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ClassicsOnline Home » TOCH: Cantata of the Bitter Herbs / Jephta
“Fetters fell, the captive rose. Old is the memory of Israel’s escape from Egypt. Told and retold for thousands of years, the story has given strength to the weary, hope to the disheartened.” Thus begins Toch’s Cantata of the Bitter Herbs, a unique musical-dramatic work begun during the great German-Jewish composer’s forced exile to the United States, and premiered in Los Angeles in the midst of World War Two. Toch’s retelling of the Passover story is cast as an appeal for universal justice and liberation from oppression. The composer’s ultimately triumphant vision is set to luminous late Romantic music and includes a solo quartet that recalls the beauty of the famous trio from Der Rosenkavalier.
American Record Guide
Ernst Toch (1887-1964)
Cantata for the Bitter Herbs • Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No. 5)
About the Composer
Late in his life, despite his earlier prominence in Weimar Germany, Ernst Toch (1887–1964) sadly assessed his standing as "the world's most forgotten composer". Toch was among those Jewish refugee composers from the Third Reich who, having been disinterested (to varying degrees) in the religious practices of their forebears — and in some cases even distanced, by choice, from Jewish identity altogether — rediscovered a measure of that identity in America and became reacquainted with their Judaic roots. Some of that change in attitude can be linked to the Holocaust and its aftermath — the naturally galvanizing effects of collective persecution, let alone genocide. But a part of the catalysis also lay in the relative openness of American society, especially within the art and music world, compared with the social structures and institutions of prewar Central Europe: its greater readiness at that time for cross-cultural perspectives; its different and perhaps more advanced level of formal and informal dialogue between avowed Jewish and non-Jewish elements; the greater variety of available options in terms of type and degree of Jewish involvement or association; and an array of other sociological factors that permitted and even encouraged Judaic artistic expression outside parochial Jewish boundaries. In certain respects that potential for receptivity seems to have appertained in particular in the Los Angeles area, where, along with so many Jewish émigré artists from the German cultural orbit, Toch eventually settled; and where, for the first time, a number of those émigrés established real social or professional relationships with members — and even leaders — of the organized Jewish community and of religious institutions.
Born into a typical middle-class Jewish merchant family in Vienna that was, insofar as we can ascertain, neither rigorously orthodox nor entirely divorced from moderate Jewish affiliation and occasional or nominal Judaic practices, Toch displayed considerable musical gifts as a child. With neither parental encouragement nor formal tutelage, he began composing on his own at an early age, using Mozart string quartets and then other scores of the established masters as his models. He remained entirely self-taught, completing six string quartets by the time he was seventeen — the sixth of which was soon afterward premiered by the internationally celebrated Rosé Quartet. When in 1909 he was awarded the Mozart Prize in the quadrennial competition for young composers, he abandoned his medical studies at the University of Vienna. After a period at the conservatory in Frankfurt during which he pursued piano studies, he became a professor of composition at the Mannheim Hochschule für Musik and then served in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army during the First World War. After the war, Toch and his wife resettled in Germany, where over the next decade he achieved recognition as one of the leading personalities in German musical circles and, despite his own comparatively conservative approach, as one of the principal representatives of and advocates for the modernist international new music movement (Neue Musik) that generated so much attention throughout Central and western Europe during the interwar years.
Throughout the 1920s Toch achieved a string of successes at Germany's principal modern music festivals, including the premiere of his chamber opera The Princess and the Pea at the Baden-Baden Festival in 1927. His orchestral works were performed by some of the most celebrated conductors of the time, including Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg, and Wilhelm Furtwängler; and his concertos were premiered by some of the brightest luminaries: his cello concerto by Emanuel Feuermann; and, ironically in retrospect, his first piano concerto by Walter Gieseking — whose own artistic legacy would become permanently stained by charges of unrepentant sympathy and "cultural collaboration" with the Nazi regime.
During the interwar period, probably beginning with his ninth string quartet (1919), Toch's style progressed from the late Romanticism that had marked his earlier works, evolving into a more modern and less tonal-reliant approach, although he never abandoned tonality altogether. Critics observed his departure from the "Brahmsian influence" and his espousal of a more "radical" style, in which he was sometimes compared to Paul Hindemith.
In 1930 Toch completed his full-length opera Der Fächer (The Fan). That same year, he also composed the piece for which he is still best remembered and with which his name is most generally associated outside the specialized confines of 20th century music circles: an incidental curiosity entitled The Geographical Fugue — for four-part speaking chorus, without pitches. To whatever extent his own self-assessment as a "forgotten composer" might still apply — notwithstanding the recent spate of new Toch recordings and some degree of rediscovery — that isolated experimental piece remains the exception. It has been included in the concert repertoire of amateur and professional choirs throughout English-speaking countries for more than seventy years.
With the installation of the National Socialist regime in Germany, in 1933, Toch's music automatically fell into the category of "degenerate music" by virtue of his being a Jew, and like all music by Jewish composers or by those deemed by the Nazi party and the Third Reich to have applicable Jewish ancestry, its performance outside strictly Jewish confines or auspices was forbidden. As later recounted by Toch's family, William Steinberg was in the midst of rehearsing Der Fächer in Cologne when storm troopers entered the concert hall and physically seized the baton from his hand. Subsequently, Toch's deliberately distorted photograph appeared alongside those of fellow "forbidden" or "degenerate" composers — such as Schoenberg, Weill, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Offenbach — in a special anti-Jewish issue of the well-known German music journal Die Musik, in which Hitler's maxim was also quoted: "The Jew possesses no power or ability to create culture." Many of Toch's scores, together with others by Jewish composers, were soon burned; and publishers' plates were destroyed.
On a trip to Florence — ironically together with Richard Strauss (Reichsmusikkanzler under the regime) — representing Germany at an international music conference, Toch determined not to return and to seek refuge elsewhere. He arranged for his wife to join him in Paris, where other prominent refugee composers such as Schoenberg and Weill were residing temporarily, after which they sojourned for a brief period in London. While there, Toch wrote three film scores: Catherine the Great, Little Friend, and The Private Life of Don Juan. Meanwhile, fellow émigrés in America helped him obtain a teaching position at the New School for Social Research, in New York, dubbed the "University in Exile". Toch emigrated to America in 1934, where he was soon caught in the cross fire of a dispute between ASCAP and BMI that left him without a reliable publisher. His practical salvation (in terms of sustenance) came with the commission for further film scores — this time for Hollywood. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his first Hollywood score, Peter Ibbetson (1935), directed by Henry Hathaway, and he and his family permanently settled in Los Angeles. There followed two further Oscar nominations, for scores for Ladies in Retirement (1941), directed by Charles Vidor, and Address Unknown (1944), directed by William Cameron Menzies. He scored an additional thirteen motion pictures, but his serious concert music did not find much of an audience in America, and this became a source of growing frustration and even disillusionment for Toch. In a 1943 letter, he acknowledged his reluctance to continue composing. "However fortunate in securing refuge in America", wrote his grandson, Lawrence Weschler, in a retrospective article in The Atlantic Monthly, "Toch was never to recover that lost sense of cultural resonance and buoyancy…. When in the last years of his life, he composed his Scheherazade opera [The Last Tale]…. no opera company was waiting eagerly in the wings to produce it, as there had always been in Berlin. It remained unproduced at his death in 1964." Only through great effort did Weschler succeed finally in organizing that opera's premiere — in 1995, in Bautzen, Germany.
Weschler has characterized the years between 1933 and 1947 as "the most harrowing dry spell" of his grandfather's life, one induced at least in part by the lack of recognition. After that, however, Toch began to experience a renewed sense of creative urgency, beginning with a return — after eighteen years — to the initial medium of his youth, the string quartet. Following a near-fatal heart attack, Toch turned for the first time to the symphony, and he produced seven symphonies during the last sixteen years of his life. The third was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1956.
Toch's overall style can be difficult to define or characterize, but his artistic credo involved a basic resistance to music categorization. While on an American tour in 1932 he warned against attempting to force music into historical, generic, or period compartments such as Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. He was convinced that when one makes such an attempt, "either the music remains outside of you, or else you force it with all your might into one of those compartments, although it does not fit … and you blame the music". His advice was rather to "help the music build a new compartment for itself". Some have observed nonetheless a decidedly Expressionist character in Toch's music. Without countering that view, musicologist and music historian Albert Weisser described him as "basically a traditionalist with classical leanings whose music reflects a central European frame of reference and the influence of certain modern harmonic and rhythmic procedures". Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed saw the "tragedy of Toch" in terms of his inability to find a niche for himself during his American years. He suggested the cause of that inability as, on one hand, Toch's having been far more modern than romantically informed émigré colleagues such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who also wrote for Hollywood, yet, on the other hand, less progressive than fellow émigrés such as Arnold Schoenberg or Ernst Krenek, and therefore never as intriguing to the public.
Notwithstanding the lingering perception of Toch as "forgotten", even if his rediscovery has begun, Swed thought that his "obscurity is, perhaps, overrated". Indeed, he has never really been forgotten by students of 20th century music, especially for his highly respected textbook, The Shaping Forces in Music (1948). He served on the faculty of the University of Southern California and also taught at Tanglewood. Among his many composition students were Douglas Moore, André Previn, Alex North, and Mel Powell, as well as several future musicologists.
Neil W. Levin
Cantata of the Bitter Herbs is a musical-dramatic concert work liberally based on the Passover Hagadda — the annual retelling and reconsideration of the biblical story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and deliverance from slavery, which forms the core of the Passover home ritual known as the seder (lit., order, or arrangement, since the various elements of the ritual occur in a rigorously prescribed and arranged order). The cantata's title refers to one of the key components of the seder ritual, the mandated eating of bitter herbs — to symbolize the pain of the Egyptian bondage; to remind anew each generation of it, and of its unacceptability; and, especially for the children at the table, for whom the ritual is designed to have special significance and pedagogic effect, to teach the story of the exodus by providing a related sensory experience. In fact, in the hagadda shel pesah, the book containing the texts of the seder ritual, the sage Rabban Gamliel is quoted as including the bitter herbs (marror) among the three things — along with the matza and the paschal lamb — that must be mentioned specifically and explained during the seder in order to fulfill the obligation to recount and in a sense relive the Passover story.
Cantata of the Bitter Herbs owes its genesis to a chance meeting in 1937 between Toch and Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, then rabbi of Fairfax Temple, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles. The scenario is not an altogether infrequent one for religiously unaffiliated American Jews when confronted with grief. Upon learning of his mother's sudden death in Vienna in December of that year, Toch felt impelled to connect with his family's Jewish roots by participating in some formal Judaic memorial ritual, and he sought out the comfort of a synagogue — for the first time, one presumes, in his adulthood, and certainly for the first time in America. Since attendance at the funeral and burial was obviously not possible, this undoubtedly meant participating in a recitation of the mourners' kaddish, which, unlike many liturgical texts that may be recited in private, requires a communal context (a quorum of ten in orthodox or traditional practice, but also the company of a congregation in classic Reform settings, where the entire assemblage, not just the mourners, usually stands during the recitation). Toch therefore attended Fairfax Temple's regular Sabbath service, probably on the first Friday evening following the receipt of his sister's telegram from Vienna (Reform synagogues at that time would not have held regular weekday services), knowing that communal mourners' kaddish recitations would always occur toward the end of the service, perhaps preceded by a collective memorial sentiment in English. In recalling the incident later, Toch observed that his mother, whom he described as nonorthodox but still "adhering strongly to some of its rites", had always been careful to observe traditional memorial rites for her own parents (even though kaddish is not legally required for women in orthodoxy) — which itself suggests that his family had not been entirely divorced from Jewish tradition in Europe. He therefore felt it both obligatory and natural to do at least something of the same: "All I could do was to dedicate myself to her way and spirit in reaction to my loss."
Following that service, Toch engaged in conversation with Rabbi Sonderling — a highly educated German rabbi who had come to America much earlier, not as a refugee, and who was easily conversant with Central European high culture. There appears to have been an instant simpatico between the two, and one can easily imagine that they spoke German to each other. That Rabbi Sonderling was familiar with Toch's earlier prominence in German musical circles could only have facilitated the newfound relationship.
Rabbi Sonderling suggested that Toch might want to bring his daughter to the upcoming children's Hanukka celebration in the synagogue, to which Toch agreed; and Sonderling also invited Toch to write some simple new music for the occasion, which he declined. But the conversation evoked a forgotten idea of Toch's: to use the Hagadda and the Passover story in general as the basis for an oratorio or cantata — with Psalm and other biblical texts as well as Hagadda passages and some new lyrics for the musical numbers, together with an original narration derived from the spirit of the Hagadda. He shared that idea with Rabbi Sonderling, who expressed immediate support and enthusiasm, offering not only to collaborate on the libretto and narration but also to guarantee the necessary forces for a premiere performance in his synagogue. Rabbi Sonderling then envisioned fusing the premiere performance with the synagogue's communal seder the following Passover, intertwining the actual seder rituals with Toch's original work. Twenty years later Toch would reflect on his thoughts and emotions as he worked on the piece, and how his childhood Jewish experiences were evoked in the process:
The simplicity of the Hagadda story as I experienced it as a child, not part of a religious [i.e., synagogue] ceremony, but as part of a festive occasion, the reading of a breathtaking account of history, the impact of the strong emotions it carried along, stayed with me and made me welcome the task to convey with corresponding simplicity how this story had moved me at a time when we were as yet blissfully unaware of its pending revival in the fate of our generation.
Toch felt that it had been assumed that he would incorporate at least some traditional Passover melodies in the cantata. But having been given a free hand (as he in turn gave to the librettist), he chose not to, believing that entirely original music without traditional reference would have broader appeal and give the work the non-parochial and nonexclusive character he wanted.
As the author of the text, Rabbi Sonderling consulted with two other individuals, especially for dramatic advice: Leopold Jessner, who had been a respected theatrical director in Berlin and who was also interested in Judaica; and Borris Morros, an eastern European Jewish émigré who was then a music director at Paramount Studios.
Despite the childhood seder memories and emotions that ignited Toch's renewed interests in the Hagadda, he conceived this work as transcending the confines of Jewish history and experience to express a universal theme: the equal injustice of all human oppression throughout the world, the natural longing for freedom by all such victims, and the legitimacy of struggle for liberation in all such cases. That approach departed from the conventional Jewish view and purpose of both the Exodus narrative and the seder ritual. Indeed, Judaism has always repudiated human subjugation and injustice, and has celebrated human freedom and dignity. But from traditional Judaic perspectives, the Exodus story in itself is not the metaphor for universal liberation — nor for protest against human suffering, nor for human freedom. In the classic context and interpretation, it is about the unique redemption of the Israelites for a specific mission: to receive the Torah, to be given the opportunity to accept its governance, and thereby to become a "holy people" worthy of the fulfillment of the Divine promise — or, as Mohammed would later characterize the Jews (initially including Christians as well), "the people of the Book". In that conventional conception, the mandate annually to retell the story concerns Jewish national identity inextricably bound up with the theological mission. And in fact it is traditionally expected that each Jew at the seder regard himself as personally having gone out of Egypt that very night.
The alternative universal application of the Passover story, however, has also found adherents in the modern era among both Jewish and Christian circles. Indeed, tension between particular and universal conceptions of Judaism — especially vis-à-vis liturgy and theology — informed the history and development of the American Reform movement in the 19th century and into the 20th, with the universal view often prevailing. Toch's and Rabbi Sonderling's universalist approach thus could find legitimate resonance not only among the general public, but also in the sensibilities of a growing segment of American Jewry. Moreover, there were historical precedents in America for borrowing elements of the Exodus story for inspirational purposes. American blacks in the South, both during and after slavery, had sometimes identified with it and turned to it for hope in their yearnings for freedom, in sermons and songs — as exemplified in the well-known Negro spiritual "Go Down Moses". On a different plane, socialist- and leftist-oriented American Yiddishist groups often used aspects of the story for a transformed secular model in their utopian quest for political, social, and even economic liberation. And a century after slavery had ended in America, the story was still providing powerful emotional symbolism and analogies in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, including most famously some of Martin Luther King's celebrated speeches, with their biblical echoes and Mosaic references. In that sense, the path Toch and Rabbi Sonderling followed was manifestly contemporary.
For Toch, the circumstances surrounding the genesis of Cantata of the Bitter Herbs lent it special personal and emotional significance. His later reminiscences about its evocation of childhood Passover memories might seem like a faint echo of Heinrich Heine's account in The Rabbi of Bacharach : "The master of the house reads the Haggada with an old, traditional chant; repeatedly, the others at the table join him in chorus … Even those Jews who long since turned away from the faith of their fathers… are touched when the well-remembered chants of Passover reach their ears."
Does Toch's labor on this project and the pride he took in it suggest any measure of his private spiritual return or reconnection? His outward lifestyle and habits do not necessarily provide an answer, but we do know that this was the first time he chose to draw upon either Jewish heritage or Judaic identification for musical expression; and there followed three further works related to Jewish experience.
Following its premiere at Fairfax Temple, Cantata of the Bitter Herbs was performed at Los Angeles City College in 1941, conducted by Hugo Strelitzer and narrated by Dana Andrews. Among subsequent performances were one directed by Paul Salamunovich at the Los Angeles Ernst Toch Festival, a New York premiere at Town Hall in 1962 directed by Johannes Somary, and, in 2002, a joint presentation by the L.A. Zimriyah Chorale and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, conducted by Noreen Green.
Symphony No. 5: Jephta's Daughter
Toch's last years were filled with creative resurgence and renewed artistic energy, and during that brief time frame he wrote three symphonies. Only a few years before his death, in the course of searching for an opera subject, he became engrossed in the 1957 novel Jefta und seine Tochter (Jephta and his Daughter) by his fellow German émigré Lion Feuchtwanger. The novel is based on an incident in the biblical Book of Judges (11:30–40), and Toch settled on that story for his opera. But as his grandson later related, he became so driven by the project that his enthusiasm turned to impatience, and he was ultimately unable or unwilling to wait for his librettist to make a workable translation and text. He proceeded instead to create a purely symphonic programmatic work inspired by and based on the Jephta story — a "rhapsodic" tone poem. This became his one-movement fifth symphony, describing in abstract instrumental terms the unfolding of the biblical story of Jephta, its tragic conflicts, and the emotional impact of its dilemma.
The Book of Judges (shoftim) is so titled in reference to its accounts of a series of leaders of Israelite tribes, or groups of tribes, during the period after Joshua's death, during the military consolidation and completion of the conquests of the land of Canaan, but prior to the solidification of the institution of monarchy in ancient Israel. These men were not necessarily or exclusively "judges" in the modern judicial sense of arbiters, but rather military leaders and rulers in the defensive campaigns against foreign encroachment and attack.
The prevailing view among modern biblical scholars holds that Joshua 1–11 and Judges 1 provide two alternative accounts of the Israelite conquest of the land, and that the conquest probably occurred in a serial, tribe-by-tribe assault on different portions of the land, as suggested by the Book of Judges, rather than as a unified and mostly successful campaign under Joshua. The eminent scholar Yehezkel Kaufman placed the period of the Jephta story in a second wave of "freedom wars" during which the Israelites were engaged in defensive battles against periodic enemy resurgence and aggression following the initial conquest period. In the biblical account, Jephta was a "judge" for six years, during which time he was victorious over the Ammonites.
The Jephta story is introduced against a backdrop of the people having reverted to idolatry and then having removed the idols after Divine rebuke. The "illegitimate" son of Gilead and an unnamed harlot, Jephta was driven away by his father's other sons, and he became a warrior and a leader of unsavory elements in the land of Tob. Later, when a territorial dispute with the Ammonites arose out of the earlier Israelite conquest of Canaan and escalated into an invasion, the elders of Gilead, knowing of Jephta's warrior reputation, recalled him and asked him to become their chief (katzin) in repelling the Ammonites. Jephta agreed only on condition that after he had prevailed in the war against the Ammonites, he would remain their leader in peacetime as well.
Before engaging the Ammonites in battle, Jephta attempted to negotiate a diplomatic settlement, but he was rebuffed. He then made a vow to God that if He would deliver the Ammonites into his hands, he would demonstrate his gratitude by sacrificing as a burnt offering to God whatever was the first to emerge from his house upon his return. In a horribly ironic moment worthy of Greek tragedy and vaguely suggestive of Iphigenia, it was his own daughter — his only child — who was the first to come out of the house to greet him, and he felt nonetheless obliged to fulfill his sacred vow. The Bible relates that "he did as he had vowed"; that she was (or remained?) a virgin — i.e., that she never had a fulfilled life; and that she accepted her fate, asking only for two months to "mourn" the situation. It subsequently became a custom for Israelite women to commemorate the incident with a four-day mourning period during which they would chant dirges in memory of Jephta's daughter. Some modern scholars translate the applicable passage as reading "she became an example in Israel" rather than "it became a custom in Israel ", and some scholars interpret the annual gathering as one of celebration rather than mourning.
Apart from any possible historical bases, at least three principal issues or types of questions are generated by the story: 1) whether or not, according to the narrative and its author's intent, Jephta actually did kill his daughter in fulfillment of the vow; 2) if that is accepted as the intent of the story, what if anything is the significance of the outcome or the purpose of relating it; and 3) on an underlying level, apart from the daughter's life or death, what is the story about: Jephta's daughter or Jephta's vow? Human sacrifice or the matter of vows to God in general? And is the nature of either the daughter's death or the balance of her life ultimately relevant to the central point of the story?
Consideration of the first issue can itself pose a more basic problem on the surface: How could any interpretation allow for even the possibility of the daughter's physical sacrifice, regardless of a vow, inasmuch as human sacrifice under any conditions had been condemned and categorically forbidden in the Torah (the Law or Teaching), which was purportedly received by the Israelites in the biblical chronology well before their initial entrance into Canaan under Joshua? From either a historical or a literary-biblical perspective, is it at all possible that there could have been child sacrifice among Israelites at that stage without the perpetrator being judicially condemned and punished as a murderer? The answer may not be simple or automatic. True, the incident in Genesis concerning the binding of Isaac for sacrifice, known as the akedat yitzhak, where God ultimately stays Abraham's hand, is traditionally cited as having firmly established the blanket prohibition of child sacrifice and as illustrating its unacceptability in a Mosaic departure from pagan practice. But modern biblical scholarship has utilized linguistic studies to determine that sections of the Book of Judges may actually predate the writing of the akedat yitzhak story — that such parts of Judges (the "later" book) may therefore be older in their written form than the humash (the Five Books of Moses, which form the written Torah), and that there were in fact incidents of child sacrifice among ancient Israelites prior to the dissemination of the akedat yitzhak story. Thus at least the possibility of physical sacrifice in the Jephta account does remain for literary consideration.
As one would expect, postbiblical explicatory, exegetical, and higher critical literature from the Talmud to 20th century scholarship has encompassed numerous and varied positions and interpretations of the Jephta story — ranging from literary-critical to historical, from theological to moralistic approaches and methods, and resulting in positions spanning a spectrum from literal to purely allegorical or metaphorical readings. But even among those camps, past and present, that have espoused an actual physical sacrificial conclusion to the story (i.e., the daughter's immolation), that outcome generally has been treated as historically exceptional rather than as any indication of an acceptable norm, even at that early stage of ancient Israel.
The Aggadic literature (the Midrash and the parts of the Talmud concerned with legend and myth as explanatory devices, as opposed to legal issues) views Jephta in general as one of Israel's least worthy, least knowledgeable, and least astute judges of the period. Both the Talmud and the Midrash condemn him for making such an imprudent vow in the first place, as well as for carrying it out — in whatever form. The very form of that condemnation, of course, can be (and has been) interpreted as implying acceptance of physical sacrifice as the story's conclusion. Yet, how and in what form the vow was implemented — whether by actual death or as a non-lethal "sacrifice" of sorts — is not explicitly stated in those sources. But even if the physical sacrifice is assumed therein, two further significant points are stressed: 1) the illegitimacy and inapplicability of the vow itself, and therefore its nonbinding nature, since any vow of sacrifice by burnt offering even then could have had legal force only with reference to kosher animals (those fit for consumption according to the provisions in the Torah); and 2) the existence of a mechanism for annulling and voiding the vow by alternative payment of ransom to the Temple treasury, in which case the high priest, Pinchas, could have absolved Jephta from further obligation. The Midrash further proposes that because of Jephta's pride-driven perceptions of protocol vis-à-vis his own quasi-monarchial status, he was loath to seek absolution from Pinchas, whereas Pinchas felt it beneath his dignity and position to make the initial approach to someone so ignorant as Jephta — almost a classical case of temporal-religious rivalry. In that Midrash, both are thus held responsible for the daughter's sacrifice. And in the same interpretation, Jephta's chief sin was ignorance. One opinion in that discussion further holds that even monetary absolution would have been unnecessary, since the vow was ipso facto already void by virtue of its illegitimate nature.
Medieval commentators were also careful to point out that Jephta's vow was nonbinding precisely because, owing to its vague and confusing formulation, it allowed for just such a possible unintended and illegal result. Some (Ibn Ezra and the Radak, for example) determined that she was in fact not killed, although Nachmanides was critical of their denial. In a post-Talmudic alternative scenario now often accepted as one possible reading, Jephta spares his daughter's life and condemns her instead to remain forever celibate in an ascetic, consecrated existence — a "sacrifice" of a normal, fulfilled life. Support for that view is found in the reference (Judges 11:37) to her virginity, and the words "and she did not know a man" are interpreted to mean that she "remained a virgin" — a state that in that era would have been considered tantamount to a forfeited life.
Later, more radical biblical criticism sometimes viewed the story as an etiological narrative, conceived after the fact to assign an origin to the annual women's lamentation ritual. Other, more traditionally oriented scholars have continued to accept some degree of historicity for Jephta himself, while finding different origins for various parts of the story.
The prevailing modern interpretation, whose roots are still discernible in Talmudic as well as medieval comments, focuses on the danger of hasty vows and the consequences of such imprudence, rather than on the sacrifice itself. In his seminal study of the Jephta incident, David Marcus, while admitting his preference for the non-sacrificial conclusion, allows for both possibilities and objectively presents the arguments for each position. But he frames his entire consideration within a broader understanding of the story as essentially not about the sacrifice, but about the vow and its rashness. In a perceptive response to the ambiguity of the biblical wording, he posits the suggestion that the very ambiguity concerning the conclusion may well have been a deliberate literary or rhetorical narrative device.
The Jephta story has intrigued many Christian as well as Jewish authors, playwrights, poets, painters, artisans, tapestry makers, and composers from the late 17th century on. The many literary works include a Yiddish play by Sholem Asch (Yiftakhs tokhter, 1914), a Yiddish novel by Saul Saphire (Yiftakh un zein tokhter, 1937), and Ludwig Robert's Die Tochter Jephtas (1813), the first German production of a stage play by a Jew.
In the musical realm there have been more than one hundred works based on the Jephta theme — including cantatas, oratorios, operas, choral pieces, instrumental portrayals, and arts songs. The most widely familiar treatment is probably Handel's oratorio Jephtha (1752), on a libretto by Thomas Morell, who also collaborated with Handel on the oratorios Joshua (1748) and Judas Maccabaeus (1747), among others. Handel's Jephtha concludes with an angel, not a high priest, adjudicating the dilemma and declaring that Jephta's daughter is to be "dedicated to God" not by death, but by remaining in a virgin state — perhaps superimposing a Christian perspective.
Jephta's Gelübde (Jephta's Vow, 1812) was the first opera by the renowned German-Jewish composer Giacomo [Jacob Leibmann Beer] Meyerbeer, who later became one of the reigning composers at the Paris Opera and is today best known for his large-scale French operas of the mid-19th century. Jephta's Gelübde was a one-act, three-scene collaboration with librettist/playwright Alois [Aloys] Schreiber, who gave the story the basically "happy" conclusion that the Talmud suggests could have been an alternative outcome had Jephta and Pinchas acted differently: the high priest releases Jephta from his vow. Produced in Munich, this work was considered by some more oratorio than opera, and it remains in manuscript.
Other well-known composers who have addressed the Jephta story include Robert Schumann, Lazare Saminsky, Vitali, Feruccio Busoni, Giovanni Paisiello, Mordecai Seter, Cimarosa, and Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, whose Bat yiftah is considered the first opera to have been composed in Palestine. Many less widely known and even obscure composers fill out the list.
Toch never did write his intended opera on the Jephta story, but he completed the fifth symphony in 1963. It was premiered the following year in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. One inventive feature involves its use of four solo violins in prominent solo passages, which increase at one point to six. Brief lyrical sections alternate effectively with more brisk dramatic ones, and there is an overall theatrical sense. Among the critics who reviewed the premiere, two of them independently discerned Mahler's influence in various elements of this symphony.
When queried about the symphony's formal structure, Toch replied that he could not account for it: "The form to be achieved is inherent in the musical substance, following the law of its motive intent and becoming identical with it."
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TOCH: Cantata of the Bitter Herbs / Jephta