Commentary Magazine


Anthology of Jewish Music, by Chemjo Vinaver

Music of the Jews
by Albert Weisser
Anthology of Jewish Music. by Chemjo Vinaver. Edward B. Marks Music Corp. 282 pp. $10.00.

This volume is a real joy to the eye—especially for those who have plowed through tons of Jewish music printed in a format that is indifferent, graceless, or even positively depressing. The musical text itself is beautifully lithographed, and there is a charming frontispiece by Marc Chagall depicting a regal and meditative King David against the smaller and rather more jaunty figure of a village klesmer.

Vinaver’s anthology is a very provocative and very personal one, and must be viewed more as an act of criticism than a stage-by-stage illustration of the historical development of East European Jewish music. The “Sacred Chant and Religious Folk Song of the Eastern European Jews” is the field to which he restricts himself. What he tries to show and tell us is that, generally, three principal influences shaped the religious song of the East European Jews (aside, of course, from the considerable influence exerted, however indirectly, by the Gentile milieu). First there was the noble and ever vital Biblical cantillation, whose origins may be traced to a period somewhat earlier than the destruction of the Second Temple. Second, there were the various synagogal modes, most of which gravitate around cantillatory material, and seem to have crystallized among the Ashkenazic branches of Jewry before or around 1000 c.e.; these modes shaped the vast repository of anonymous communal prayer chants and the more or less freely designed vocal fantasias of the hazzanim. Third, Vinaver points to the comparatively recent body of religious song created by the Hasidim, with its unique spiritual fervor, its piquant rhythmical patterns, and its extraordinarily subtle union of musical and mystical attributes.

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Vinaver himself reveals a decided preference for the Hasidic sphere. Not only is the second part of his work devoted to niggunim and Sabbath hymns (zmiros) that are almost exclusively of Hasidic derivation; the variety of sacred chants in Part I, some of folk heritage, others the expressly “composed” music of hazzanim and composers, almost all show definite Hasidic influence—the items, say, of such larger and lesser figures as Yeruchom Hakaton (1798-1885), Reb Moshe Noah “Streimelmacher” of Lodz, Abraham Ber Birnbaum (1865-1925), Zeidel Rovner (1875-1942), Yoel David Levinsohn of Vilna (1816-1850), and Bezalel Schulsinger (ca. 1790-1861). And the work of such musically trained cantors as Baruch Schorr (1823-1904) and David Novakowsky (1848-1921), and of the composer, Samuel Alman (1877-1947) likewise exhibits the Hasidic mark either in toto or in part.

I do not take issue with Mr. Vinaver about the enormous effect of Hasidism and Hasidic music on hazzanut and the general musical life of East European Jewry. But it is clear, I think, that there were many more composers in that field than he chose to include in his volume who either played down Hasidic influence or strove to emphasize (and, by the end of the 19th century, to rescue from oblivion) the older and perhaps more universal sacred chants of the synagogue. I mean such an extraordinary cantor as Eliezar Gorovitsoh (1844-1913), and that man of genius, Nissie Belzer (1824-1906). The former is represented in Vinaver’s volume by his short “V-Kohanim”—hardly a representasentative work. And the latter, it truly pains me to say, is not represented at all. Nor do I think it defensible to omit from an anthology of this sort some of the immensely fresh and vital synagogal work of such composers as Lazare Saminsky and Joseph Achron. Obviously, Vinaver has chosen the music that moves him most, but I think this has given an imbalance to his anthology.

The good things in it are plentiful. I am glad to see included Moses Milner’s beautiful and expressive “Un’saneh Tokef,” which is really inspired Jewish music. We have also one of Lewandowski’s finest pieces, “Ki K’Shimcho,” with its surprising emotional content, a composition not at all steeped in this composer’s usual insufferable static style. Then there is Solomon Rosowsky’s exemplary reconstruction of the cantillation of Genesis 43:11-15 as sung by settlers from Lithuania in Israel. A splendid example of Hasidic song at its very best, and at its most ecstatic, is to be found in a wonderful setting of “Shir Hamaalos Mimaakim” heard and notated in Poland in 1910 by Mr. Vinaver himself. I would single out for commendation, too, his notation of the “Sholom Aleichem,” “Eyshes Chayil,” and “Kiddush” as chanted by the Hasidim of the Vorker tradition. In fact, all of Vinaver’s first-hand notations of the oral tradition are excellent.

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There is one item in the volume whose presence I would seriously question—more because of its apparent inappropriateness than because of any doubt as to its intrinsic worth. I refer to Arnold Schoenberg’s setting of the One Hundred and Thirtieth Psalm (“Out of the Depths”). It is the work of an original and powerful master and, like so much of Schoenberg’s output, at once disturbing and strangely fascinating. Much has been made, of course, of the rigidity of this composer’s technique, a charge that may be partly true and yet is very misleading. It seems to me that not enough has been said of the almost overwhelming inner turbulence that Schoenberg had to master. His De Profundis demonstrates this clearly, for it is extremely deeply felt music imbedded in a structure that may strike unsympathetic ears as unnecessarily arbitrary. But it is highly probable that without its austere structure the emotion would have become chaotic. However, the relation of this piece of music to the sacred chant of Eastern European Jewry is quite another matter, and at best, I think, a rather tenuous one. In certain motives and their subsequent development, a kind of vague relation to the melodic organization of Biblical cantillation may be recognized, and one may even hear, if one tries hard enough, a kind of idealized representation of a congregation at prayer in the chorus’s alternation of song and speech. But, nonetheless, this composition strikes me as being about as far from Eastern European Jewry as Expressionist Vienna was from Hasidic Vitebsk.

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In the second part of his anthology, that devoted to the Hasidic religious folk song, Vinaver makes a very positive contribution to the task of bringing about some sort of definitive edition of Hasidic song. His texts are intelligently annotated, and contain much material in print for the first time. These pages will probably keep Ph.D. candidates busy for a long time to come correlating their content with such standard collections as Idelsohn’s Thesaurus, Vol. X, and the Sefer Hanigunim of the Chabad Hasidim.

To come upon the Hasidic tunes for the first time in print may prove something of a disappointment to those who have no previous grounding in Hasidic lore. The sophisticated musician, for instance, who looks, say, for purely musical values may very well find-especially in the dance tunes—a metrical organization much too regular and unadventurous, and a melodic contour much too restricted and sequential. Vinaver has a good deal to say about how these tunes come to life in performance and how they induce an extraordinary ecstasy in the Hasidim themselves. But I wish he had discussed this music a little more in terms of dramatic-religious rite; I mean by this the very close fusion of music, dance, gesture, and ceremonial. When we can imagine each of these elements acting upon the other, the music takes on a very different hue and profile. It does little good continually to discuss the stylistic singularities of Hasidic song in terms of the same old academic platitudes of “ahavo-rabo mode,” “mogen-ovos mode,” “Ukrainian influence,” “Polish influence,” and then end with a flurry about Zoharic symbols. Though Mr. Vinaver does not err in this way, an entirely different sensibility is still required in this area. It’s too bad D. H. Lawrence wasn’t a musician, and too bad he never visited a Hasidic prayer room.

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