukka candlelighting ceremony in western and west Central Europe by at least the early 15th century — and quite possibly much earlier.
Apart from two well-known versions, there are many alternative melodies for ma'oz tzur that have not gained wide currency. The present Ma'oz Tzur by Cantor Aaron Miller is familiar only among the contemporary Bobover Hassidim, to which dynasty he belonged. While not, strictly speaking, a traditional Bobover tune, it exhibits the quintessential Bobover conviction that there is at least some measure of joy to be found in every human experience.
The Hanukka festival has also generated a body of folksongs that are incorporated within several of the pieces here.
Samuel Adler 's To Celebrate a Miracle, for large wind ensemble, or wind orchestra, incorporates the melodies of nine of the most popular and best-known Hanukka-related songs and hymns (seven secular and two liturgical), creatively developing their constituent motives and phrases and judiciously exploiting the various timbres and technical possibilities of the individual instruments. The number nine here was intended by the composer to represent the nine candles or lights in the Hanukka m'nora (candelabrum) on the last night of the festival. All but one — Y'mei ha'hanukka — are incorporated in Adler's choral work The Flames of Freedom (tracks 8–15).
Y'mei ha'hanukka was a 19th century eastern European Yiddish folk tune to which Abraham Abrunin [Evronin] provided Hebrew lyrics. Apparently it was known earlier as a folksong about the Festival of Sukkot. It was also sung in eastern Europe as a Hanukka song, Hanukka, oy hanukka, a yom tov a sheyner, to a poem by Mordkhe Rivesman (1868–1924). That version remains popular among Yiddish cultural circles. During the first half of the 20th century, various English adaptations were circulated in America as well, especially for children.
Di khanike likht, the well-known poignant poem by Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923) about the Hanukka lights — and their evocation of lament over lost Jewish sovereignty and the ensuing centuries of persecution and suffering — has served as the lyrics for many folksong versions as well as art and quasi-art songs and choral settings.
Sometimes called "the poet of the sweatshop," Rosenfeld was one of the most important Yiddish poets in America during the early decades of eastern European immigration. A pioneering force for Yiddish poetry in the United States and a leading poet of the labor movement, he was born in Bolkshein, Russian Poland, but spent his youth in Warsaw and emigrated to New York in 1886. His poems became popular as songs sung by shop and factory workers and at mass protest rallies. His fame as a socialist poet spread back eastward to Europe, so that many of the poems he wrote in America became attached to European folk melodies and gained popularity there.
Rosenfeld also became attracted to the emerging Jewish national consciousness, and that side of his orientation is evident in this Hanukka poem, with its collective nostalgia for ancient nationhood, defensive military might, and valor. As lyrics, these lines are a marked departure from typical secular American Hanukka songs, where national aspirations, if present at all, are clothed in the context of the victorious Maccabean struggle for religious — not necessarily political — freedom.
Leo Low 's Likhtelekh and Zavel Zilberts 's Di Khanike Likht set to Rosenfeld's poem have both enjoyed popularity. Low's is presented here in a choral arrangement by Larry Moore, as it might have been heard in the past by Yiddish folk chorus presentations. Zilberts's is sung in its original version for voice and piano.
Herbert Fromm 's Six Madrigals is a series of contrapuntal a cappella choral pieces. In his preface, he wrote, "The work is grouped around the Sabbath and five Jewish holydays and combines secular with sacred selections, so that the term 'madrigal' (generally denoting secular content) is given a broader implication here." For the Hanukka Madrigal, Fromm chose Mi y'mallel? (Who Can Recount or Express?), one of the best-known nonliturgical Hanukka songs. Its lyrics are ascribed to Menashe Ravina [Rabinovich], who actually assembled them from biblical and Talmudic sources. The opening four words of the Hebrew lyrics, mi y'mallel g'vurot yisrael? (Who can recount the mighty acts of Israel ?), are a paraphrase of a passage from Psalm 106:2, mi y'mallel g'vurot adonai? (Who can recount the mighty acts of the Lord?). The substitution of adonai for yisrael is indicative of the writer's secular Zionist orientation. The origin of the tune is undetermined.
Samuel Adler' s The Flames of Freedom — A Hanukka Celebration is a cantata for three-part treble-voice chorus and piano, based on ten well-known Hanukka songs and hymns together with original music to two other liturgical Hanukka texts. It consists of eight short movements, each representing one of the eight Hanukka lights. Adler chose the three-part treble choral medium to provide a musical counterpart to Benjamin Britten's well-known Christmas work based on traditional carols, A Ceremony of Carols — given that the two holidays usually occur coincidentally within close calendar proximity, even though there is absolutely no religious or historical connection between the two (as there is, for example, between Passover and Easter); nor is Hanukka in any sense a Jewish counterpart to Christmas.
In the score, five movements are presented with the original Hebrew and English adaptations in the text underlay; three movements — two originally Hebrew and one originally Yiddish — are set to English words only. All but one of the English lyrics were written for this cantata by Samuel Rosenbaum, an American cantor best remembered for his many English librettos and translations from Hebrew and Yiddish. The English lyrics as sung here throughout represent liberal readings and paraphrases rather than actual translations.
1. Ma'oz tzur. Though the age and provenance of this melody is undetermined, we know that it was current as the "traditional" ma'oz tzur version among Ashkenazi Jews in Venice by the 18th century, when it was first documented as such in musical notation. Its melodic structure and rhythmic suitability to the poetic meter of the text allow for the possibility that it could have been an accepted ma'oz tzur version much earlier, even in German-speaking regions — perhaps as early as the 14th or 15th century, even before it would have been imported to Venice by Jews who resettled there.
The ma'oz tzur melody in this first movement of Flames of Freedom is one of eleven melodies notated by the Italian composer Benedetto Marcello (1686–1739) as he heard them sung among the Jewish community in Venice. For his use as cantus firmus sources in his series of original choral and orchestral settings of Italian paraphrases of the first fifty Psalms, Estro poetico armonico (Poetic-Harmonic Inspiration; Venice, 1724–26), Marcello culled those eleven melodies from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions in Italy, and identified six — including this ma'oz tzur — as Ashkenazi.
2. Hannerot hallalu (the lights we have kindled). This is Adler's original setting.
3. Al hannissim (for the miracles and miraculous acts… [we thank You]) is the first of two texts inserted during Hanukka into the penultimate of the set of benedictions that forms the core of every traditional service, known collectively as the amida ("standing"), as well as in the seder birkat hammazon (grace after meals) during Hanukka. The "miraculous acts" in al hannissim, which call for additional gratitude, refer specifically to Hanukka.
The second insertion, bimei matityahu (in the days of [the High Priest] Mattathias…), summarizes the Hanukka story from the traditional theological perspective. Its first half is also included within this third movement, where it is punctuated by recapitulations of the al hannissim section. The music in this movement is not drawn from any traditional source, but is Adler's original composition.
4. Mi ze hidlik? (Who kindled these [lights]?). According to the Israeli scholar Natan Shachar, this tune is ascribed to Shmuel Shapira, of kibbutz Ein-Harod, in Israel, who is said to have modeled it on an earlier Polish Hassidic melody. The words are by Levin Kipnis (the Ukraine, 1894 – Tel Aviv, 1990), who wrote the lyrics of many of the most famous Israeli holiday songs for children. Like other Hanukka songs with lyrics stemming from Jewish Palestine, its wide dissemination in America as a children's song is probably a function of Zionist-oriented Hebrew cultural influence in the first half of the 20th century. However, Adler combines it contrapuntally with altered yet recognizable motives from another, unrelated children's Hanukka song, S'vivon, sov, sov, sov ( Dreidl, Spin…) — a folk tune whose lyrics are also by Kipnis.
5. El hammikdash ba y'huda (to the temple Judah came). The circulation of this song in America dates at least to the early 1950s, for it appears in a 1955 children's anthology compiled by Judith Eisenstein and Freida Prensky, Shirei y'ladim (Songs of Childhood), where it is credited to Hava Greenberg.
6. Mi y'mallel? (Who Can Recount or Express?). The English version of the first part of the song (the first two phrases) is by B. M. Edidin and has long been established in America. The rest of the song departs from Edidin's adaptation and is presumed to be Samuel Rosenbaum's own.
7. Candles in the Night. This movement is actually a well-known European folksong version of Morris Rosenfeld's famous Yiddish poem about the emotions evoked by the Hanukka lights, sung here to Samuel Rosenbaum's unrelated English lyrics — juxtaposed against an originally Hebrew song, ' Hanukka, hag yafe kol kah' (Hanukka, Such a Beautiful Holiday!). The Hebrew lyrics to the latter are by Kipnis. An interesting device is the counterpoint in the sopranos to the Yiddish folk tune in the alto line in the opening measures, which appears subtly derived from the composer's own music for al hannissim in the third movement.
8. Ma'oz tzur (Rock of Ages). This eminently more familiar musical version of the same text found in the first movement is undoubtedly the Western world's quintessential melodic association with Hanukka — among both Jews and Christians. Modern research has revealed that this tune is a patchwork of motives and phrases borrowed from 15th and 16th century German folksongs, one of which was coincidentally adopted for a Lutheran chorale. The tune extends beyond the single text by which it is commonly identified ( ma'oz tzur in this case), to include its singing to many other prayer texts during the week of Hanukka and even in anticipation of it. Because of that function throughout Ashkenazi Jewry for so long, it may be considered one of the set of seasonal leitmotifs in minhag Ashkenaz known as missinai tunes, even though the "canonization" of most of the others in that group dates to the Middle Ages. By the Baroque era, dozens of original compositions — for various liturgical texts sung throughout the year — were also infused with motives from this ma'oz tzur melody to signify their rendition specifically during Hanukka. That practice has continued to the present day.
It is unlikely that this adopted hybrid melody was initially attached specifically, or even at all, to the poem ma'oz tzur, which, from the time of its introduction into the liturgy and probably until the 18th century, had other melodies. For one thing, the meter, syllabic scheme, and Hebrew accentuation of the poem do not conform ideally to the rhythmic features and contours of the melody; the tune does not fit this text as well as it does others.
One convincing thesis holds that this German melody was first adopted for the text of shnei zeitim (two olive branches), an older piyyut that at one time was sung on Shabbat Hanukka (the Sabbath of Hanukka). This poem's rhythmic scheme is better suited to the tune and matches its contours naturally.
The most educated estimates place the merging of the ma'oz tzur poem with this Germanic tune in the early 18th century — first for the home candlelighting ritual and then, later, in the synagogue. In German Reform synagogues of the early 19th century it became a standard hymn for the Hanukka season, sometimes with newly created German lyrics.
Various English paraphrases have been fashioned expressly for this ma'oz tzur melody. But the most famous one of all, still in use, is Rock of Ages. That text, whose style is now dated, was written by Rabbi Gustav Gottheil (1827–1903), an early Reform vocal advocate and promoter of Zionism in America.
During Hanukka, Psalm 30 is recited or sung in the synagogue, both because of its reference to deliverance and because it is thought to have been written or adopted for the original dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, or perhaps the Second Temple.
Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Habbayit is emblematic of Solomon Ancis 's finely honed skill in writing for male voice choir, with its distinctive timbres and idioms, along with his appreciation for traditional cantorial style. It has been used frequently for Shabbat Hanukka services — Sabbaths that occur during the eight-day festival.
Hanukka observances have traditionally reserved a central role for children in the context of family celebrations. Over the course of centuries, various games were devised, especially for the duration of the burning Hanukka lights. These games serve dually as associative learning reinforcements and sheer entertainment. The most ubiquitous symbol of such Hanukka diversions is the dreidl (Yiddish, from drei, to spin or turn), or s'vivon, in Hebrew. This is a spinning top, on each of whose four sides appears the initial letter of one of the words of the sentence nes gadol haya sham (A great miracle happened there). Those letters are the Hebrew characters nun, gimel, hei, a nd shin. (In modern Israel, those initials are often adjusted to read nun, gimel, hei, pei, representing nes gadol haya po — a great miracle happened here.) The reference is of course to the miracles of Hanukka.
The latkes in the lyrics refer to flat cakes or pancakes (usually potato-based) fried in oil, which have become the most typical symbolic Hanukka food among Ashkenazi Jews. Although such customary Hanukka foods vary among different traditions and regions (in Israel, for example, the prevailing one is a type of doughnut, or sufganiya ), the common element is the oil in which they are fried, recalling the lumination oil involved in the rededication of the Temple.
Judith Shatin 's Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin is a simple, gay-spirited round, reflecting the dreidl ' s momentum as it spins. The song's parts may be repeated at will, and the composer has also suggested improvised accompaniments — either in lieu of or in conjunction with the printed piano part recorded here. It is also published in an a cappella version.
Hallel (praise) is a section of the liturgy that is made up of Psalms 113–118, or of verses from these Psalms. Adonai z'kharanu is the text incipit of verses 12–18 of Psalm 115. The Hallel — whose verses pertain to the theme of collective praise for God and His attributes of dependability, mercy, and ultimate wisdom — is recited or sung in the synagogue as part of the liturgy on festive or jubilant holy days — as well as on Hanukka.
Alexander Olshanetsky did not necessarily compose this setting of Adonai Z'kharanu exclusively for Hanukka, and indeed it achieved popularity through its performance on a Passover Seder recording by Moishe Oysher. Yet it is no more related to Passover than to Hanukka or any other occasion for Hallel. Its performance history includes both Shabbat Hanukka services and Hanukka concerts, some under Olshanetsky's baton.
Like much choral music written for traditional or orthodox synagogues in America during the first half of the 20th century, this setting draws unabashedly upon popular Jewish theatrical effects; yet those features, together with the overall popular choral style and emotionally evocative melodies, were prominent in the repertoire of many late-19th century eastern European synagogue choirs — not, of course, in the sophisticated and relatively westernized choral synagogues in Russia, the Ukraine, or Poland, but in smaller communities and among celebrated itinerant choirs and cantors. In that respect, if it reflects Olshanetsky the popular Yiddish songwriter, it follows equally in the path of a number of eastern European immigrant synagogue composers whose work was devoted almost exclusively to the liturgy — such cantor-composers as Zeidl Rovner, Joshua Lind, and Isaac Kaminsky, for whom both drama and uncomplicated melody were paramount concerns.
The rendition here, combining children's and men's voices for the SATB choral format but without women's voices, is aurally representative of a choral ambiance once typical of orthodox synagogues in America as well as Europe.
Aspects of a Great Miracle, by Michael Isaacson, was assembled for a 1997 performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Isaacson selected four of his individual SATB choral settings that had already enjoyed success, and reworked them into this larger format, each piece constituting a movement. He orchestrated them for seven brass instruments, harp, piano, timpani, and a battery of percussion.
The first movement, Light the Legend, is a setting of a lyric by Susan Nurenberg. He had suggested to her that A Carol of the Bells would serve as a good model for the "sparkling fast-paced setting" he envisioned for this Hanukka piece. The words for the second movement, A Hanukka Dreidl, were written by the composer "as an homage to Ernst Toch's Geographical Fugue."
He later wrote about the piece as "a crackling, spinning out of the Hanukka story (the dreidl being a four-sided spinning top, but also with the connotation of a Jewish vocal melisma) for speaking chorus accompanied by percussion. I encouraged the singers to use wide-eyed, childlike vocal inflections to make the story come alive in a charming way."
Light, the third movement, is described by the composer as a setting of Jeffrey Rake's "shimmering lyric clothed in a gentle garb of a 6/8 meter. We wrote the song originally for a television film about a futuristic 'virtual reality' winter holiday theme park called X-MAS World." In that imagined amusement park, children and their parents could board a fantasy ride that would take them through the cosmic "worlds of winter holidays". Light was sung at the park's "Hanukka experience".
The fourth and final movement, Psalm 150, with its praise for God with a variety of diverse instruments used in ancient Israel, has been Isaacson's favored Psalm text for his Sabbath services. Here it serves as a rousing, joyous finale.
Neil W. Levin
About the Composers
Belgian-born cantor and composer Hugo Chaim Adler (1894–1955) was cantor of the Haupt-Synagoge in Mannheim, Germany, from 1922 until his emigration to the United States in 1939. In the United States, Adler was cantor and music director of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in 1942 he was awarded first prize by the Central Conference of American Rabbis for his liturgical settings. He wrote many large-scale cantatas on biblical and other Judaic subjects, as well as two complete services.
Samuel Adler (b. 1928) is unique among those established mainstream American composers whose Jewish identities have informed a part of their art. He has written prolifically for the Hebrew liturgy and has been consistently active in the American cantorial and Jewish music infrastructure. Adler was born in Mannheim, Germany, where his father, Hugo Chaim Adler, was a respected cantor. After the family's immigration, he became his father's choir director at the age of thirteen. Adler studied composition with Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston, and Randall Thompson, and conducting with Serge Koussevitsky, and he holds degrees from Boston University and Harvard. He was music director of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas from 1953 until 1966, when he became professor of composition (and later department chairman) at the Eastman School of Music. His opera includes more than 400 works in nearly all media, apart from his large liturgical output. Adler has served on the faculty of The Juilliard School since 1997, while remaining professor emeritus at Eastman.
Solomon Ancis (1873–1945) was a cantor, choral director, educator, and composer whose most lasting contribution is his substantial body of liturgical settings for male-voice chorus. Born in Luba, Volhynia, in the Ukraine, he sang in cantorial choirs in that region and then in Odessa, where he worked with many great hazzanim. He immigrated to America in the early 1920s and settled in Los Angeles, where he was an active member and officer of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of California (the Hazzanim Farband). He conducted its chorus for a time, and wrote and arranged music for its concerts. Many of his settings became standard repertoire for orthodox cantors and synagogues in particular, although most of his music remains in manuscript.
Herbert Fromm (1905–1995) was one of the seminal, and most prolific, synagogue composers in America from the 1930s on — especially in Reform circles. Born in Kitzingen, Germany, he studied at the State Academy of Music in Munich. He immigrated to the United States in 1937 and became organist and music director of Temple Israel in Boston, where he remained throughout his life. Fromm worked with Paul Hindemith at Tanglewood, and in 1945 he earned the first Ernest Bloch Award for The Song of Miriam. His many important sacred works include three Sabbath services and Atonement Music.
Raymond Goldstein (b. 1953) is associate conductor and resident composer-arranger for the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir, for whom he has written more than 550 settings. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, he has served since 1978 on the faculty of the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, and since 1991 at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute.
Michael Isaacson (b. 1946) earned his doctorate in composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Warren Benson and Samuel Adler. He then taught and conducted at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Music, and in California at Loyola Marymount, California State University at Long Beach, and U.C.L.A. He also founded the Israel Pops Orchestra and has produced and conducted various recordings with them as well as other orchestras. Well known as a composer of both liturgical and secular Jewish music, Isaacson has published more than 400 works and produced more than 40 recordings.
Leo Low (1878–1960) was one of the most prominent conductors of Jewish choruses in his era and the most celebrated champion of the Yiddish folk choral art in Europe and America. Born in Volkovysk, in the Grodno province of Russian Poland, he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1900. In 1908 he became choirmaster of Warsaw 's culturally sophisticated Tlomacki Synagogue, where he also functioned as resident composer/arranger. Appointed to direct Warsaw's Hazomir Choral Society — Europe's most prestigious Jewish secular chorus —Low became the chief musical force within Warsaw's exciting Jewish cultural renaissance and introduced a powerful Yiddish folksong element into Hazomir's perspective. He immigrated to the United States in 1920 and became director of the Patterson, New Jersey, Choral Society and of the National Workers Farband Choir, the socialist/labor-oriented chorus in New York. He composed important Yiddish choral and solo settings and was equally involved with writing for the synagogue.
Aaron Miller (1911–2000) was born in Oswieçim (Auschwitz), Poland, to a family of Bobover Hassidim. As a child, he entertained at various Hassidic courts and ceremonies, sang in his father's cantorial choir, and then formed his own traveling choir. Immediately after the Holocaust, Cantor Miller immigrated to America and served a number of orthodox cantorial posts. His many compositions were based on his improvisations.
Alexander Olshanetsky (1892–1944) was one of the most prominent composers and conductors associated with the American Yiddish theater. He was also highly regarded as a synagogue choir director, and he wrote a handful of (unpublished) liturgical music that is clearly theatrical in nature. Olshanetsky was born in Odessa, where he had a traditional Jewish and a modern Western-oriented Gymnasium education. He immigrated to the United States in 1922 and almost immediately became involved with the Yiddish theater — initially with Maurice Schwarz's Yiddish Art Theater, for which he wrote incidental music and the well-known song Shiru, and then with the popular " Second Avenue " medium, with which his name became ubiquitous from 1925 until his death. Two of his most famous Yiddish theater songs are Mayn shtetele belz and Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib.
Boston-born Judith Shatin (b. 1949) holds a master's degree from The Juilliard School and a doctorate from Princeton University. Since 1979 she has been a professor at the University of Virginia, where she heads the Center for Computer Music. Shatin has an abiding interest in electronic music, but her opera includes many pieces for traditional instrumental and vocal media as well.
Zavel Zilberts (1881–1949) was equally acclaimed in his lifetime as a choral conductor and a composer. Born in Karlin, a suburb of Pinsk, Belarus, he began violin studies in childhood and also sang in his father's cantorial choir. In 1903 he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory and in 1907 became music director of the Great Central Synagogue in Moscow. Zilberts immigrated to the United States in 1920 and was soon engaged as the director of the New York Hazzanim Farband Choir — the chorus of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association — for whom he composed many large-scale works. In 1924 he organized the Zilberts Choral Society, which became a regular fixture of New York 's cultural life. As a composer, he devoted himself to three genres: Hebrew liturgical music; folk-art and quasi-liturgical choral settings; and Yiddish lieder.
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