by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D
Erich Korngold: Passover Psalm, Opus30
General acquaintance of Americans with the music of Austrian-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) may be said to rest on his film music for such notable movies as The Prince and the Pauper, The Sea Wolf, Anthony Adverse, and Of Human Bondage, to name a few of the more well-known. However, Korngold began his career as a child-prodigy composer, hailed at the age of ten by none other than Gustav Mahler for his cantata Gold. Vienna felt that in Korngold it had a new Mozart. Korngold enjoyed great success until the 1930's, when unsympathetic musical and political factions forced him to leave.
Korngold joined the stream of extraordinarily talented musicians who fled to the United States for refuge. He adjusted better to American culture than some of his fellow émigrés, choosing to settle in Hollywood to write for the film industry. As Joseph Horowitz asserts in his recent book The Post-Classical Predicament, Korngold "arrived in Hollywood at precisely the right moment since film music was still struggling to find its feet and he brought to it a sorely needed dignity, stature and professionalism. He was excited by the medium and unstintingly gave his best."
He recommenced composing for the concert hall after "that monster in Europe [was] removed from the world." Some works produced after World War II were his now famed Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto and a Symphony, among others. A recent recording of his youthful Symphonetta received critical raves for its inspiration and craftsmanship. Alex Ross of The New York Times devoted an enthusiastic critical column on Korngold's work.
Interestingly enough, this evening's Passover Psalm does not seem to appear among his compositions listed in standard dictionaries, such as Groves. Marked Opus 30, it was probably composed in the early 1940s, with a possible publication date of 1941. Its local premiere took place in 1944 at a Yom Kippur celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. So well received was it, that actor Edward G. Robinson requested a repeat performance.
The Passover Psalm is scored for soprano solo, mixed chorus and orchestra. Librettist Jacob Sonderling based the lyrics on Hagadash texts, which extol Adonai who "by His wondrous works led His children from slavery to freedom for which as their Redeemer they offer songs of praise. Hallelujah!"
Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
The Chichester Psalms received its world premiere at New York's Philharmonic Hall on July 15, 1965, just one week after its completion, with Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) himself conducting his own New York Philharmonic and the Camerata Singers. Yet it was first performed as originally scored for an all-male choir at the Chichester Festival (in the county of Sussex, England) on July 31, 1965, since Bernstein had been commissioned by the Dean of the Festival to write this piece.
Having achieved widespread distinction during the 1940's and 1950's with such works as "West Side Story, Candide, and the score for On the Waterfront, Bernstein resigned the directorship of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to devote his prodigious talent to large-scale works on religious themes, such as the Kaddish Symphony (No. 3), his Mass written for the dedication of the Kennedy Center, and Chichester Psalms.
While Bernstein composed the soprano and alto parts for boys' voices, he conceded the possibility of substituting women's voices for these choral parts. Though he reluctantly acknowledged that some of the solos could be sung by individuals from the chorus, he stood firm regarding the long, male-alto solo in the second movement: it must be sung by a boy or a counter-tenor. So popular did the Psalms become, scored as it is for three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, two harps and full string choir, he subsequently produced an orchestral reduction utilizing organ, one harp and percussion.
Afrer a majestic introit, Psalm 100 is sung (in Hebrew) to a joyful, dancelike setting. Psalm 23 then receives a lyric, almost naive treatment for boy soloists and is then repeated canonically by the chorus. The pastoral mood is interrupted by a dramatic outburst by the men singing "Why do the nations rage" of Psalm 2. An instrumental reverie prepares for the warmth and peace of Psalm 133 while the a cappella coda expresses a yearning for harmony, concluding with “Amen" as a solo trumpet gently recalls the first phrase of the preceding chorale.
Ernest Bloch: Sacred Service
Bloch's Sacred Service is firmly established as a choral masterpiece of the twentieth century. His ancestry and origins permit Switzerland to claim him as her contribution to modern music. Even though he was educated in Europe, Bloch (1880-1959) is often described as an American composer because of his naturalization, even though his music bears no discernible American characteristics. In fact, his style seems to be quite universal rather than national.
It is remarkable how Bloch's Jewish music (the most famous works are the Sacred Service and the Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, Schelomo) articulates his Jewish consciousness in the musical medium. The German musicologist Eric Blom has noted that the Jewish character of his compositions flows not from a superficial adoption of such elements as Hebrew songs or other ready-made traditional material, but rather that it is "because his artistic nature fitted him to give expression to the racial currents that flowed in his veins. He does so in a language that is his own and this ... reflects as much his individuality as his race." Indeed, many of Bloch's works (such as the opera Macbeth, America, and Helvetia) possess no recognizable Jewish character. Bloch surprisingly adhered to no one system of composition and had no attachments to any theoretical preconception of school or method.
The Sacred Service (Avodat Hakodesh), composed between 1930 and 1933, is Bloch's only venture into the large choral form. It is likewise unique as the only grand-scale liturgical composition of the Jewish worship service in the standard repertory as compared in size and stature to its more numerous Christian counterparts. The Sacred Service calls for an accomplished cantor and a sizeable mixed choir. The phrases of the cantor are frequently repeated or elaborated by the chorus. The piece has five movements corresponding to the liturgical divisions of the Morning Service as found in The Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship.
Part One, designated "Meditation," dwells on those fundamental aspects of the Jews' inheritance and their relationship to God. Part Two, "Sanctification," renders praise to the Almighty while affirming the confidence in God as Helper and Merciful. The music for the ceremony surrounding the removal of the Scroll from the Ark as symbolic of God's presence in the congregation constitutes Part Three. Part Four celebrates the return of the Scroll to the Ark and offers prayers for peace. Part Five opens with an act of adoration and proceeds through the Kaddish or Memorial Service to the closing hymn and benediction. The overall performance time of the work has some flexibility, depending on the solemnity or brevity of the rabbi's invocations.
The cantor's and choral parts are fixed. These in turn are supported and commented on by a symphony orchestra with which Bloch deftly and discreetly expresses the often passionate aspirations and sublime content of the Old Testament passages.