Sunday, 20 January 2013

Kol Nidre

"By the authority of the Court on High and by authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners."

Those are words recited on the eve of Yom Kippur. Soon after a chant begins, beginning with the words "All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce." The opening phrase "All vows" in Aramaic translates as "Kol nidre". 

The beautiful traditional Ashkenazi melody associated with these words is widely-loved:

It opens, as you can see, with an unforgettable phrase whose essence can be summarised like this:
Thereafter the melody can be varied somewhat, so that different performances tend to diverge somewhat as the chant proceeds. This isn't just a matter of ad libertum decoration of a set melody. The Kol nidre isn't a set-in-stone chant - a precisely-laid out theme - whose essential notes all need singing each time (however elaborating decorated they may be). After than opening phrase certain familiar shapes are then varied by the cantor, so that you might say that each rendition is a variation on an idealised, hidden version of the chant (a Platonic 'Form' of the chant, you might - or might not - say) that guides the chanter as he sings. Well, that's how I interpret it. 

I think it might be a good idea to here the chant heard in context in a couple of beautiful renditions:

The beauty of that melody attracted the German Romantic composer Max Bruch, who wrote his famous and touching Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra in 1881. Many have assumed that Bruch was Jewish, partly because he wrote this piece, partly because he wrote oratorios likes Moses. He wasn't. He wrote Kol Nidrei because he loved that great melody. Melody was the essence of music for Max. As well as the chant itself, introduced after a simple but haunting sequence of chords and subsequently repeated and varied, Bruch's work contains a second tune (which is also varied on its return) - a lyrical one taken from Isaac Nathan's arrangement of "O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel's Stream" (the melody taken from a synagogue melody Nathan collected in the early 1800s, and for which he asked for lyrics from Lord Byron). The whole piece manages to feel both inward-looking and emotionally charged. 

Bruch's Kol Nidrei is the most famous classical interpretation of the Kol nidre chant. There have been many popular takes, including from Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and, of course, Al Jolson at the emotional climax of the first talkie The Jazz Singer.  American tenor Richard Tucker supplied a popular classical interpretation too. 

There's nothing popular about my next piece - except that in a better world it would be popular. Yes, my favourite take on the Kol Nidre happens to be by Arnold Schoenberg. It's my favourite Schoenberg piece in fact - a magnificent and beautiful piece from a dark year in Jewish history, 1938 (though it was to get even darker). It's a work he wrote at the request of a rabbi. Kol Nidre, Op.38 for narrator, chorus and orchestra is tonal (it's in G minor) and approachable, despite that tonality being pretty 'extended' throughout and despite the work's complexity of invention (taking the phrases and flourishes of the chant and treating them in rigorous serial fashion). It begins with an orchestral prelude establishing a mood of humility and awe. Then the narrator (Rabbi) enters to declaim a mystical Jewish myth, with some striking illustrative gestures from the orchestra, and then proceeds to issue the invitation to attend the service of atonement to everyone, including sinners (a moving passage). The opening phrase of the Kol Nidre melody is heard in the orchestra as the words of the prayer are being read out by the narrator. The chorus enters singing, "We repent". They return singing the great Kol Nidre chant as a noble march, with the orchestra supporting them all the way. Chorus and orchestra then engage in a rich weave of chant-based polyphony, with quite a flavour of Brahms about it. The narrator returns and, with the chorus, helps bring this unfamous masterpiece to a climax before the work  quietens in preparation for its optimistic close in confident G major. Even if you think you don't like Schoenberg - and even if you know you don't like twelve-tone serialism - please give this warm and inspired (non-twelve-tone) piece a listen. It's superb.

In its Kol Nidre article, Wikipedia mentions a string quartet by American composer John Zorn called Kol Nidre. I'm sure you may be able to hear the Kol Nidre melody in it, but I can't. I can hear the mood of Kol Nidre however, as if were being projected by Arvo Pärt (John Zorn seems to have the Estonian's Fratres in mind). I will admit to preferring (a) Fratres and (b) Bruch and Schoenberg's takes on the Kol Nidre theme. It is a nice and soothing Pärt imitation though. 

My vows include bringing you wonderful music. I hope you enjoy the Bruch and the Schoenberg and, in the spirit of Kol Nidre, all the rest too. 

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