Introduction to Songs of Peace Concert Program

About Today’s Concert

By Conductor and Music Director Dr. Elayne Robinson Grossman

In preparing today’s concert, “Songs of Peace: Shalom – Salaam,” I became aware that the complexities of peace  have been intrinsic to the human condition since the beginning of time. As we interpreted the texts of the music we are presenting today, we felt connected to ancient texts that seemed contemporary and contemporary texts that seemed ancient. The various styles of musical interpretations about “peace” witness the eternal quest for peace in all that we do.  It is always a time to pray for peace, to work and build the true and lasting peace that we all desire.

In studying Jewish prayer and poetry which stem from Torah, we come to understand that as long as human beings live close to one another there will always be concerns and tensions which challenge peace.  We must take to heart that the Torah was not given to angels but to real human beings to use as a blueprint for living a good life in every age and in every generation. Therefore, peace is a central theme in both Jewish prayers and good works which are offered daily.

Today’s concert will first address the basis of peace. In Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers, 2:1, Al Shlosha D’varim, we are told that the world  in general, relies on three things:  truth, justice and peace.  These are the cornerstones of peace in the family and with friends, peace between communities, peace between nations and peace within ourselves.

We will present a musical version of the blessing for peace, Y’varech’cha, that parents bestow on their children every Friday night.  Composer Gerald Cohen wrote this setting of Y’varech’cha upon the birth of his son, Daniel.  We will then present musical interpretations of prayers for making peace  that have been recited in synagogue services daily, on the Sabbath and on Festivals:  Ose Shalom and Sim Shalom.  

A most unique piyyut, religious poem, by the 12th century Judeo-Spanish poet, Yehuda Halevi, recognizes the paradox of spirituality:  God seems to be transcendent and distant and yet so close and ever present in all that we see and do. Its musical setting, Holiness Everywhere, by Curtis Bryant and its poetic sensibility by Stephen Bluestone brings us to a religious consciousness that can lead to a sense of personal peace:  

Lord, where will I find You and yet, where will I not find You?

I sought Your nearness, I cried out to You with all my heart.

As I went out to meet You, I found You coming to meet me!

And the theme is further addressed beautifully by Leonard Cohen in his Hallelujah.  If God is in everything, then although we seek, question and wrestle with the Source, we understand when Cohen sings:

There’s a blaze of Light in every word,

It doesn’t matter what you heard,  

The holy or the broken, Hallelujah!

Next, our program presents three songs for peace in the Middle East between the State of Israel and its neighbors:  Od Yavo Shalom Aleynu (Peace Will Soon Come), A Sacred Shared Prayer, and If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem. The third work is offered for the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city of Jerusalem.

Max Janowski , composer of Sim Shalom which begins our second part of today’s program, was born in Germany in 1912. His mother was an opera singer and his father, a Judaic scholar.  He became a piano and organ prodigy and in the 1930s after winning a German music competition, he was offered to head the piano department of the Mosashino Academy of Music in Tokyo.  He left  Japan for the United States in 1937 and served in the U.S. Navy during WW II. He served as musical director of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park, Illinois from 1938 until his death in 1991. Mr. Janowski kindly corresponded with me a great deal  in my research for my doctoral dissertation at New York University.  His generosity of spirit was appreciated by many cantors and musicians.

Janowski’s works have been used in over 900 synagogues worldwide and performed also on concert stages. Janowski dedicated Sim Shalom to U.S. diplomat Ralph Bunche in recognition of Bunche’s substantial contributions to the Arab-Israeli Armistice of 1948. (Chicago Tribune, April 9, 1991)

It often seems to me that in our contemporary society, our lives today are strained more than they have ever been before. Yet, despite the horrible reality of the twentieth century, with its World Wars, atomic capabilities, and holocausts, it has been shown that small progress can be made to prevent the atrocities of the past from recurring in our time.

I hope that through acts of goodness, justice, blessing, kindness, mercy, the love of Torah and the continual yearning for God, people can attain true peace individually, with one another, and among all our communities.  

The space in which we find ourselves today, Preservation New Jersey’s Historic 1867 Sanctuary  at Ewing, was built 150 years ago in the year 1867. In honor of this sesquicentennial,  we offer songs that were heard in the Jewish world 150 years ago.

Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), the son of poor Polish-Prussian parents, came to Berlin at the age of 13 as a “Singerl,” a minor singer, under Cantor Asher Lion.  Lewandowski wanted a music education, and cousin of Felix Mendelssohn became the boy’s patron.  Although the Mendelssohn family was no longer Jewish, Lewandowski received a complete music education and aspired to be a “second Mendelssohn,” at least musically, if not religiously.

As an educated musician, it was easy for Lewandowski to train congregants to sing along with a  cantor, and he could easily add some simple harmony to a song. In this way, he became the first Jewish choirmaster in a synagogue.

However, for most of his life Lewandowski was the interpreter of the music of the Viennese synagogue composer, Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890). Sulzer held such power in Central and Western Europe that for decades Lewandowski (in Berlin) exercised great self-restraint by hiding his own music in his desk drawer until the right opportunity presented itself!  In 1864 a new synagogue, the Oranienburgerstrasse Temple, was built and equipped with an organ. Lewandowski was hired to create a complete service for the entire liturgical year with congregational singing. The music of Sulzer and other Orthodox cantors was a cappella in Orthodox style and not suited for much harmonic development.  Just at the time that Berlin was becoming a major center of Jewish education and culture, Lewandowski tastefully and skillfully reshaped older synagogue forms and melodies into modern recitatives, solos, duets and works for congregational choirs.  At last, the genius of Louis Lewandowski was recognized!

The final psalm of the Book of Psalms is #150.  It is my  personal favorite because, not only does Psalm 150 conclude the Book of Psalms, it mentions all the instruments used in Jerusalem’s First Temple and poetically employs them to praise God, each in its own way.  The final verse is tremendously powerful:  “Let every being that has breath praise God!”

Today’s concert offers two settings of Lewandowski’s Psalm 150.  The first is well known in synagogues and choral societies around the world.  The second was introduced to me by my colleague, composer, conductor and singer, Robert A.M. Ross of Philadelphia.  

Keter is a prayer offered by Spanish–Portuguese Jews, Sephardim.  The Jews of this region suffered persecution in the pogroms of 1391 and the Inquisition of 1478. After the Catholic monarchs expelled Jews who refused to convert, Jews of the Iberian peninsula left for cities of the Mediterranean basin, Holland and the New World, bringing with them their customs, the language of Judeo-Spanish and their music.

The prayer Keter or “Crown” is offered by Sephardim immediately preceding the Kedusha, which proclaims the Holiness of God.  Keter is based on a statement in  Sefer Haykhalot:

Your servants will crown you and sing a new song.

The praise is in the image of placing a crown, or a diadem, upon God’s head, as in Proverbs 1:9.

For there shall be a graceful garland for your head. The heavenly angels above with your people assembled below will then proclaim:  Holy, Holy, Holy.

Although the liturgies of Central and Eastern European Jewry do not employ this beautiful prayer, it is  part of Yemenite and some Hasidic traditions.

The version of the Keter prayer we present today was notated by Solomon Foy, Choir Director at Temple Israelite of Bordeaux, and collected under the initiative of Monsieur Joseph Cohen, Grand Rabbi of Bordeaux, in May 1928.  Mr. Foy wrote:

This chant is one of the most beautiful of our rite and was notated and harmonized in 1868 by Mr. Alfred Mendes exactly as it had been performed for many years.  

Mr. Foy limited himself to transcribe this version which he said “is perfect.” Mr. Foy was  the uncle of Mrs. Loulette Wolfson, a native of Bordeaux, now living in our area.

We offer a short lecture-demonstration of the Klezmer style which, in the style we recognize today, flourished in Eastern Europe, mainly Bessarabia, in the 19th century. The music is expressive, ornamental and largely improvised on existing secular and liturgical melodies. It is mainly joyful and based on the human voice with characteristic laughs, sighs, and even cries. In the mid- to late-1970s there was a revival of Klezmer music in the United States which has survived to the present time.

As my teacher, composer, arranger and choral director, Alice Parker, taught, the perfect time for singing is when an audience has beautiful music in their ears.  We of Sharim v’Sharot hope that we have inspired you to sing along with us in songs of peace before we conclude our concert with Hine Ma Tov:

How good it is to live together in peace!