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Festival Of Lights: Jewish Classical Music For Hanukkah

Hanukkah kicks off on December 12th, so this week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is exploring some of the most prominent Jewish composers in the world of classical music, and some pieces inspired by their Jewish heritage. Take a listen to our playlist as you light your menorah and enjoy your potato latkes:

  • Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), Chichester Psalms – Chichester Psalms was commissioned for a 1965 festival at the Chichester Cathedral-hence the name. Bernstein wrote it soon after his third symphony, the Kaddish Symphony, and both works are overtly Jewish-the Kaddish Symphony features the Jewish prayer of death, whereas the Chichester Psalms feature some joyous Hebrew Psalms. Chichester Psalms is a large-scale choral work, scored for countertenor, choir, and orchestra. Bernstein took pains to make it clear that the solo part could be sung by either an adult male countertenor or a boy treble, but never by a woman. Perhaps this was an attempt to underscore the maleness of King David, the original author of the psalms. The first movement features Psalms 108 and 100, all in their original Hebrew. Bernstein wrote the movement with the time signature 7/4. 7/4 is an unusual and asymmetrical meter that's not easy to perform.

  • Steve Reich (b. 1936), Tehillim – Although Steve Reich took piano lessons as a child, he did not really become interested in music until he began studying drumming at age 14. He later studied composition at Juilliard and Mills College, and participated in a performance of Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece In C. In 1970 he traveled to the University of Ghana to study African drumming. Upon his return, he produced a 90-minute work titled, appropriately enough, Drumming.  Having studied music of Ghana and Bali, Reich began to think of his own tradition-the Jewish tradition. He went to Israel in 1976 to study Hebrew, the Torah, and cantillation. He was particularly interested in the music of eastern Sephardic communities. Out of this visit to Israel came this work Tehillim, the Hebrew word for Psalms. The work features excerpts from Psalms 19, 34, 18, and 150, performed in Hebrew.

  • Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Symphony No. 1, Movement III – Gustav Mahler is widely regarded as the bridge between the monumental Austro-German tradition and modern 20th-century music, but his origins were much more humble. Mahler's family history is linked to a German-speaking Jewish minority group that occupied parts of Bohemia in the mid-19th century. Mahler later wrote that for the rest of his life, even as his reputation grew, he felt a permanent sense of exile that stemmed from his Jewish heritage in Bohemia. Even after converting to Catholicism to secure a position directing opera in Vienna, Mahler would dwell on his Jewish upbringing. In the third movement of his first symphony for example, the theme shifts from a quote of the children's song "Frère Jacques" (or "Brüder Martin" in German) to the sound of a Jewish klezmer band. Mahler uses cymbals, bass drum, oboes, and most importantly trumpet and clarinets, to evoke the Jewish folk bands that he probably heard in his youth.

  • Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), Schelomo – Hebrew Rhapsody – Composer Ernest Bloch was educated in Geneva, Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris. But, despite a well-rounded musical education, he earned his living as a bookkeeper and salesman of Swiss tourist goods. He composed in his spare time, and conducted occasional orchestral concerts. He came to the U.S. in 1916 as conductor for a touring dance company. But when the tour collapsed, he decided to remain here, spending the rest of his life as a composer and teacher in Oregon. Bloch dedicated himself to writing music inspired by his Jewish heritage, like the Hebrew rhapsody Schelomo or the work Baal Shem. He said writing about his Jewish identity was the only way he could write music with vitality and significance. Ernest Bloch even made this clear by the logo used in his publications: his logo was a six-pointed Star of David with the initials E.B. in the center.

  • Salamone Rossi (1570–c. 1630), The Songs Of Solomon – Many of the Italian composers who are credited with ushering in the Baroque era worked at the royal court in Mantua. Among them was a Jewish composer, Salamone Rossi, who added a unique voice to the region. Rossi served as concertmaster in Mantua from 1587 to 1628. His skill as a violinist was so revered that he was excused from wearing the yellow badge required of people of Jewish faith in Mantua. His compositions are similar in style to the music of Monteverdi, except that Rossi set his masterpiece, a collection of liturgical music titled The Songs of Solomon, entirely in its original Hebrew language. The collection remains the only work of its kind, connected to Jewish cantorial music lyrically but written entirely in the style of Italian Baroque music. Rossi's sister was an equally talented musician, and was possibly the first Jewish woman to become a professional opera singer in Mantua.

  • Paul Ben-Haim (1897–1984), Berceuse Sfaradite (Sephardic Lullaby) – Paul Ben-Haim was born Paul Frankenberger in Germany in 1897. He became a prominent conductor and composer in Germany in the 1920s, working under Bruno Walter and writing works that incorporated neo-classical and jazz styles. He also wrote works that embraced his Jewish faith. And as you might imagine, when Hitler rose to power in 1933, Ben-Haim fled the country. He moved to Palestine along with many Jewish emigrants, and changed his last name to something that honored his heritage. He became an Israeli citizen in 1948, and helped to establish an Israeli classical musical tradition. His music took Jewish themes and traditional Middle Eastern folk music and shined them through the lens of Western classical music, like this Sephardic lullaby for solo violin. Ben-Haim was also a notable educator, teaching the next generation of Israeli musicians, including Noam Sheriff and Shulamit Ran.

  • Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864), Les Huguenots – Meyerbeer was born into a prominent Jewish family. His father was a wealthy financier and leader of a Jewish community in Berlin, keeping a private synagogue in his home where his son premiered his early compositions. Meyerbeer's birth name was Jacob Liebmann Beer, but he adopted the longer surname upon the death of his grandfather, Liebmann Meyer Wulff, who was also a leader in Jewish community. Having grown in a culture known for its history of persecution, it's no wonder Meyerbeer was drawn to the subject of the French Huguenots. For those unfamiliar with the opera Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer and his librettists adopt the old storytelling device of taking a historical tragedy and adding a love story to it. In this case, the tragedy is the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, when a group of French Protestants called Huguenots were killed by the Catholic majority. The history of the French Huguenots, like the Jewish people, is dominated by persecution and violence. In fact, as an act of solidarity with another persecuted minority, many Huguenots saved Jewish refugees during World War II and aided them in fleeing Nazi occupied France.

  • Kurt Weill (1900–1950), The Eternal Road – Kurt Weill's earliest music training came from his father, who was a cantor in a synagogue in Dessau, Germany. His earliest success came when he collaborated with Bertolt Brecht in the late 1920s in Berlin, with politically subversive shows like The Rise And Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera. The leftist politics of Brecht and Weill made them targets of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s; Weill doubly so because he was Jewish. Weill left Germany and eventually settled in the U.S. in 1935. What initially brought him to the States was this show The Eternal Road, which premiered on Broadway. The work is an opera that tells the history of Jewish persecution alongside selections from the Torah. Weill came here with his estranged wife Lotte Lenya, who starred in the show. They rekindled their relationship and remarried when The Eternal Road premiered. The show was a critical success but unfortunately a commercial failure.

And just for fun...

  • The Andrews Sisters, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" – Many of the great American songwriters from the early 20th century were Jewish: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Harold Arlen. Although their heritage was often suppressed in favor of the mainstream American Christian culture. Irving Berlin, for instance, wrote "White Christmas"! However, Jewish culture on occasion would work its way into the mainstream. Take this Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," a 1937 hit for the All-American Andrews Sisters. The song was written in 1932 by Sholom Secunda and Jacob Jacobs, two Yiddish songwriters from Brooklyn. They sold the rights to the song for $30, and then it later became a minor hit around nightclubs in New York. Songwriter Sammy Cahn in fact heard it performed by an African American group in Harlem. Cahn decided to rearrange it with new English lyrics, and it was recorded by the Andrews Sisters. Their version became the first Gold Record by a female group.


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