Tonight millions of people will start celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the most important celebration of the Jewish liturgical year and celebrates the reconciliation between God and the faithful. In the Book of Leviticus 16, 30 God makes a promise to Moses: Before the Lord all your sins will be washed away. The celebration opens with a prayer repeated three times. All promises made to God prematurely under the influence of fear or false doctrines and remaining unfulfilled are null and void IF the sinner truly repents. The prayer’s name: Kol Nidrei. The German composer Max Bruch (1838-1920) has set it to music in 1881. Beautifully.
Gods infinite love for his people
The one movement piece, Adagio for Cello (Op. 47), has been recorded by Alisa Weilerstein and the Staatskapelle Berlin. According to Helen Wallace, author of the booklet coming along with the recording, the US cellist has cherished this piece since her youth. Bruch himself was inspired by the “rhapsodic voice of a hazzan, chanting the Kol Nidre (All Vows) prayer recited on Yom Kippur”, according to Wallace. This recording shows what an excellent performer Alisa Weilerstein is: The piece is very moving, subtle in the details, reflecting the ambiguous relationship between the believer and the Judaic god, who despite all his rage at humanity, documented in the Thorah, still has an infinite love for that very same humanity. That love is emphasized through Bruch’s music following the logic of the prayer. An alternative recording has been made by Matt Haimovitz and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Bruch – a forgotten composer
Unfortunately, the composer Max Bruch has almost been forgotten by the musical world. His Violin Concerto No. 1 is performed occasionally, but his other works – two more violin concertos, three symphonies, two operas, choral works, a fantasy for violin and harp and a serenade for orchestra to name the more important ones – seem to present little interest. During his lifetime however, Bruch was a well-known composer, conductor and teacher for composition in Berlin.
He was a precocious talent, he started to compose at the age of seven. Later he studied in Frankfurt and worked for some time in Leipzig, Mannheim and Koblenz, where he wrote the violin concerto. From 1890 until his death he directed a masterclass in composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Contrary to what one would expect, he was raised a Protestant and never embraced Judaic faith. Still, under Adolf Hitler’s reign, the performance of his works was forbidden
Competing with Johannes Brahms
It would seem that Bruch missed the development in the field of classical music around the turn of the century. Oxford Music Online gives another reason: “He was an exact contemporary of Brahms and was forced to exist in the shadow of his greater colleague even beyond the latter’s death over 20 years before his own, and the stubborn resistance he maintained to musical developments largely instigated by Wagner stifled any of his own originality.”
Schönberg’s alternative view
However, this post does not stop here, oh no. We are not yet done with Yom Kippur. In 1938, half a century after Bruch, Arnold Schönberg has been inspired by the same Jewish prayer and presented a very different work: Kol Nidre, Op. 39, written for orchestra, chorus and a speaker, reciting the prayer alternatively in English and Hebrew. He wrote it for the Los Angeles based rabbi Dr. Jakob Sonderling. A dramatic piece, almost a miniature opera, where Schönberg put the accent much more on the God’s severe judgement of his people. It has been recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Pierre Boulez and it is worthwile to listen to it several times.
Schönberg had rejected his Jewish origin in 1898 and converted to the Lutheran faith. His Christian faith was not to last, but at no time would he have considered himself nonreligious. With the increase of anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria in the 30s, he realized that the faith in which he had been raised was and always will be part of his identity and that it would be better to acknowledge it than to deny the obvious. In 1933, he emigrated to the USA and by the beginning of World War II, religion had become his sole support.
© Charles Thibo