Narratives, Cultural Production and Musical Value

Narratives, Cultural Production and Musical Value

A talk by


UW Religious Studies Department

for the joint concert of the Laramie Civic Chorus and Colorado Hebrew Chorale,
Holly Dalrymple and Carol Kozak Ward Conducting
March 8 2015
Buchanan Fine Arts Center—Concert Hall

This concert featured works by Paul Ben-Haim and a presentation by Estelle Nadel, Child Survivor.

This is my first opportunity to speak on this stage since the Fine Arts Center was renamed, and I am honored to use this opportunity to thank former UW Pres. Buchanan for his contributions to our university.

Thanks to Prof. Holly Dalrymple for her leadership in assembling today’s program, and to my wife, Carol Kozak Ward. And to the members of the Laramie Civic Chorus and the UW Music Dept. for their support and exceitement. I would like to acknowledge my department, Religious Studies, and express our gratitude to Wyoming Humanities Council, Laramie Jewish Community Center’s Asimow Lecture Fund in memory of Fred Homer, for supporting this program with Estelle Nadel’s presentation, and Hillel at UW.

And thanks to Professor Joshua Jacobson, (Northeastern University) founder and music director of one of America’s premiere choral organizations, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, for helping ensure Holly, Carol and I would be in touch.

Holly asked me to open today’s program with a few remarks. I have chosen to speak briefly about narratives, cultural production and musical value. I will mention Paul Ben-Haim at best only in passing, as Holly will speak about him and the Kabbalat Shabbat in greater depth later in the program.

Salomone Rossi (c. 1570-c1630), was employed by the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where he was concertmaster for some 40 years. His sister, usually known as Madama Europa, may have been the first Jewish opera singer. He is especially known for his contributions to the development of baroque-era secular madrigals and the development of the trio sonata. Like Paul Ben-Haim, Rossi wrote music for the synagogue that matched the latest style; however, he was the first to publish his arrangements. All the indications are that in the early 17th century, popular hymns such as Adon Olam and Yigdal were sung in several Italian synagogues by multiple voices in the latest artistic styles—to packed multifaith audiences! Rabbi Leone di-Modena (1571-1648) convinced his friend Salomone Rossi to publish 33 settings—and he wrote a responsum, a religious legal treatise, to justify the adoption of this popular musical style for the synagogue.

Rossi’s compositions may well have continued to be sung in some Italian synagogues, but, much as was the case with Bach, he did not have broad recognition early on. Bach’s music was popularized by Mendelsohn; Rossi’s pieces were popularized in the 19th century by S. Naumbourg and Vincent D’Indy, who published most of the synagogue compositions in 1877; the facsimile reproduction of Naumbourg and D’Indy’s publication in the 1950s and especially the beautiful critical edition by Baroque Musicologist Fritz Rikko in the 1960s–as well as recordings at that time—established the importance of Rossi’s beautiful music.

Our final piece today is Szmerke Kaszerginski’s anthem, Zol Shoin Kumen di Geule, set by Kaszerginski to a melody ascribed to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine.[1] Kasczerginski was part of a circle of young poets and activists in Vilna during the Nazi occupation, and worked together with his friend Avraham Sutzkever, first to save Vilna’s rich cultural tradition and archives of YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) from the Nazis. Sutskever and Kaszerginski escaped from Vilna and fought as partisans; immediately after the war, back in Vilna, the Soviets indicated interest in preserving YIVO and its documents, but Sutzkever and Kaszerginski quickly saw that these treasures had to be rescued once again, this time from the Soviets. So they once again salvaged Vilna’s rich cultural history, this time by smuggling boxes and suitcases to New York where YIVO had relocated. Sutzkever moved to Israel but Kaszerginski embarked on yet another endeavor to save cultural treasures: he went around to DP camps to record and preserve the poetry and songs sung in ghettos and Concentration camps. Our piece today, Zol Shoin Kumen di Geule, “Redemption should come soon” was a message along the lines of “Happy Days are around the corner” and was a fixture of his concerts and visits to the camps.

Cultures translate unique individual and social realities and deeply held beliefs into works of art, which, at their best, transcend the specifics of their origin. Jewish liturgy, the Holocaust and the State of Israel are three key components of the Jewish heritage that shape all Jewish cultural expression in recent decades.

Estelle Nadel has lived a life in the culture of song since the liberation of her village; today she will share her story of survival as a child in Poland.

The simple exuberance and optimism of Israeli culture was captured by the late Arik Einstein, perhaps the embodiment of the quintessential Israeli actor, and songwriter, whose “You and I will change the world” now is inscribed on a monument outside his apartment in Tel Aviv.

Amen is a modern prayer bridging secular and religious elements.

Hashivenu, with its hope for “renewal as of old” concludes both the weekly Torah service and the annual reading of the Book of Lamentations on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Ben-Ury’s round has become a classic response to the Holocaust; so popular that it is rarely credited as anything other than a folk song. It has been sung for many years at summer camps on Tish’a BeAv, by groups visiting Auschwitz, and at memorial concerts. And it reflects a robust tradition of round-singing, inherited from Central Europe, going back to Mozart, F. Kuhlau and others, that flourished in pre-State Palestine and in the State of Israel.

A final note about the western performance tradition. The American concert hall is no stranger to a small number of choral works in Hebrew—Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Bloch’s Sacred Service come to mind. Like music originally written with texts in German or Latin, the best music in Hebrew and Yiddish, like any great art, easily transcends its cultural context. Rossi and Ben-Haim, and the shorter more popular pieces that are part of today’s program, form part of a body of music with superior quality and universal appeal. This corpus deserves greater visibility, not merely in performances in Jewish contexts but in choral conferences, at universities, and among community choruses. These works are as accessible as any other body of music, and share in the major heritage, historic and artistic traditions that shape our world.

Seth Ward

[1] This office was established by the British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in order to replace the “Haham Bashi” of the defeated Ottoman Empire; the Hebrew-Calendar anniversary of its establishment by the way was yesterday.

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