Friday, September 22, 2017

Jewish Inspirations

No. 259 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

We often talk of musical traditions in the context of national music, or national schools. Think of the great German, French, Italian and Russian traditions. Each of these traditions have a distinct “sound”, and even a distinct aesthetic.

We also sometimes talk of music as either sacred or secular. Again, there are sounds and aesthetics at play when considering music meant to be played in churches or as part of religious rites and ceremonies as opposed to music intended to be played in a concert or a recital.

I’m not quite sure where to place music of Hebraic or Jewish inspiration in those contexts – are we talking about a tradition, or a form of religious music? I remember once somebody discussing how Mendelssohn’s E Minor violin concerto is probably the best example of Jewish music ever composed (Mendelssohn’s grandfather is recognized as an eminent Jewish thinker  yet his immediate family converted from Judaism to of the Reformist Church!)

None of the pieces I selected for this montage of music of Jewish inspiration are in my view religious in nature, but they do share the common distinctive sound, at times “schmaltzy” we associate with Jewish folk music.

All of the works are contemporary (written in the 20th century). Sergei Prokofiev wrote the Overture on Hebrew Themes in 1919, during a trip to the United States. It is written for a relatively uncommon instrumentation of clarinet, string quartet, and piano. Prokofiev received the commission from a Russian sextet called the Zimro Ensemble, whose members played the instruments in this work's instrumentation. They gave Prokofiev a notebook of Jewish folksongs, though the melodies Prokofiev chose have never been traced to any authentic sources.

Ravel composed three songs in Yiddish and Hebrew - Mejerke, main Suhn (From Chants populaires, MR A17, no. 4) and Deux mélodies hébraiques (MR A22), sung here by Pierre Bernac accompanied at the piano by Francis Poulenc who we siometimes forget was an outstanding pianist in his own right.

Bernstein’s elegy Halil and two “Suites Hébraïques” – one by Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick and the other by Ernest Bloch are fine examples of the Jewish sound. Bloch settled in the US where he taught composition in New-York, Cleveland and San Francisco, but his legacy as a composer revolves around many works reflective of his faith –Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle.” refers to a series of compositions in which he was trying to find his musical identity. This was Bloch’s way of expressing his personal conception and interpretation of what he thought Jewish music should be, since the Jewish nation did not exist, in the strictest sense, at the time these biblically-inspired works were written. Schelomo, which concludes the montage, is the fourth work of this cycle.

I think you will love this music too.