This compact disc features world premiere recordings of three works by JACOB WEINBERG
(1879–1956), who was born in the Ukraine to a cultured, assimilated family and studied first at the Moscow conservatory and then in Vienna with celebrated piano pedagogue Theodore Leschetizky. Superimposed on this traditional classical background were two important factors that would play a vital role in Weinberg’s further development as a composer. The first was his membership in the Moscow section of the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik in St. Petersburg (the Society for Jewish Folk Music), a pioneering organization of Jewish composers, performers, folklorists, and other intellectuals in Russia that attempted to establish a new, authentic Jewish national art music in the early decades of the 20th
century. This association clarified for Weinberg the nature of his own Jewish identity and ignited the interest in Judaically based art that would inform most of his work from then on. The second factor was his five-year sojourn in Palestine (1921-26), where he absorbed both oriental Jewish and Arabic musical idioms and, even more significantly, experienced first-hand the strength of the Zionist spirit and the dedication of zealous pioneers to the ideals of a reborn Jewish home. Weinberg immigrated to the United States in 1926 and became a prominent member of the circle of Jewish music exponents in New York, eventually teaching at Hunter College and the New York College of Music and organizing Jewish music festivals in several American cities. In addition to his Judaically oriented works, which include several Sabbath services, two biblical cantatas, various liturgical settings, piano pieces and chamber music, Weinberg was known for his patriotic American compositions.
Weinberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Major clearly illustrates some of the aesthetic ideals of the Jewish national art music movement in Russia. A virtuoso showpiece modeled on piano concertos by quintessentially Russian composers, with their established developmental techniques, use of pianistic figuration, and sweeping gestures, it is based on easily recognizable Judaic melodic and rhythmic materials. The first movement is built upon two basic but unrelated elements of centuries-old canonized Ashkenazi liturgical melos: a fragmentary motif of biblical cantillation (the oldest stratum of Ashkenazi musical tradition), and one of the most easily recognizable seasonal leitmotifs of the Ashkenazi rite—a recurrent tune from that portion of the Yom Kippur liturgy known as the seder avoda that describes the elaborate atonement ritual conducted by the High Priest in the ancient Temple according to the book of Leviticus. Known as the avoda or v’hakohanim tune, this familiar motif belongs to the category of missinai tunes that together with biblical cantillation, forms the underlying historical bedrock of Ashkenazi musical practice.
The concerto’s brief, energetic, scherzo-like second movement is based almost entirely on the tune of Artza alinu, one of the most familiar Zionist-oriented songs associated with the pioneer settlers in Palestine during the decades prior to statehood in 1948. This melody, whose lyrics proclaim “We have come to our beloved land, we have plowed and planted, but we have yet to harvest,” is developed and manipulated throughout the movement, with a particular exploitation of its syncopated rhythm. Echoes of the tune are combined with reworked and augmented fragments of the first movement themes in the concerto’s finale, with its unmistakable echoes of Rachmaninoff. In discussing the entire composition, Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil W. Levin points out: “It is almost as if Weinberg sought in this work to bridge the two-millennium chasm between antiquated and contemporary Jewish experience…” The concerto was featured and probably premiered in a 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall, but soon fell into oblivion, to be rediscovered in manuscript form in a Haifa music library a half-century later and prepared for performance by the Milken Archive.
The second composition on this disc, Weinberg’s String Quartet Op. 55, was also premiered at Carnegie Hall (1952). Like the Piano Concerto above, this work illustrates the conviction of members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music (and of such non-Jewish musical figures as Rimsky-Korsakov, who encouraged them) that there was rich artistic potential in the source materials of authentic Jewish musical tradition, both sacred and secular. The first two movements, which suggest the Jewish High Holy Days, draw upon two of the oldest and most familiar signature melodies in the Ashkenazi High Holy Day liturgy. In the Quartet’s opening Maestoso Allegro, the second lyrical theme is derived from the traditional melody associated with the evening service on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—the “ma‘ariv (evening) tune” that serves as a kind of leitmotif for these services. The second movement, Lento, is a continuous unfolding and development, with contrapuntal dimensions, of perhaps the best-known melody in the entire Ashkenazi liturgy, the kol nidrei, which is chanted on the evening of Yom Kippur. It has been the exclusive and universal melody for this text since the 16th century, and was made familiar to the general music world through Bruch’s setting for cello and orchestra. The lively final movement of Weinberg’s String Quartet is associated with the holidays of Suot and Simchat Torah, and in keeping with their joyous character, is based on Hassidic melodies and dance tunes, which the composer treats with harmonic language and string writing reminiscent of Bartók. These motifs are eventually combined with echoes of the kol nidre melody, which dominates the conclusion.
While Weinberg’s Shabbat Ba’aretz (Sabbath in the Holy Land)
for baritone, choir and organ was written in this country and intended primarily for American synagogues, it was initially conceived during the composer’s five-year sojourn in Palestine (1921-26), where he was inspired to create an artistic bridge between the antiquity of Jerusalem—with its historical and emotional resonance in Jewish experience—and the spirit of Jewish modernity and renewal as exemplified by the young pioneers around him. As he expressed it in his preface to the work, the music is “profoundly influenced by the colorful environment and the soil out of which the Bible grew. The music, so rooted both in ancient Judea (cantillation of the Pentateuch) and contemporary Palestine (secular lore), links Israel’s past to the present.” Shabbat Ba’aretz was written as a unified service, but is also separable into its distinct prayer settings, six of which are heard on this CD. Several elements dominate the musical language, among them the melodic and rhythmic flavor of secular songs and dances such as the hora
from the yishuv
(Jewish communal settlement in Palestine); and the pervasive imprint of the so-called Mediterranean style identified with the first generation of Israeli composers like Paul Ben-Haim, with its reliance on the Dorian, Mixolydian, and Phrygian modes. Additional characteristics include frequent interchanges between major and minor tonalities, Arabic motifs, and perceived Near Eastern ornaments. There are also echoes of ancient Psalmody and hints of biblical cantillation motifs throughout.