Notwithstanding his manysubsequent large-scale grand religious works, Berlinski always considered AvodatShabbat--his complete setting of the Reform version of the Friday eveningSabbath service according to the Union Prayer Book--his magnum opus. In some waysthis work has come to represent a continuation of the path forged by ErnestBloch and Darius Milhaud, who had successfully approached the Hebrew liturgyfor the first time not only as specific synagogue music for worship, but alsoas universal artistic expression that could transcend practical Judaic andreligious confines. Bloch and Milhaud had written Sabbath morning services,while Berlinski addressed the evening liturgy. And, whereas Bloch had usedtraditional material directly in only one part, and Milhaud had incorporatedsignificant parts of the rare Proven?ºal liturgical melodic tradition, Berlinskichose to rely, albeit not slavishly, on Ashkenazi prayer modes and biblicalcantillation motifs.
Although Berlinski wasconsciously inspired by those two works--especially Bloch's--his own service wasnot begun with such lofty aspirations. It began as synagogue music per se anddeveloped later into the universal statement that it indeed is. Avodat Shabbat
was born as a commission by Cantor David Putterman for New York's Park AvenueSynagogue as part of its extraordinary program of encouraging both highlyestablished and promising composers to experiment with liturgical expressionfor its annual \new music" services. The timing in terms of Berlinski's own developmentwas fortuitous, since he had become increasingly disillusioned with the dearthof worthy artistic endeavor among many North American Reform synagogues andwhat he perceived to be a static, if not fossilized, condition. He was wellaware of much worthy contemporary synagogue music as individual settings, buthe saw little opportunity for a broader and deeper expression of the liturgy ascultivated art music. Apart from a few isolated incidents, Putterman's annualcommissions were providing the only real incentive for composers to devotetheir gifts to the synagogue on that level.
Cantor Putterman, generallyconservative in his risks, and knowing that Berlinski had not yet explored theliturgy on that artistic level, invited him first to write a single setting forv'sham'ru, a brief text in the Friday evening service. After itspremiere at the Park Avenue Synagogue, Putterman, now fully satisfied that Berlinskiwas a major talent commissioned him to write a complete service. Avodat shabbat
received its premiere in its original form (cantor, choir, and organ) at Park Avenue in 1958. Following that premiere, Berlinski's friend Rabbi Abraham Klausner(congregation Emanu-El in Yonkers, New York) became convinced of its higherpossibilities as a work for serious rendition within a symphonic contest. In1963 Rabbi Klausner showed the score to his friend Leonard Bernstein, whoenthusiastically supported its public concert performance. Bernstein noted thathe was especially impressed by its simplicity and its freshness: "from theheart ... and a fine compromise between tradition and somewhat contemporarysounds." He even wrote that he might consider performing the work himself inthe future.
Armed with the Bernstein letter,Rabbi Klausner was able to persuade the Union of American Hebrew Congregations(the lay federation of American Reform congregations) to fund Berlinski'sorchestration of the work and the premiere of the new version. Hisorchestration was ambitious, perhaps even a bit overly so: double woodwindsplus English horn, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani,two harps, strings, and elaborate percussion (cymbals; triangle; gong; tenor,bass and small drums;
and tambourine)--but, daringly,without violins. Berlinski also expanded the original solo vocal parts toinclude a soprano and mezzo-soprano or contralto, and he added settings for afew texts. This version was given its premiere that same year (1963) at Lincoln Center in New York, with the tenor role sung by Cantor Jacob Barkin, and thechorus and orchestra conducted by Abraham Kaplan. It shared the program withLeonard Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony.
Upon his acceptance of theoriginal Park Avenue commission, Berlinski began by approaching the taskaccording to his previously worked-out convictions concerning new sacred music:"There are three different elements that must be combined in the creation of aliturgical work," he once wrote. "The spontaneous spark, without which acomposer is not truly a composer; a clear understanding of the religiousfunction of the music, without which a work will lack direction and conviction;and, finally, a knowledge of the traditional materials that are commondenominators between the composer and the congregation."
The harmonic structure oftenreflects the tension between the two basic traditional modes of the AshkenaziSabbath eve liturgy: the so-called adonai malakh mode, based on a scaleakin to western major but with important differences, including a scale thatembraces more than an octave; and the magen avot mode, whose scale isakin to natural minor In one instance (the l'kha dodi), there is thedirect quotation of a specific traditional tune. Pervading the service is whatthe eminent synagogue composer Herbert Fromm called a "personal interpretationof tradition."
Of the various devices andtechniques that bring formal unity to Avodat shabbat and render it acohesive work, none is so forceful and basic as the continuously recurringprincipal motive, derived from a fusion of biblical cantillation andtraditional psalmody and introduced in the opening prelude. The prelude'smiddle section generates the solo cantorial line in the ma tovu, atypical (but not liturgically required) introductory text for formal Reform aswell as other nonorthodox Sabbath evening services. That
motive appears throughout the matovu and, at the end, in the orchestra; and it recurs, both in its originalstatement and in varied or modified forms, almost in a rondo fashion, in the tovl'hodot; the bar'khu; the ahavat olam; toward the end of mikhamokha; near the conclusion of hashkivenu; and in the kiddush,Adoration, and closing Benediction. There are other, secondaryrecurring motives as well.
For his setting of l'kha dodi,Berlinski selected one of the oldest and most famous traditional western, or "Amsterdam"Sephardi versions (often referred to as thePortuguese tradition in European and English sources). It must have been new,however, to typical American Ashkenazi congregations of that time, whoundoubtedly thought it exotic. The tune has an interesting pedigree. Not onlyis its basic identity long established in the Amsterdam Sephardi tradition, butit is a firmly rooted l'kha dodi versionin the London Portuguese Sephardi community as well--which is basically the sametradition despite local variances. This is hardly surprising, because many ofthe London Sephardi cantors came from Amsterdam over the years and becameimporters of such melodies. By the mid- 19th century, this l'kha dodi
was notated in a London compilation that reflected that Sephardi community'sestablished practice, which itself is a document of its authenticity. There arealso other independently written and recorded confirmations of its longestablished use in both London and Amsterdam, including one notation dating asfar back as the late 19th century. There are, of course, local variancesbetween the Amsterdam and London renditions that became crysta