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Rarely heard Yom Kippur music by Schoenberg set for new release

October 7, 2011 |  5:00 am

Arnold Schoenberg working on a composition during the 1930s

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

With Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, about to begin Friday evening, there’s news of a new recording, in a different arrangement, of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1938 choral adaptation of “Kol Nidre,” one of the holiday’s central prayers.

Schoenberg himself conducted the 14-minute work’s premiere on Oct. 4, 1938, at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove Ballroom, which the Society for Jewish Culture, a liberal congregation also known as Fairfax Temple, had rented for its Yom Kippur services.

Fairfax Temple’s rabbi, Jacob Sonderling, had asked Schoenberg to compose a new version of “Kol Nidre,” and Sonderling narrated the piece. While the rabbi drafted a text, Schoenberg’s extensive revisions made it largely his own work as well.

The Viennese composer was born Jewish in 1874, converted to Christianity in his 20s, then returned to Judaism in 1933, the year he emigrated from Nazi-ruled Germany. He had hopes that other forward-looking synagogues throughout the English-speaking world would use his “Kol Nidre,”  which is not one of his atonal works, but nevertheless sounds nothing like the traditional medieval chant. The Los Angeles premiere may have been the only time it was sung in a worship service.

Nevertheless, the Schoenberg “Kol Nidre” has had a life as art music. The available recordings include Pierre Boulez leading the BBC Singers and BBC Orchestra, John Neschling conducting the Sao Paolo Symphony and Choir, and Robert Craft performing with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Joly Chorale.

The new version will be released online this fall by L.A.’s Milken Archive of Jewish Music, which houses music relating to the American Jewish experience.

It has its roots in the composer’s frustration that his piece wasn’t fulfilling its intent of being heard by congregations on Yom Kippur.

Arnold Schoenberg at his L.A. home in the 1940s Schoenberg concluded that the “Kol Nidre” he’d scored for a chorus accompanied by a 27- to 37-piece orchestra was too complex and expensive for synagogues, and would have a better chance if the instrumental part were transcribed for a single organist.

“He planned it, but died before he ever got a chance,” said Neil Levin, who as artistic director of the Milken Archive has overseen about 700 recordings that it has commissioned and produced since 1990, at a cost of $30 million paid by the Milken Foundation.

An organ transcription did eventually emerge.  Written by Leonard Stein, the composer’s former student and assistant, it premiered in L.A. in 1992 by Mark Robson, accompanying the Southern California Choral Society in 1992 at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). The audience was “lamentably small,” according to a Times reviewer, who described the stripped-down arrangement of “Kol Nidre” as “a stunner” that was “comparably harrowing, but decidedly less dense” than the orchestral version.

Soon, a bigger audience will be able to tune in, via a paid download from the Milken Archive website. Levin oversaw the recording in London in 1999 -- not at a synagogue, but at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, the regular recording spot for the session’s choir, the BBC Singers. “There’s nothing like the English choruses,” said Levin. An Israeli, Avner Itai conducted; an American baritone, David Pittman-Jennings, delivered the orotund spoken narration. The recording also features tympani and cymbals.

The project was a cliffhanger, says Levin, a music professor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. The organist he customarily hired when recording in London threw him a curve at the last minute, saying that because the stops on the St. Paul’s organ are all hand-operated, he’d need two months of practice to pull off what Levin says is “a very complex, very difficult part.” Levin says he called around and was told that only one musician in England could save the day -– Hugh Potton. “It was absolutely wonderful playing,” Levin said.

“Kol Nidre” is part of a wave of new online releases planned by the Milken Archive; spokesman Jeff Janeczko said that about half the commissioned recordings came out on 50 compact discs from 2003 to 2006, released through the Naxos label. Since then, he said, a decision was made to release the rest only as downloads from “an online museum to document what we’ve done.”

Levin’s extensive notes for “Kol Nidre” will be posted on the website. So will the sung and spoken text, which retains some English renderings of phrases from the traditional prayer, but has a mind of its own.  Levin writes that Schoenberg’s call for repenting “obligations [that] have estranged us from the sacred task we were chosen for” may resonate with his advocacy for a militant and authoritarian brand of Zionism to counter the Nazi threat.

Around the time he was composing “Kol Nidre,” Levin writes, Schoenberg also was writing “A Four-Point Program for Jewry,” a tract that wasn’t published until 1990. Read today, Levin said, “if one were to take his writing at face value, one would think he was a fascist –- a pro-Jewish fascist.  I think composers should stick to composing.”

Levin says it’s uncertain whether the 1938 premiere of “Kol Nidre” at the Ambassador Hotel in fact involved an orchestra; he thinks Schoenberg may have had to settle for the chorus and one or two pianos.

But Randol Schoenberg, the composer’s grandson, who is well-known for his work as an attorney fighting to restore Nazi-looted art to the rightful heirs --  thinks it’s “fairly certain” that an orchestra played the piece that night. One of his family’s Yom Kippur customs before the daylong fasting begins is to have a pre-holiday meal and listen to one of the various recordings of the Schoenberg “Kol Nidre” -– including one that he says was taped, with an orchestra, during rehearsals for the 1938 premiere.

He also cites a 1940 letter Arnold Schoenberg sent to his music publisher, saying that “the effect was great” at his “Kol Nidre” premiere, despite poor acoustics. Randol Schoenberg thinks his grandfather would have complained that he lacked an orchestra to deliver the work as conceived, if that had been the case. Instead, the composer wrote, “I am sure there are a sufficient number of temples in America, England, Canada, etc. which can perform this piece in the original combination at least once.”

(After this story was originally posted, archivist Theresa Muxeneder of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna said by email that the orchestra for the "Kol Nidre" premiere was provided by the music department of the Twentieth Century Fox film studio; a letter from Schoenberg to the Fox music department director, dated Nov. 22, 1938, thanks him for his help in realizing "this dignified achievement," and asks him to tell the musicians "how much I was pleased" with their performance.  The composer also requested that the sheet music used by the orchestra be returned to him, noting that he had composed and conducted "Kol Nidre" as "a gift to Dr. Sonderling...and to posssess these parts would be the only material profit I had for so much work." Oct. 7, 12:43  p.m.)

Levin doesn’t expect the impending  Milken Archive release of the stripped-down recorded version of “Kol Nidre” to inspire a belated surge of synagogues signing up to include it on Yom Kippur.

“This would never be part of a worship service,” he said. “It’s [partly] the complexity, but even if it were easy, people want to hear the traditional melody.”

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For the record, Oct. 7, 12:27 p.m.:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Arnold Schoenberg emigrated from Germany in 1934.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Arnold Schoenberg working with a score in the mid-1930s; Schoenberg at his Los Angeles home in the 1940s. Credits: Los Angeles Times file photo (top); Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna (bottom). 

 

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