Timing: c. 10:00
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 11, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting.
Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, like Prokofiev’s overture, is a piece of ersatz Judaica, but one that has achieved such prominence among the composer’s works that he has occasionally been mistakenly called a “Jewish composer,” which he decidedly was not. He was actually a German Lutheran who is known to have expressed anti-Semitic sentiments, but he was also a confirmed musical armchair traveler, fond of using “exotic” ethnic melodic material. His Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra is a similar venture into foreign folk music, and is similarly one of the works for which he is best known, though he is seldom mistaken for a Scot.
The Kol Nidre melody was as exotic a tune as a German Protestant was likely to come across, and Bruch (1838-1920) got it more or less the same way Prokofiev got his “Hebrew themes”: it was handed to him by a member of a choir that he directed. He composed this work for cello and orchestra in 1881, the year he went to England to take up the post of director of the Liverpool Philharmonic.
Kol Nidre (“all vows”) is a haunting and rather mysterious Aramaic prayer sung toward the beginning of the Yom Kippur Eve service (and indeed, is such a prominent part of this most important day in the Jewish calendar that Yom Kippur Eve is often called simply “Kol Nidre”). The prayer is a disavowal, in advance, of any vows to God that may be made in the coming year. Many scholars believe that it became a prominent part of the service during the middle ages, prospectively nullifying oaths of conversion when Jews were often forced to choose between death and conversion to Christianity; others believe its prominence results simply from the captivating nature of its long, wandering melody. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (Bruch spelled it thus in German; the “correct” spelling is in the Hebrew alphabet) uses the first few phrases of the traditional song. Like Prokofiev’s overture, it does not attempt to maintain a “Jewish” atmosphere for long, heading quickly into the Schumannesque sonic world of mid-20th century Germany, particularly when it moves into major keys.
-- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts. This summer his notes will appear in the program of the Salzburg Festival.