BERLINSKI: Symphonic Visions for Orchestra

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Herman Berlinski (1910–2001)

From the World of My Father • Shofar Service

The Burning Bush • Symphony Visions for Orchestra


The Jewish creative orientation of composer and organist Herman Berlinski (1910–2001) represents a fertile synthesis. His Jewish roots and family traditions were fundamentally eastern European, but he also acquired and adopted the cultural perspectives—and especially musical affinities—of German Jewry; his Paris studies added 20th-century French as well as international influences; and eventually he emerged as a thoroughly American composer and an ardent advocate of artistic innovations in the American Synagogue.

Berlinski was born in Leipzig to parents who, in the wake of the dangers of backlash following the 1905 Revolution in Russia, had emigrated from the highly developed Jewish community in Lódź (then Russian Poland). He demonstrated natural musical gifts at an early age and at sixteen entered the Leipzig Conservatory—primarily as a piano student, with additional studies in theory and composition. In 1918, when an independent Polish Republic was declared following the First World War, his father chose to declare that he and his family were Polish citizens (residing in Germany) rather than accepting an official passport classification as "stateless," since actual full German citizenship was difficult to obtain and involved a complicated process. The family remained in Leipzig until the installation of the National Socialist regime, which barred Jewish musicians from participation or employment in musical institutions outside the Jewish community.

Berlinski left Germany in 1933, easily able to secure an exit permit with his Polish passport. He went initially to Lódź, where he had many relatives and where he did some concertizing. Not prepared to accept Polish army service, however, he left shortly afterward for Paris. There he studied at the prestigious École Normale de Musique: composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, teacher of many of the 20th century's most important composers; and piano with the subsequently infamous Nazi sympathizer and collaborator, world-renowned pianist Alfred Cortot. Berlinski supported himself by directing, arranging, and sometimes composing incidental music for productions of an émigré Yiddish art theater, known then as PIAT (Paris Jewish Avant-Garde Theatre). This troupe in effect comprised the survivors of the well-known Yiddish art theater in Vilna, whose repertoire ranged from Shalom Aleichem and Peretz to classic Russian plays in Yiddish. These were literary plays, unrelated to the musical Yiddish theater in America—the so-called Second Avenue variety—or to its Romanian foundations in the operettas of Goldfaden. Nonetheless, it was common to include appropriate incidental music and even to superimpose or incorporate some songs in those productions. For Berlinski, this was not only an artistic but a "human experience," because it brought him into contact with so many Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews then stranded in France—a profound personal episode that was later to find reflection and expression in some of his American works.

Berlinski found his studies with Boulanger less than fulfilling. Unlike many of her other American pupils (or so he felt), he was not seeking to shed ethnic boundaries, as perceived limitations, in favor of the more universal approach and technique of the so-called international school. Moreover, he found her unable to relate to his artistic preoccupations with things Jewish. After two years he parted ways with her and entered the Schola Cantorum, where the respected Sephardi synagogue composer and music director Leon Algazi actually taught a course on Jewish music (in a fundamentally Roman Catholic religious musical environment). Berlinski later recalled that he was received "with open arms" by the French composer Daniel-Lesur and his circle, La Jeune France, which included Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen—a deeply and mystically religious Christian whose faith informs many of his major works—understood, along with others in that group, Berlinski's natural inclination to draw upon his Judaism. Berlinski later credited Messiaen with having encouraged him personally to use the musical language of his traditions, as fellow composers in that circle made use of Gregorian chant.

In 1934–35 Berlinski applied for French citizenship, which carried with it the obligation of military service in the French Foreign Legion. Though he never did obtain his citizenship, he later recalled with pride his participation at the Belgian border when German army units broke through; and he always took great satisfaction in being "one of the few Jews with the opportunity to have a machine gun in my hand and shoot at them."

After France's surrender to Germany and the establishment of the Vichy government, Berlinski determined to leave while he (and his wife) still could, and to head for America. His father had gone there earlier, and he also had a number of relatives who had emigrated directly from Lódź and were residing in New Jersey. In this he was assisted by a man named Varian Fry ("the American Schindler"), who had come voluntarily to France to facilitate the rescue and emigration of stranded European intellectuals.

As both a German native and a veteran French Legionnaire who had fought against Germany, Berlinski was technically ineligible for an exit visa, since the cooperating French authorities were required to hand over all such individuals to the Germans. His illegally "purchased" exit visa still required an approval stamp. He obtained that only because the French official did not realize that Lipsk, shown as his birthplace on his passport, was simply the Polish translation for Leipzig, and thus assumed incorrectly that Berlinski had been born in Poland rather than Germany. There was still the problem, however, that Poland was occupied by Germany as well. Fry helped him invent a Russian identity, which finally qualified him for exit, since the Soviet Union was still technically neutral as a result of the infamous but soon-to-be-violated nonaggression pact. He left France and arrived in the United States only two weeks before the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

Berlinski's first fruitful contact in New York was Moshe Rudinov, cantor of the nationally prestigious Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El. Rudinov introduced him to the small but intensely committed coterie of Jewish music intellectuals, the Jewish Music Forum, and he soon became well acquainted with the leading personalities of that society, such as Lazar Weiner, Joseph Yasser, Abraham Wolf Binder, and Lazare Saminsky. Always on the lookout for Jewish-related pieces for its intimate recital events, the Forum programmed the only full piece that Berlinski had saved from his French period, a flute and piano sonata on Jewish themes. On the same program that evening, Leonard Bernstein offered a piano preview of his Jeremiah Symphony.

Berlinski taught piano privately until Yasser, the acclaimed musicologist who was also a synagogue organist, suggested that he study organ and offered to teach him. Thus Berlinski, soon to establish an international reputation as a classical organist, began his study of the instrument as late as 1951. He had had a fa
Disc: 1
Symphonic Visions for Orchestra
1 I. Hatzot - Prayer at Midnight
2 II. Nocturnal Procession
3 III. Legend
4 IV. Dance
5 I. Malkhuyyot
6 II. Zikhronot
7 III. Shofarot
8 The Burning Bush
9 I. Andante molto pesante
10 II. Adagio molto espressivo
11 III. Adagio molto sostenuto
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