Tomorrow night, Jews all over the world will congregate toward sunset to mark the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The most universally recognized part of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the chanting of Kol Nidrei, a medieval annulment of vows set to a melody composed as Opus 47 for cello and orchestra by a German protestant named Max Bruch in 1881.
Tablet magazine featured an article yesterday by Ari Y. Kelman called Sacred Remake, a history and chronology of the development of this prayer (actually a legal formula) and the music to which it has been set over the centuries.
Bruch, for his part, never claimed to have written sacred or liturgical music, and Jewish musicologist Abraham Idelson agreed, writing, “[Bruch's] melody was an interesting theme for a brilliant secular concerto. In his presentation, the melody entirely lost its original character. Bruch displayed a fine art, masterly technique and fantasy, but not Jewish sentiments. It is not a Jewish Kol-Nidre which Bruch composed.”
Although Bruch’s Kol Nidre has been adopted by congregations across North America, not everyone thought his orchestral setting suited the meditation. None other than Arnold Schoenberg set out to “obliterate the excessive sentimentality of Bruch’s cello.” In appropriately Schoenbergian style, his Opus 39 steamrolls Bruch’s romanticism in favor of a prickly sonic modernity expressed powerfully by brass and woodwinds, supported by strings that color fragmentary snatches of melody. Lest the arrangement not be anti-romantic enough, Schoenberg composed his as an oratorio, and the entire last half rests on the stentorian delivery of a story from the Kabbalah and an adaptation of the Kol Nidre text, in English, both backed by a soaring choir.