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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLINSKI: From the World of My Father / Shofar Service / Symphonic Visions for Orchestra
Herman Berlinski (1910–2001)
From the World of My Father • Shofar Service
The Burning Bush • Symphony Visions for Orchestra
The Jewish creative orientation of composer and organist Herman Berlinski (1910–2001) represents a fertile synthesis. His Jewish roots and family traditions were fundamentally eastern European, but he also acquired and adopted the cultural perspectives—and especially musical affinities—of German Jewry; his Paris studies added 20th-century French as well as international influences; and eventually he emerged as a thoroughly American composer and an ardent advocate of artistic innovations in the American Synagogue.
Berlinski was born in Leipzig to parents who, in the wake of the dangers of backlash following the 1905 Revolution in Russia, had emigrated from the highly developed Jewish community in Lódź (then Russian Poland). He demonstrated natural musical gifts at an early age and at sixteen entered the Leipzig Conservatory—primarily as a piano student, with additional studies in theory and composition. In 1918, when an independent Polish Republic was declared following the First World War, his father chose to declare that he and his family were Polish citizens (residing in Germany) rather than accepting an official passport classification as "stateless," since actual full German citizenship was difficult to obtain and involved a complicated process. The family remained in Leipzig until the installation of the National Socialist regime, which barred Jewish musicians from participation or employment in musical institutions outside the Jewish community.
Berlinski left Germany in 1933, easily able to secure an exit permit with his Polish passport. He went initially to Lódź, where he had many relatives and where he did some concertizing. Not prepared to accept Polish army service, however, he left shortly afterward for Paris. There he studied at the prestigious École Normale de Musique: composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, teacher of many of the 20th century's most important composers; and piano with the subsequently infamous Nazi sympathizer and collaborator, world-renowned pianist Alfred Cortot. Berlinski supported himself by directing, arranging, and sometimes composing incidental music for productions of an émigré Yiddish art theater, known then as PIAT (Paris Jewish Avant-Garde Theatre). This troupe in effect comprised the survivors of the well-known Yiddish art theater in Vilna, whose repertoire ranged from Shalom Aleichem and Peretz to classic Russian plays in Yiddish. These were literary plays, unrelated to the musical Yiddish theater in America—the so-called Second Avenue variety—or to its Romanian foundations in the operettas of Goldfaden. Nonetheless, it was common to include appropriate incidental music and even to superimpose or incorporate some songs in those productions. For Berlinski, this was not only an artistic but a "human experience," because it brought him into contact with so many Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews then stranded in France—a profound personal episode that was later to find reflection and expression in some of his American works.
Berlinski found his studies with Boulanger less than fulfilling. Unlike many of her other American pupils (or so he felt), he was not seeking to shed ethnic boundaries, as perceived limitations, in favor of the more universal approach and technique of the so-called international school. Moreover, he found her unable to relate to his artistic preoccupations with things Jewish. After two years he parted ways with her and entered the Schola Cantorum, where the respected Sephardi synagogue composer and music director Leon Algazi actually taught a course on Jewish music (in a fundamentally Roman Catholic religious musical environment). Berlinski later recalled that he was received "with open arms" by the French composer Daniel-Lesur and his circle, La Jeune France, which included Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen—a deeply and mystically religious Christian whose faith informs many of his major works—understood, along with others in that group, Berlinski's natural inclination to draw upon his Judaism. Berlinski later credited Messiaen with having encouraged him personally to use the musical language of his traditions, as fellow composers in that circle made use of Gregorian chant.
In 1934–35 Berlinski applied for French citizenship, which carried with it the obligation of military service in the French Foreign Legion. Though he never did obtain his citizenship, he later recalled with pride his participation at the Belgian border when German army units broke through; and he always took great satisfaction in being "one of the few Jews with the opportunity to have a machine gun in my hand and shoot at them."
After France's surrender to Germany and the establishment of the Vichy government, Berlinski determined to leave while he (and his wife) still could, and to head for America. His father had gone there earlier, and he also had a number of relatives who had emigrated directly from Lódź and were residing in New Jersey. In this he was assisted by a man named Varian Fry ("the American Schindler"), who had come voluntarily to France to facilitate the rescue and emigration of stranded European intellectuals.
As both a German native and a veteran French Legionnaire who had fought against Germany, Berlinski was technically ineligible for an exit visa, since the cooperating French authorities were required to hand over all such individuals to the Germans. His illegally "purchased" exit visa still required an approval stamp. He obtained that only because the French official did not realize that Lipsk, shown as his birthplace on his passport, was simply the Polish translation for Leipzig, and thus assumed incorrectly that Berlinski had been born in Poland rather than Germany. There was still the problem, however, that Poland was occupied by Germany as well. Fry helped him invent a Russian identity, which finally qualified him for exit, since the Soviet Union was still technically neutral as a result of the infamous but soon-to-be-violated nonaggression pact. He left France and arrived in the United States only two weeks before the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Berlinski's first fruitful contact in New York was Moshe Rudinov, cantor of the nationally prestigious Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El. Rudinov introduced him to the small but intensely committed coterie of Jewish music intellectuals, the Jewish Music Forum, and he soon became well acquainted with the leading personalities of that society, such as Lazar Weiner, Joseph Yasser, Abraham Wolf Binder, and Lazare Saminsky. Always on the lookout for Jewish-related pieces for its intimate recital events, the Forum programmed the only full piece that Berlinski had saved from his French period, a flute and piano sonata on Jewish themes. On the same program that evening, Leonard Bernstein offered a piano preview of his Jeremiah Symphony.
Berlinski taught piano privately until Yasser, the acclaimed musicologist who was also a synagogue organist, suggested that he study organ and offered to teach him. Thus Berlinski, soon to establish an international reputation as a classical organist, began his study of the instrument as late as 1951. He had had a fascination with the organ since his Leipzig student days, but its study was not part of the curriculum and was generally learned within the Church. In New York he eventually became a virtuoso performer and an active member of the American Guild of Organists.
In 1954, Lazare Saminsky, music director at Temple Emanu-El, engaged Berlinski as an additional organist and became his mentor, especially with regard to particular organ techniques for synagogue services and for accompanying a cantor. In 1955 Berlinski gave his first organ recital at Emanu-El, and during his tenure there he continued to compose extensively for various media, including choral and other liturgical works, especially addressing organ music.
Berlinski commenced graduate studies in Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early 1950s, where he delved into serious musicological investigations of ancient Jewish liturgical origins and practices, biblical cantillation, and traditional Jewish prayer modes with Joseph Yasser, Johanna Spector, Solomon Rosowsky, and Max Wohlberg. From these guiding spirits he acquired a solid appreciation for the cantorial traditions and their modal foundations, important inspirations for his future compositions. His primary composition mentor at the seminary was Hugo Weisgall, the esteemed American composer and chairman of the faculty, under whose guidance he completed his master's degree in composition—after abandoning his initial effort at a historical thesis on rabbinical inhibitions vis-à-vis music. He then earned the seminary's first doctoral degree in composition, also with Weisgall, with a dissertation entitled Kiddush hashem—a large choral orchestral work that has never been performed in its entirety. Much of its material, however, was later reworked and used in Berlinski's Litanies for the Persecuted, one of his best-known works.
In 1959, after Saminsky death, Arthur Wolfson, the cantor of Emanu-El, also assumed the tasks and responsibilities of music director. Meanwhile, by 1963, Berlinski could not resist the invitation to become music director of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, also one of America's oldest and most prestigious Reform temples, which had already been exposed to high musical standards under Max Helfman's direction for the High Holy Day services. Its leader, Rabbi Gerstenfeld, wanted it to become a center for the finest sacred music in Washington, D.C., on a par with the city's most prominent churches, and he assured Berlinski a virtually free hand. Indeed, Berlinski quickly succeeded in making that synagogue a showcase for Jewish liturgical music creativity, and it became known nationally throughout the Reform movement for its musical sophistication and its adventurous but nonetheless diverse music. Services were even occasionally reviewed by music critics from the general press, and eventually Berlinski was given the highly unusual title Minister of Music. At the same time, he garnered an international reputation as the foremost interpreter, as well as composer, of Jewish organ music, and he began giving organ recitals throughout Europe and America. After his retirement, he founded his own concert chorus, Shir Chadash, which became recognized for its programming of historical and contemporary Jewish music at annual concerts at the Washington National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center. Its annual Hanukka concert was supported by the city and the Kennedy Center, and its concerts of High Holy Day music, given each year between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, were geared to the non-Jewish general community and well attended. Both became important annual events on Washington's cultural calendar, but they ceased when Berlinski could no longer prepare and direct them.
Berlinski was a prolific composer. His nonliturgical concert opera, in addition to the three such works presented here, include concerti, song cycles, chamber works, a violin sonata (Le Violon de Chagall, after the famous Jewish painter), oratorios and various dramatic works, a dozen organ sinfonias as well as smaller organ pieces, and other symphonic music. But in many ways closest to his heart was his Avodat Shabbat, an elaborate setting of the complete Reform Sabbath eve liturgy for tenor cantor solo, large chorus, and full symphony orchestra. Often considered his magnum opus (by others as well as himself), the work was commissioned by Cantor David Putterman for the annual service of new music at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue in 1958. Its subsequently orchestrated version was premiered in 1963 at Lincoln Center in New York and was recorded for the Milken Archive in Berlin in 2000. His liturgical catalogue also includes numerous individual prayer settings, service excerpts, and organ pieces for the synagogue—many of which have been recorded by the Milken Archive as well.
Berlinski's Etz hayyim (Tree of Life), originally The Beadle of Prague, which he abandoned and rewrote, was commissioned by Project Judaica to mark the opening of the Smithsonian Institution's The Precious Legacy, an exhibition of treasures from the Prague Jewish Museum that toured North America from 1983 to 1986. In 1993, Union Theological Seminary in New York, the nation's leading pan-denominational liberal Protestant Christian institution, commissioned him—along with Robert Helmschrott, the Roman Catholic composer from Munich, and the Protestant Heinz Werner Zimmermann of Frankfurt—to compose Bonhoeffer Triptych. This work was conceived to honor the German Evangelical (Lutheran) pastor and Resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Germans in 1945 for his Resistance activities and humanitarian efforts. It has been performed in Germany, America, Israel, and South Africa.
Berlinski's oratorio Job was commissioned for the groundbreaking ceremony of the rebuilding of Dresden's main synagogue, in 1988, and was performed by the Dresden State Opera Orchestra and Chamber Chorus. That same year, his Mazkir n'shamot (In Remembrance of the Soul), commissioned by the Library of Congress for a concert commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Reichskristallnacht, was premiered at the Library's Coolidge Auditorium. His twelfth organ sinfonia, Die heiligen Zehn Gebote (The Sacred Ten Sinaitic Pronouncements [commandments]), for tenor, baritone, two trumpets, narrator, percussion, chorus, celesta, and organ, was first performed in October 2000 at Leipzig's Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) as part of an entire concert devoted to Berlinski's music, and was repeated a month later in Munich.
At the time of his death, Berlinski was working on a large-scale composition based on the High Holy Day liturgy and partly based on reworked sections of his earlier cantata Days of Awe. He did not live to complete it. But only a few months before he passed away, his chamber work for baritone, mezzo-soprano, double bass, and piano, Celan—inspired by the life and work of the great French-Romanian Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan—was given its premiere at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. His last completed works are a quintet for clarinet and strings, and Psalm 130 for solo voice, chorus, and organ, commissioned by the Washington National Cathedral.
Among Berlinski's many other important works are the following: Litany of Solomon ben Aaron, a tribute to Jewish martyrdom; Yizkor, a memorial service; Sh'virat hakkelim, which quotes from Russian synagogue music; The Death of Rachel; and a Psalm of Unity. Especially notable among his other organ sinfonias are two that are also scored for voices: David and Goliath and The Glass Bead Game.
Berlinski's music is not confined exclusively to overt Jewish themes. However, he always insisted that the imprint of his Jewish experience was inextricable from anything he wrote: "I don't think I can write a piece of music, no matter what I do and what I will try, that does not have the stamp of my Jewish existence." Indeed, inspiration from Judaic themes, biblical cantillation as well as narratives, liturgy, Jewish history, and the Hebrew language itself all permeate his aggregate output on one level or another. He viewed Judaism not only as religion—though that played a major part for him—but also as a civilization, along the lines of Mordecai Kaplan's ideas. He felt that those extramusical sources helped him focus his musical conceptions.
From his classical training and from his special devotion to the organ, Berlinski always thought naturally in polyphonic terms. He correctly perceived Jewish sacred music as historically—and therefore fundamentally in origin—nonpolyphonic, especially in its early roots of biblical cantillation and psalmody. Finding ways to incorporate these elements within polyphonic frameworks was therefore his self-imposed challenge. He often credited German composer Max Reger with having exerted a profound influence on his own technique, particularly with regard to polyphony. Yet his synagogue works, no matter how bold or progressive the harmonic language or general approach, are all skillfully crafted around nuclei of traditional liturgical melos. And despite his penchant for a kind of post-Bartók chromaticism, the flowing freedom as well as modality of cantorial chant is usually discernible.
For Berlinski, any nontonal music and any polyphony—whether tonal, pantonal, or nontonal—had to derive from a homophonic line, from what he called his "inner voice" that he could sing first. His immersion in the study of Ashkenazi cantorial tradition with Cantor Max Wohlberg at the Jewish Theological Seminary—of sacred tunes emanating from the Middle Ages, modal chants, and even older biblical intonations—impregnated both his own musical thinking and much of the melodic material he invented. "I cannot think of a melody [of mine]," he proclaimed a year before his ninetieth birthday, "that does not, in one way or another, reflect this osmosis and absorption of Jewish material." His embracive artistic and stylistic credos are summed up in the continuation of his ruminations during that interview.
Consonance and dissonance are the two poles of a bipolar system that, together, amount to a musical idiom for me. That is the language…. I consider dissonance, still, as an expression of inner tension. And you can go from dissonance to dissonance and intensify the density of the dissonant writing. But there is no work of mine where a consonance in the solution does not play a very important role…. It is not a question of dissonant or not, or of tonal or nontonal: they are both elements. Tonality and atonality do not, either one, go without the other. Both elements, for me, must work together.
Berlinski's many honors include a MacDowell fellowship (1958), the Peabody Waite Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1984), the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Guild of Organists (1995), and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit from the president of the Federal Republic of Germany (2001).
FROM THE WORLD OF MY FATHER
From the World of My Father is Berlinski's reconstruction from memory of some of the music he wrote and directed for PIAT, the émigré Yiddish theatrical troupe in Paris between 1933 and 1940, during his sojourn there as a refugee. He was unable to retrieve any of those scores prior to his departure for the United States, and they are presumed to be lost—although there is still the possibility that some may be found in Paris archives. After settling in America, he was able to fashion his recollections of the melodic material into this suite (which he titled before the publication of Irving Howe's well-known book of nearly the same name).
In 1938, while still in Paris, Berlinski learned of the death of his father, who, together with the actors and actresses of the PIAT, had been his last remaining personal links to the world of eastern European Jewish life, language, and lore. As an immigrant from Poland to Germany, his father had been careful to transmit to his children some of the cultural heritage from eastern Europe—even as they acculturated to a very different environment and set of sensibilities in Leipzig. The elder Berlinski also sought to ensure that his children, even though he wanted them to become "modern German Jews," would still have some familiarity with the Yiddish language, and he had engaged a tutor for that purpose.
Berlinski now determined to write a piece that would evoke the images—dances, laments, celebrations, piety, struggles and joys of daily life, and mysteries—of that world from which his father (and mother) had come in principle and which their parents and grandparents had known even more intimately. (His parents had actually come from the cosmopolitan and cultured Jewish community in Lódź, in what was Russian Poland, and not from the unwesternized outlying regions of the empire.) It was a world that he knew had declined considerably after the First World War on its path toward dilution, with the inroads of modernity and—in large areas of the former Czarist Empire—as a result of the Soviet regime. Although he could not have known it at the time, it was a world doomed to imminent and complete destruction within the next several years.
Around the same time, Berlinski was introduced by one of his teachers, Daniel-Lesur, to the inventor of the ondes martenot, an early electronic wave instrument. As it happened, Daniel-Lesur's mother was a virtuoso performer on the instrument, and Berlinski decided to provide a role for her in his new piece. He thus scored the initial incarnation of the music that later became From the World of My Father. In Paris it was titled Hatzot [Chazoth], for string quartet and ondes martenot—in which form it received its premiere in 1938 at the Salle Erard in Paris as a theatrical piece. In America he recycled the music as he remembered it into three versions, which, although containing basically the same music, exist as three suites. The one here, Suite no. 1, is scored for orchestra; the others are scored for clarinet solo and chamber orchestra and for cello and chamber orchestra. In addition, he fashioned some of these musical recollections from his Paris days into a sonata for flute and piano, and as a solo organ piece that received considerable attention.
By the time Berlinski scored the present orchestral version, he did so with the Holocaust and its destruction of European Jewry in mind. "The Holocaust did [now] put its imprint on virtually every note of this [American incarnation of the] work," he wrote many years later. "The wedding dances became mayofes dances [forced servile Jewish entertainment, often mocking sacred songs with degrading dances for Polish gentry in the 17th and 18th centuries and symbolizing Jewish servility and subjugation—so named after a Sabbath eve table song, ma yafit, which for some reason gained special popularity in Poland]. The so-called freilekh [a joyous dance for celebrations among eastern European Jewry] became the dance of the dispossessed, and the meditative niggun [a spiritual, usually wordless melody among Hassidim] evolved into the eternal Jewish quest in which we, like Job, wrestle with Satan and even with God for the meaning of suffering."
From the World of My Father displays a side of Berlinski's musical persona not generally associated with his work as a whole. Its transparently conservative, conventionally melodic, and nostalgic perspectives may even surprise those familiar only with the later works that brought him his major recognition. It draws liberally on perceived sounds, inflections, modalities, and idioms of the melos associated in popular imagination with prewar eastern European Jewish life among the Yiddish-speaking populace. These are not, of course, musical evocations of life among the minority of middle-class Jews in sophisticated urban environments in east Central and eastern Europe, nor of the urbanized Yiddish-speaking Jewish proletariat in many cities, but of the masses in the smaller and even medium-sized towns and villages throughout vast regions of what had been, prior to the First World War, the Czarist and Hapsburg empires. Large numbers of Jews in those areas still adhered, even by the 1930s, to folkways of the previous century that in much Yiddish literature are presented as a Jewish fantasy world replete with age-old superstitions, but it was also a world of much Jewish learning, mystical cults, and sincere piety.
Overall, the musical depictions in this work are romantic and unabashedly sentimental, yet accomplished with skillful simplicity and never banal. Much of the melodic material derives from tunes that the actors and actresses of the PIAT had sung for Berlinski in Paris, and which he had assimilated into a musical idiom for incidental music for their productions to enhance both tragic and comic theatrical scenes. All four movements exude deeply felt emotion in their straightforward lines and effective counterpoint. "This was the music of my father's generation," Berlinski wrote about the work decades after its completion, "now dedicated to the actors and actresses of the PIAT—almost all of them victims of the Holocaust. It will remain with me the rest of my life—for every sound in it evokes in me a name, a face, a smile, or a lament. If that is sentimental, so be it!"
Although its most obvious reference point for American Jewry concerns Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), the biblical trumpet/clarion-like wind instrument known as the shofar, usually made from a ram's horn, should be defined more generically as a ritual horn of ancient Israel. It was employed on many occasions in Jewish antiquity. Those included proclamations of the Jubilee Year, military purposes, numerous religious ceremonies not restricted to Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, warnings of approaching danger, summoning the people for fast days, announcements of the advent of peace, proclamations of the reign of a new king, and the signaling of many other public events. The shofar may be the oldest surviving wind instrument used continuously in its original form among the Jewish people. Because of that, it is the only biblically mentioned musical instrument (wind or other) whose identity is known with certainty. In addition to objective historical accounts and other evidence, there are earlier references: Scripture, for example, describes the revelation at Sinai as introduced by the shofar (Exodus 19:16), causing the people to tremble; and there is ample additional biblical testimony to the variety of its uses.
Postexilic and especially modern Jewry's chief acquaintance with the shofar, however, derives from its central ceremonial position in the Rosh Hashana morning service: the rabbinic requirement, which carries the force of Scriptural commandment, that all Jews "listen to the sound of the shofar" on Rosh Hashana, and its prescribed number and types of intonations or "blasts" at specific points in the service. As the single most prominent feature in Rosh Hashana observance, even the instrument's image has become a visual symbol for the Jewish New Year and its seasonal approach.
A shofar can be made from the horn of any legally permitted, i.e., "kosher," animal, except for an ox or a cow—because of the association with the golden calf incident in the Bible. The ram's horn, however, is preferred for Rosh Hashana because of the connection with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (akedat yitzhak) and Abraham's substitution of a ram for the sacrifice—the assigned Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana and the theme of an important part of its liturgy. The shofar blasts are partly a recollection of that patriarchal demonstration of faith and obedience.
The shofar sounds on Rosh Hashana also have been described as recalling those at Mount Sinai, with the hoped-for dual effect of reminding the Jewish people of the obligation undertaken then and of jolting them now, by the shofar's strident sounds, to resolves of self-review and moral rehabilitation. Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), the great medieval Jewish philosopher and commentator, interpreted the shofar sounds on Rosh Hashana as proclaiming, "You who are asleep, awake! Search your deeds and repent. Examine your souls, you who indulge all during the year in trifles. Amend your ways and let each one abandon his evil course and purpose."
The shofar has yet another, but related, symbolism in the service. God's sovereignty forms one of the principal themes of the Rosh Hashana liturgy, and the shofar blasts pertain to that as well: to the annual renewal of the people's acknowledgment and confirmation of that sovereignty—appropriately, on the anniversary of creation. Additional justifications and rationales for the shofar's connection to Rosh Hashana were offered as early as the 10th century by Rav Saadia Gaon: its reminder of prophetic warnings and exhortations; its use as a battle alarm in ancient Judea; its announcement of the "day of judgment," another name for the Jewish New Year and one of its central themes; its inspiration of awe and reverence as well as hope for ultimate redemption and national restoration; and its identification with the concept of t'hiyat hametim, revival of the dead.
The Torah itself does not specify the shofar unmistakably as the instrument for the prescribed trumpet-like blasts in the Rosh Hashana ritual (nor does the term rosh hashana for "New Year" or its holy convocation actually appear in the Torah; the term appears only once in the Bible, in Ezekiel 40:1, in another connection). However, rabbinic tradition determined this instrument to be the shofar, as implied in Numbers 29:1 ("day of t'ru'a") and Leviticus 23:24 ("memorial of t'ru'a"), the term t'ru'a referring to one of the specific motivic trumpet-like articulations.
On Rosh Hashana the sounding or blowing of the shofar begins with short, plaintive call patterns and ends with a triumphant optimistic motif. The basic calls consist of three patterns, mostly outlining the interval of a fifth: (1) the ordinary and short t'ki'a, which ends abruptly; (2) the broken or detached sh'varim, with its three repeated quasi-staccato motives; and (3) the t'ru'a, a succession of rapidly repeated blasts on the same approximated pitch, equal to three sh'varim and preceded by a pickup or appoggiatura a fifth below. In the Rosh Hashana ritual these calls are arranged in various combinations: a) t'ki'a, sh'varim, t'ru'a, t'ki'a; b) t'ki'a, sh'varim, t'ki'a; c) t'ki'a, t'ru'a, t'ki'a—and in the final rendition of the series, a t'ki'a g'dola, the prolonged final t'ki'a generally sustained to the physical capacity of the blower.
Although some established practices provide for additional shofar soundings, the basic shofar ritual occurs at two principal places in the standard traditional Rosh Hashana liturgy, in the following order:
1. Within shaharit (the morning service), just before the conclusion of the Torah service (biblical readings) and prior to the return of the scrolls to the ark. This initial shofar ceremony, which may be considered a subsection of the larger Rosh Hashana morning service, is known as t'ki'ot m'yushav, and many traditional prayerbooks also refer to it in English simply as the "shofar service."
2. In the mussaf service (the additional liturgy that proceeds directly from shaharit on Sabbaths, holydays, and each new moon observance) at three consecutive points, where the shofar sounding each time follows a series of biblical citations that addresses one of the several central conceptual-theological themes of Rosh Hashana. Each of these three series of biblical verses is surrounded by a prologue and a postludal prayer, concluding with a related, thematically specific b'rakha (plural, b'rakhot)—the generic term for an anaphoric prayer formula commencing with the phrase barukh ata adonai (You are worshipped, Lord) and proclaiming to God that He is to be worshipped for a particular attribute or for having provided a particular commandment. (Notwithstanding its common but misleading translation as "blessing," or, only a bit less inaccurate, as "benediction," the term b'rakha has no acceptable English equivalent.) A shofar sounding proceeds after the pronouncement of each of those three b'rakhot. The liturgical subdivisions formed by these three sets of biblical verses and their corresponding b'rakhot and shofar soundings are known respectively as malkhuyyot ([verses of] divine sovereignty), zikhronot ([verses of] historical remembrance), and shofarot ([verses pertaining to] trumpet-like or shofar sounds in connection with their heralding divine revelation and fulfillment of the divine promise for messianic ultimate redemption and liberation). Each of these three related shofar soundings within the mussaf service therefore relates to one of those themes.
There are variations among particular traditions, but the text of the initial t'ki'ot m'yushav ceremony has become more or less crystallized over the centuries. It consists of two b'rakhot immediately preceding the series of shofar calls and blasts. The first b'rakha here reinforces the rabbinic requirement to "hear the voice of the shofar." The second one is a more general expression of worship of God for having permitted the people to live to witness and partake of a joyous occasion (she'he'heyanu, v'ki'y'manu, v'higi'anu …). (Neither b'rakha is repeated in the second, mussaf shofar ritual.) This initial shofar ceremony is also surrounded by recitations of Psalm verses: introductory verses from Psalm 47; Psalm 118:5 (min hametzar … —"Out of the depths I called upon the Lord …"); six additional selected verses; and, at the conclusion of the ceremony, following the t'ki'a g'dola shofar blast, a selection of verses that varies among rites but always includes Psalm 89:16 ("Happy is the people that knows the sound of the shofar [trumpet blast] …"
For the standard classical Reform service of Berlinski's day, the Union Prayerbook—which basically eliminated the mussaf (and most of its distinct liturgy) as a separate additional service or section—incorporated an abbreviated and modified combination of those two principal traditional shofar rituals (shaharit and mussaf occurrences), combining some of the two liturgical functions as well. The two b'rakhot of the t'ki'ot m'yushav are retained (though not included in Berlinski's setting); but the Psalm verses, partly out of theological considerations, are unrelated to those of the traditional t'ki'ot m'yushav and contain only short references to some of the biblical citations preceding the shofar soundings in the traditional mussaf—and in the Union Prayerbook they appear only in English. The shofar calls themselves are also reduced—from the original thirty, in the t'ki'ot m'yushav alone, to ten, providing the intended flavor without being bound by legal prescriptions. This is the version upon which Berlinski built his composition.
Like most of his liturgical music, Berlinski's Shofar Service was created for the Reform format. Therefore, in his score he also followed the somewhat misleading labels in the Union Prayerbook that designate its three abbreviated sets of shofar calls as malkhuyyot, zikhronot, and shofarot, after those liturgical sections in the traditional Rosh Hashana mussaf liturgy. Yet in format and substance those mussaf elements are really not self-contained parts of the Union Prayerbook's distillation. True, the added English readings for the rabbi or other officiant (and some for responsorial English reading with the congregation), incorporated into the Union Prayerbook text for this single abridged shofar ceremony, do make some deliberately vague references to concepts or themes derived from those three parts of the traditional Rosh Hashana mussaf. But these words are extracted and represented in more universal terms, eliminating their core particularistic allusions to Jewish nationhood, to any special relationship between God and the Jewish people as the beneficiary of the covenants, or, especially, to the role of the shofar in heralding redemption in messianic nationalistic terms of a return to Zion or restoration of national sovereignty. Therefore, the superimposed malkhuyyot, zikhronot, and shofarot labels notwithstanding, neither the shofar element of the service in the Union Prayerbook nor Berlinski's composition is substantively related to those mussaf liturgies.
Traditionally, each shofar call is announced or "prompted" by a spoken voice only roughly approximating two or three pitches—almost akin to a sprechstimme, but not formally "sung"; and this is more often than not done by a lay reader. (The original purpose of these "prompts" for each shofar call was simply to preclude mistakes.) Berlinski's entire piece is, however, a highly stylized artistic setting of the shofar service. He therefore followed the more common Reform practice (especially of that time) on calling for a trained voice (usually the cantor in most Reform synagogues then) to sing those announcements (t'ki'a, etc.) as solo passages in a sustained, westernized metrical framework over an organ pedal. In most Reform congregations of that period, traditional-sounding layman's calls would have come across as unprofessional and undignified. Nor would that have fitted into so sophisticated a musical conception as Berlinski's composition.
On the other hand, Berlinski deliberately designed his piece in order to reintroduce the authentic shofar to many Reform congregations for whom it may have been a new experience; and he specifically employed the traditional shofar calls, even if he recast them within his more classical stylization. That in itself could have been seen as a bit adventurous in 1964, although the trend in recent years among Reform congregations has been to return to some of the traditional elements of the shofar ceremony. At one time, however, many (but by no means all) Reform congregations had long since dispensed with the actual shofar. They perceived it as primitive sounding, raucous, informal, antiquated, and therefore inherently inappropriate to their religious aesthetics; notwithstanding its historical role in the synagogue, it would have been viewed as out of character in a modern, dignified American worship service. In this they were following in the footsteps of some of the early extreme Reform German services dating to the early 19th century. Long before Berlinski's composition, many American Reform congregations simply substituted a modern trumpet. Others had a trumpet mouthpiece built into a real or simulated ram's horn, amounting essentially to a bugle or valveless trumpet in shofar camouflage, while still others relied altogether on the organ's trumpet stop. Berlinski's work stands as a groundbreaking innovation in its skillful juxtaposition of old and contemporary elements—the shofar and modern instruments, Hebrew and English, age-old musical motives and original composition. It gives one the feeling of soaring to imaginary heights, with the two trumpets vying for primacy and then resolving peacefully with the choir. Moreover, apart from its obvious artistic value, it did find substantial acceptance in Reform Rosh Hashana services during the 1960s and 1970s, especially among those congregations with sophisticated music programs and the necessary resources. And despite a return to more basic tradition in some Reform congregations since then, the piece is still heard as part of the Rosh Hashana repertoire in many synagogues at the beginning of the 21st century.
The articulation patterns for the sounding of the shofar are derived historically (viz., in the Talmud) from those specified in the Torah for the hatzotzrot. Hatzotzrot refers there to a different, specifically metallic trumpet-like instrument, which was sounded in antiquity on various occasions—including holy days, when they were sounded in pairs. Some organologists consider the hatzotzra (sing. for hatzotzrot) a forerunner of the modern brass trumpet.
Berlinski's juxtaposition of two modern trumpets against an authentic shofar was both ingenious and creatively reflective of antiquity. The Mishna refers to sounds of the shofar being augmented by "two hatzotzrot" in the Temple on Rosh Hashana. The derivation of that practice has been ascribed to the coronation ritual of Israelite kings. In the Rosh Hashana Temple ritual, it thus related to one of that holy day's central themes: God's kingship. In the context of sociopolitical history, it has also been proposed that the combination of instruments represented a compromise in what was a centuries-old struggle between the priestly and popular classes, on the grounds that the earliest shofar uses were a function mostly of the populace and its folkways, whereas the hatzotzrot were used almost exclusively by the priests as an aristocratic displacement of the popular instrument.
The Mishnaic reference to that mixed instrumental ensemble, however, describes not the ordinary shofar used for nonreligious purposes, but one "overlaid with gold" for Rosh Hashana (and silver for public fast days). After the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., the hatzotzrot were no longer part of the Rosh Hashana ritual, which thereafter included only the shofar.
Berlinski thus drew upon two related historical aspects of the ancient Temple Rosh Hashana ritual: the precedent of the shofar in conjunction with metallic trumpet-like instruments, and, poetically, the specially adorned shofar. As he characterized his approach, "I wrote a piece for a shofar overlaid with—that is, surrounded by—brass!"
THE BURNING BUSH
In 1956 Berlinski was commissioned by Dr. Robert S. Baker, the distinguished organist at New York's Temple Emanu-El, to write a work expressly for its Casavant organ, which was under major renovation at the time.
Baker had taught organ since 1945 (and later became dean) at the School of Sacred Music at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He supervised the rebuilding of Temple Emanu-El's organ, and it was he who proposed the expensive addition of two ranks of horizontal heralding trumpet stops. In the face of some resistance there, he enlisted Berlinski's aid in convincing the congregation's board concerning the wisdom of this addition. Berlinski himself needed no persuasion to endorse Baker's proposal. He connected that sound in his musical imagination with the trumpet-like instruments mentioned in the Bible, and he believed the new organ stops could constitute a modern approximation. He explained to the board members that such timbres were altogether necessary to the sound of a specifically "Jewish organ"—viz., one intended for a Jewish service—and that it was not sufficient to rely for "trumpet sounds" upon the shofar-type stop that the organ already had.
In light of their success in prevailing over the board's (and initially the rabbi's) reservations, Baker thought it appropriate to inaugurate the rebuilt instrument with a piece that would exploit the new stops and would illustrate the new organ's potential for power and drama. The result was Berlinski's The Burning Bush, a rhapsodic virtuoso work that sparked the birth of his large corpus of concert organ works.
The biblical incident on which this work is based, and from which Berlinski drew his inspiration, concerns the episode in Exodus 3 wherein God appoints Moses—over his initial diffidence and fear of inadequacy—to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage and to the land that will be their own as a nation. In that account, the angel, or messenger, of God appears to Moses as a voice emanating from a bush engulfed in flames, which nonetheless remains unburnt, unscorched, and intact: "the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed" (v. 2). When Moses later asks in whose name he should represent himself to the people when he tells them of his appointed mission, i.e., by what name God should be identified, God replies that He should be called eh'ye asher eh'ye—"I will be what [who] I will be" (more frequently translated in English language Bibles as "I am that I am"), although the philological basis and theological construction of the words remain matters of ongoing speculation and deliberation among scholars and translators.
At the time of the commission, Berlinski was studying for his doctorate in sacred music at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His first thought was to write a programmatic piece based on the biblical story of Samson, which could use the new organ's increased potential for dramatic power to depict the scene in which Samson causes the columns to collapse merely by leaning on them. But chancing one day as he exited the seminary to observe the well-known stone image of the burning bush, together with the quotation from Exodus, on the façade of its tower above the entrance, he determined instantly to address that theme instead for his organ piece.
Berlinski could think of no melodic material or theme that would suggest the episode or those words from Exodus, but on rereading the passage in preparation for his composition, he was struck by the rhythm of the phrase eh'ye asher eh'ye, and in place of a melodic theme, he constructed a reflective rhythmic cell from those words. Together with that cell, he used a twelve-tone technique—which in part is derived from the cell—in the beginning of the piece. The row is abandoned at various points, but the rhythmic cell is always left to permeate the work in terms of variable units of differing numbers of pitches, reaching as many as the full twelve—all freely combined. That cell and its permutations thus serve two functions: a musical symbolism of the mysterious defining words for God's name, and a structurally unifying device.
The Burning Bush had a thrilling effect when Robert Baker premiered it at Temple Emanu-El in 1956 on the instrument that Berlinski praised as "now ideally suited for the rendition of Jewish music." Baker then played it in London at the 1957 International Congress of Organists. Its enthusiastic reception there almost immediately established Berlinski's reputation throughout Great Britain, Europe, and America as one of the most gifted contemporary composers for the organ. In his review in The American Organist, critic Gilman Chase referred to the work as "an excellent piece … a bold contemporary effort that should be studied and played by every organist worth his salt."
SYMPHONIC VISIONS FOR ORCHESTRA
Symphonic Visions for Orchestra (1949) is an elaborately scored semi-programmatic tone poem inspired by individual biblical images, passages, and sentiments. Berlinski's original conception was a three-movement work, into which he eventually interpolated a fourth movement (which became the third movement in the published score). But even after the premiere in that form, some thirty years after its completion, he revealed in an interview that the piece worked equally well when confined to its originally planned three movements—and that is how it has been recorded here.
The opening movement—or sinfonia, as Berlinski also referred to each movement as an independent unit—carries an accompanying quotation in the score from Psalm 94:5–7. "They crush Your people, O Lord, and afflict Your heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless. And they say, 'The Lord will not see me.'" Pounding raw energy and angst is interrupted briefly by a delicate woodwind and strings passage, followed by resumption of the orchestral fury.
The corresponding epigraph of the second sinfonia is taken from Jeremiah (4:23): "I beheld the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and the heavens and they had no light." The thin, stark orchestration, opening with double reeds over pulsating strings, provides an appropriate feeling of mystery and wonderment. The solo English horn passages and the extended oboe cadenzas, which all but force one to recall the famous English horn solo in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, add to the sense of foreboding. The final movement is a mood depiction of a verse from Song of Songs (2:11): "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come…" The optimism and delicate euphoria— whether metaphoric in terms of Israel vis-à-vis God, as proposed by some commentators, or literal (in terms of human romantic love)—is introduced by a statement of resolute but gentle pathos in muted strings. This soon progresses to pastoral imagery in flute passages that turn almost into a tender love song. Imaginative instrumental colorations and combinations are explored throughout the movement as it builds to broad, thick textures that become layered sheets of sonic emotional intensity. The piece concludes with a return to its earlier tender strains.
The biblical quotations are intended as mood indicators, and the movements are scored to evoke both the emotions of those quotations and their applicable historical or narrative contexts. Critics have observed the influence of Mahler in the work's orchestral power and harmonic richness, at the same time intuiting an admittedly amorphous "Hebraic character." In that connection, comparisons have also been drawn to Ernest Bloch's biblical evocations. There is, however, no reliance on specific traditionally Jewish musical material, perceived or actual; the melodic constructions are entirely original.
Berlinski has reflected upon this work and its biblical derivations:
The Bible has again become an island of safety, which, while it often remains deserted and unused, offers a constant source of shelter. Despair is supplanted by hope and a vision of peace. The Bible gives us more than answers: it gives us visions. And the acceptance of those visions is an act of faith, beyond logical explanation.
To recreate such visions and transmit them through the medium of sound is the goal of many artists. Very few achieve it. But setting the goal is in itself an act of faith. Without this, the composer of Symphonic Visions would find no good purpose in his creative efforts.
Neil W. Levin
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