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Ernest Bloch ‎– Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) [Vinyl]

Ernest Bloch ‎– Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) [Vinyl]
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Though Ernest Bloch’s Avodat [Avodath] Hakodesh has served as the model for many composers aspiring to elevate the language and flow of a synagogue service to the realm of high art, it remains sui generis—not only because of its surpassing beauty, but equally as the first successful and most enduring exploration of the Hebrew liturgy for serious artistic possibilities and universal applications. In equal measure, it is a virtual oratorio based on the Sabbath liturgy and a musically sophisticated service for practical use in the context of the aesthetic format of Reform worship that once prevailed in America—a confluence of high art and Jewish sacred music.

Even from the more circumscribed perspective of synagogue music, the only known—albeit obscure—precedent for a musically unified Sabbath service that might extend beyond the boundary of Gebrauchsmusik (in this case, liturgically functional music) is probably a work by Jacob Dymont composed in Germany between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. That service, which exhibits relatively adventurous harmonic language for synagogue music of the time as well as unusual structural continuity, was written in two versions—one for cantor and männerchor, a cappella for orthodox use, and the other for cantor, mixed choir, and organ for German Liberale synagogues. It was premiered in a major Berlin synagogue in the 1920s, and although it was an actual service, the event was open to the general public and reviewed favorably in the general press as a cultivated choral work. But its intended function was primarily tied to synagogue worship, and its unpublished manuscript quickly receded into oblivion. It is doubtful that Bloch was even aware of it.

Bloch’s Avodat Hakodesh remains the watershed (by many assessments peerless) artistic engagement with the Hebrew liturgy on the level of his best and most highly acclaimed concert works. It was conceived as a transcendent, even inclusive humanistic work of universal spiritual experience, at the same time attempting to serve the more particularistic function of specifically Jewish worship—almost as if to find a resolution between two apparent contradictions. Bloch intended his service to speak to Jews engrossed in the act of prayer and, on another spiritual-artistic plane, to general audiences of any faith or religious orientation (or none)—much in the way the communicative power of a Roman Catholic Mass setting by one of the great masters does not depend solely on the Roman Catholic or even other Christian affiliation of its audience. Avodat Hakodesh is thus a work as much for serious concert experience, which implies, ideally, some sense of communion, as it is for the liberal synagogue. In that sense it may be considered part of the Western sacred classical choral-orchestral canon.

Yet this service gave voice to its composer’s own yearning for a personal as well as historical connection to the cherished ancient heritage “pulsing through his veins” and to his search for a Hebraic tonal art that would echo the grandeur of Judaic religious experience in the form of communication with that heritage’s guiding Divine spirit. In both those artistically intertwined quests, Avodat Hakodesh succeeds admirably.

Bloch’s so-called Jewish works, which amount to about 25 percent of his opera, are generally assigned to one of two periods in his creative life: the “Jewish cycle” of seven works written between 1911 and 1918, and the others written between 1923 and 1951. Avodat Hakodesh belongs to the latter. His initial conception of a service dates to 1927, during his tenure as director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, when he had developed a relationship with Cantor Reuben Rinder, who served the pulpit of the city’s most prestigious classical Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El. By the end of the decade Cantor Rinder was able to secure help in persuading Gerald Warburg to commission such a work from Bloch with generous support, and the piece was born as a Sabbath morning service for Emanu-El according to the text of the Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship, the de facto official prayerbook of the American Reform movement at the time. Avodat Hakodesh was appropriately dedicated to Warburg. During his work on it Bloch received additional financial assistance from the Stern family of San Francisco, whose patronage aimed at encouraging Bloch to continue composing in general rather than specifically or exclusively tied to the creation of this service.

Bloch retreated to the village of Ticino in his native Switzerland to work on the composition. “It has become a ‘private affair’ between God and me,” he wrote while reflecting on his progress:

I am battling against notes, sounds, rhythms, to extirpate out of my soul all the unexpressed music which has been latent—for centuries—which has been awaiting this marvelous text….

As if to explain from the outset his dual Jewish and universal goal, he added, “Though intensely Jewish in its roots, this message seems to me above all a gift of Israel to the whole of mankind.” 

Bloch created the solo role for a baritone cantor not arbitrarily, nor merely because that was Cantor Rinder’s voice type, but also because, in that era, either baritone or bass-baritone had become the preferred (though never exclusive) voice type in much of American Reform worship. Often this was out of a subjective perception of its greater dignity and solemnity than the tendency toward virtuoso display commonly associated with eastern European hazzanut (although some well-known eastern European hazzanim were baritones, just as some Reform cantorial positions were held by tenors). The deep, mellifluous timbre of baritone or bass-baritone voices were thought by many congregations to coincide with the desiderata of Reform aesthetics. 

In addition to the mixed chorus, which the nature of the choral writing suggests should be a large or at least ample ensemble rather than the quartet or “double quartet” most often employed by the average congregation, the work is scored for full symphony orchestra. In addition to the usual complement of strings, the forces include double and in some cases triple winds, two harps, and percussion. Later, after the premiere, an organ version was published as a practical inducement for use of the service or parts of it for regular worship, for rare would be the congregation that was prepared to sustain the cost of an orchestra—apart from a special event such as an annual concert—even if its leadership might be so inclined. Indeed, until at least the late 1960s there was no small number of aesthetically receptive Reform congregations across the United States that, enabled by augmented professional choirs for the High Holydays, included portions of the organ version of Avodat Hakodesh among their mixed repertoires for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for those parts of the liturgy that occur on the Sabbath. By the 21st century, there may still be a few that do this.

The division of Avodat Hakodesh into five parts mirrors the Sabbath morning liturgical progression in the Union Prayerbook. There are orchestral preludes and interludes that represent periods of congregational silence—such as during the removal of the Torah scrolls from the ark and their return—or silent internal devotions.

The service opens with the statement of a four-tone motive pitch cell—G-A-C-B (-A-G) in its untransposed form—which, through reoccurrences and various manipulations, becomes a framing device and a unifying structural element. The most direct allusion to traditional material is heard in the setting of tzur yisra-el, with its partial reliance on one of the principal Ashkenazi prayer modes of nusaḥ hat’filla (the established modes, modalities, and patterns of vocal delivery in the rendition of the liturgy according to the Ashkenazi rite). Known in cantorial jargon—but only since the late 19th century—as the ahava raba mode, its scale is notable for its lowered second and raised third degrees, which provide the characteristic interval of an augmented third, and its lowered seventh degree that negates a leading tone. Otherwise, the substance throughout is eminently original, yet infused with unquantifiable reverberations of intriguing sonorities and open or “perfect” intervals that subtly suggest a perceived link to antiquity; solo recitative passages, albeit carefully stylized within Western boundaries of acceptability; and subtle hints of what were then often but erroneously called “oriental” inflections—all of which establishes an expansive, composite Hebraic idiom. 

Alexander Knapp, one of the leading and most thorough Bloch scholars of our time, has made the following succinct observation regarding Avodat Hakodsh:

Although the overall musical style is akin, in many solo and orchestral passages, to the passionate nature and “oriental” character of Bloch’s earlier Jewish Cycle—as exemplified by the wide dynamic and emotional range, melismatic figures and reiterated notes, exotic scales and modes (containing augmented seconds and fourths) and harmonic patterns (such as parallel perfect fourths and fifths), ostinati and ritual flourishes, “snap” rhythms, syncopations and cross-accents, and frequent changes of meter—there is nevertheless a clear Western conception in the simplicity and directness of much of the choral writing.

The articulate, astute Jewish music historian and critic Albert Weisser, a keen observer of 20th-century developments within and outside the synagogue, discerned in parts of Avodat Hakodesh what he termed a “Palestrinian texture”—referring to the techniques of the Italian master of Renaissance sacred polyphony. Weisser imagined that Bloch was “rightly recognizing the close congruousness between the ‘Roman chant’ and ancient Hebrew cantillation”— although that relationship is now considered both more complex and less direct than it was in Weisser’s day, when musicologist Eric Werner’s thesis on the subject was still (with the notable exception of Israeli musicologist Bathya Bayer) largely unchallenged. Nonetheless, Weisser saw this as a significant contribution by Bloch in terms of a model for composers to follow in emancipating elements of cantillation and other liturgical or cantorial intonation from what he called “the straightjacket of nineteenth-century homophony.”

The world of Palestrina and his contemporaries, however, hardly informs the work as a whole; nor did Weisser suggest that. Later Baroque as well as Classical echoes abound, as do aspects of subdued Romanticism freely tempered by modernistic touches. And the vocal lines have independent movement, as they do in the best Baroque choral writing. 

The natural-sounding interaction between cantorial solo lines and choral passages is entirely appropriate. This format is historically as well as aesthetically grounded, consistent with the responsorial tradition in liturgical rendition.

For Weisser, Avodat Hakodesh was a vehicle for viewing the liturgy as “a reenactment of an awesome and poignant drama,” and it would be difficult to supercede that pithy assessment. For the Hebrew liturgy is indeed both eminently dramatic and awe-inspiring. At the same time, there will always be some—including those who can fully appreciate Bloch’s service for its artistic merits—who are unable to relate to it as a vehicle for prayer. For others who understand Judaic worship, with its deep spiritual connotations, as an invitation for serious artistic expression, Avodat Hakodesh is nothing if not a catalyst for the profound spiritual communication that is Judaic prayer in its meaningful context. Yet, with no detriment to its value for synagogal worship on its own terms, Bloch has, as Weisser correctly understood, elevated the Hebrew liturgy from the particular to the universal. This is “the road (and in this he is related to Bartok),” he wrote with respect to Bloch’s Jewish oeuvre in general, “over which all vital musical nationalisms must eventually travel…. And Bloch has certainly earned that precious passport.” 

By: Neil W. Levin
Format: Vinyl
Condition: Preowned (NM)
SKU:  MS 6221

A1 Meditation 12:12
A2 Sanctification 5:08
A3 Silent Devotion And Response 9:10
B1 Returning The Scroll To The Ark 7:30
B2 Va'anachnu 18:05

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