TOCH: Cantata of the Bitter Herbs / Jephta
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ERNST TOCH: TWO WORKS
ERNST TOCH (1887-1964)
CANTATA OF THE BITTER HERBS (1941
JEPHTA, RHAPSODIC POEM (Symphony No. 5 - 1963)
Ernst Toch is representative of those Jewish refugee composers from World War II Europe who, having been largely disinterested in or disconnected from their religious heritage, \rediscovered" their Jewish roots to varying degrees after settling in the United States.?á His artistic odyssey illustrates the important role of key elements in the flowering of American-Jewish music in the 20th century, among them an open and less restrictive society that fostered cross-cultural dialogue, especially in the creative sphere; broader options and opportunities in the degree of one's Jewish involvement; and various other factors that encouraged Judaic artistic expression outside strictly Jewish parameters.?á This climate was particularly propitious in the Los Angeles area where Toch, like so many creative artists from the German cultural orbit, had settled.?á
Cantataof the Bitter Herbs is freely based on the Hagadda, the annual retellingand re-examination of the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt that lies at the core of the Passover home celebration - the seder.?á The work's title refers to themandated eating of bitter herbs at the seder that symbolizes the pain ofslavery and reminds each generation of its unacceptability.?á Along with theunleavened bread (matza) and the paschal lamb, the bitter herb is one of thethree essential?á components of the Passover ritual.
Tochdecided to cast this cantata as a universal appeal for human freedom fromoppression that would transcend the realm of Jewish experience and speak to awider audience beyond the purely Jewish orbit.?á He therefore directed hislibrettist to combine texts that expressed those ideals, primarily from thePsalms and the Book of Isaiah, with an original narration derived from theHagadda itself.?á Further, he deliberately chose not to incorporate anytraditional Passover melodies so as to assure the work's broader appeal andnonparochial character.?á The spoken narration alternates with a series ofchoral movements, recitatives, vocal solos and ensembles in an evocativepost-Romantic style.?á Featured on this Milken Archive recording are TheodoreBikel, narrator; Ted Christopher, baritone; Richard Clement, tenor; CarolMeyer, soprano; Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo-soprano; the Prague PhilharmonicChoir; and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led by Gerard Schwarz.
Tochwas moved to write this work following the death of his mother, when he attendeda Los Angeles synagogue for the obligatory memorial prayers (the Kaddish).?áWhile the cantata held obvious emotional significance for him, it cannot bedefinitively viewed as a manifestation of personal religious renewal.?á It iscertain, however, that this was the first composition in which he drew uponJudaic sources for musical inspiration, and that it was followed by threefurther works with Jewish connections.?á Twenty years after its completion, Tochreflected on his thoughts and emotions as he worked on the piece, and describedhow his childhood Jewish experiences were evoked in the process:
The simplicity of the Hagadda storyas I experienced it as a child, not part of a religious [i.e., synagogue]ceremony, but as part of a festive occasion, the reading of a breathtakingaccount of history, the impact of the strong emotions it carried along, stayedwith me and made me welcome the task to convey with corresponding simplicityhow this story had moved me at a time when we were as yet blissfully unaware ofits pending revival in the fate of our generation.
Thesecond work on this world premiere Milken Archive disc, Jephta, ARhapsodic Poem, stems from the final years of Toch's life, a period ofartistic renewal that yielded three symphonies.?á Searching for an opera subjectshortly before his death, the composer was attracted to a novel - Jephta andhis Daughter - that was based on the famous story in the biblical Book ofJudges.?á Jephta, a celebrated warrior, is chosen to lead the Israelites in akey battle; he vows that if he is victorious he will express his gratitude bysacrificing to God the first person to emerge from his house upon his return.?áIn a moment of tragic irony suggestive of the Greek legend of Iphigenia, it ishis own daughter that he must offer up.
Impatientto begin the project and unwilling to wait for a workable text from hislibrettist, Toch abandoned the operatic concept and created instead a purelysymphonic programmatic work - a "rhapsodic" tone poem - based on the Jephtastory, which became his one-movement Fifth Symphony.?á This evocative work,Expressionist in character, conveys in abstract instrumental terms theunfolding of the narrative, its tragic conflicts, and the emotional impact ofits unbearable denouement.?á Premiered in 1964 by Erich Leinsdorf and the BostonSymphony Orchestra, it features short lyrical sections alternating withintensely dramatic passages.?á Throughout, the composer exploits a wide range ofinstrumental combinations and capabilities.
TheJephta story has attracted many Christian as well as Jewish creative artists,and there have been more than 100 musical works based on this theme bycomposers ranging from Cimarosa to Schumann to Busoni, the most familiar beingHandel's 1752 oratorio.?á On this Milken Archive recording, Gerard Schwarz leadsthe Seattle Symphony.
Born in Vienna to a middle-class Jewish family, Ernst Toch pursued his musical studiesin Germany, where he settled after World War I.?á During the 1920s he wasrecognized as a principal advocate for the international new music movementthat was prominent in central and Western Europe.?á His works were performed bycelebrated conductors, and his style evolved from late-Romanticism into a lesstonal approach.?á With the establishment of the National Socialist regime,Toch's music, along with that of other Jewish composers, was declared"degenerate" and its performance was forbidden.?á The composer immigrated to the United States in 1934 and eventually settled in Los Angeles.?á He earnedseveral Oscar nominations for his nearly 20 film scores and a Pulitzer Prizefor his Third Symphony.?á Despite renewed productivity in the last decade of hislife, Toch, like many of his fellow emigres, never fully recovered theprominence and cultural compatibility he enjoyed in pre-War Europe.?á He isperhaps best known for his highly respected book, The Shaping Forces inMusic, and his tour-de-force for speaking chorus, The Geographical Fugue.