4.38. Herman Berlinski, cantata ‘Shofar Service’ (1964)

The American composer Herman Berlinski (1910-2001), originally from the German city of Leipzig, emigrated to the United States in 1941. There he built up such a solid reputation as an organist and composer, that in 1963 the Washington Hebrew Congregation offered him the post of music director with the task of raising the musical level of the congregation to that of the best Christian congregations in the city.

One of the works which Berlinski composed in this context was Shofar Service (1964) for mixed choir, tenor or baritone, shofar, two trumpets and organ, to English words from the Reform Union Prayer Book. Of the 100 shofar blasts in the traditional Rosh Ha-Shanah service, the Union Prayer Book had kept no more than 10, still arranged under the names “Malchuyot,” “Zichronot” and “Shofrot.” Malchuyot quotes Ps. 93:1-2 on God’s kingship; *Chapter 3.2 and The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 602 Zichronot quotes Isa. 54:10: “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath compassion upon thee;” *A quote which is found neither in the orthodox Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor and The Complete ArtScroll Machzor Rosh Hashanah, nor in the Reform Gates of Repentance (1978/1996) and Shofrot quotes Isa. 18:3 on the shofar proclaiming Judah’s inviolability under God’s protection, and Isa. 27:13 on the blast referring to the end of days with the ingathering of the exiles.

Each of the three movements of Berlinski’s Shofar Service has broadly the same development. The tempo is Andante, with an added misterioso in Malchuyot and Zichronot. In four-four and six-four meters, the soloist, the choir and the trumpets alternate in short phrases, rhythmically simple ones for the voices and more virtuoso ones for the trumpets. All movements begin softly, develop dynamically and end softly again. In the principal key of E♭ minor, the most modern harmonic elements are the chord sequence E♭maj7-D major in m. 19 of Malchuyot; the bitonal combination of G♭ major and C major in m. 14 of Shofrot; and a recurrent pianissimo organ chord, consisting of the major chord D/G♭(F♯)/A with the added “blue note” C, which expresses the misterioso. In the whole composition, the organ is subordinate to the singers, the trumpets and the shofar, and it supports the harmony with long pedal tones.

The ten shofar blasts from the Union Prayer Book: four in Malchuyot, three in Zichronot and three in Shofrot, are played above a pedal E♭2 of the organ. Some blasts have a somewhat unusual form: the tekiʿah encompasses an octave instead of a 5th leap, the tekiʿah gedolah even an octave followed by a 5th leap, while the teruʿah is played with a trill instead of tone repetition. *The performance of the trill is not specified in the score. It could be a kind of heavy vibrato. The only possible real trill between the second and third harmonic is extremely difficult to perform. The trill used in Sephardi tradition instead of tone repetition is discussed in Montagu, Musical Instruments of the Bible 140, Music Example 2, and in Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel 356.

In the traditional liturgy, every shofar blast is announced by the makrei, in a subdued speaking or more or less singing voice. In the Reform liturgy, however, that was Berlinski’s point of departure, the makrei was a trained singer who turned the simple announcements of the blasts into small recitatives, accompanied by an organ pedal tone. The musicologist Neil Levin supposes that “[i]n most Reform congregations of that period [the 1960s], traditional-sounding layman’s calls [by the makrei] would have come across as unprofessional and undignified.” *Levin, Shofar Service, CD Booklet 14.

Berlinski’s composition, together with Yehezkel Braun’s cantata Festive Horns *Chapter 4.44 and Eliyahu Sidi’s painting From Tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah, *Chapter 4.53 belongs to the few works that couple the shofar to the ḥaẓoẓrah and refer to the Mishnah. Without interpreting them literally, Berlinski was inspired by two passages from this traditional text. *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 164. Cf. Chapter 3.1. Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:3 mentions the animal horn, “plated with gold at the mouth” and this is interpreted metaphorically by Berlinski: “I wrote a piece for a shofar overlaid with—that is, surrounded by—brass!” *Levin, Shofar Service, CD Booklet 15. In this way, he connects this passage to the next one in Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:3: “and to its sides there were two trumpets.” In Shofar Service, modern valve trumpets replace the ḥaẓoẓrot, and if necessary, even the shofar: “If no adequate shofar is available, shofar part may be assigned to trumpet;” *Berlinski, Shofar Service 2, Note “adequate” referring both to tonal quality and the required fundamental E♭. This alternative is not very attractive, as it eliminates the timbral distinction between the “rough” ram’s horn and the “polished” trumpets.

Berlinski’s Shofar Service (1964) marks a stage in the evaluation of the shofar by the Reform movement. From the onset of the Reform in Western Europe and the United States in the early 19th century, aesthetic considerations played an important part; to the Reform congregations, the primitive, rough and exotic animal horns contrasted unfavorably with the modern, sophisticated and harmonious organs in the Christian churches. *As mentioned above, Berlinski’s task in the 1960s was to raise the musical level of the Washington Jewish congregation to that of the best Christian congregations in the city. The historian Michael Meyer states about Rosh Ha-Shanah 5606 (1845) in several German synagogues: “In the mornings the shofar blast was not heard since . . . its raucous, primitive sound was believed more likely to disturb devotion than to stimulate it.” *Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism 129. During the High Holy Days, the congregations replaced the shofar by a trumpet or an organ. *Friedland, Were Our Mouths Filled with Song: Studies in Liberal Jewish Liturgy 26. These developments were sharply criticized by Orthodox authorities. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), the leading halakhic authority in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labeled the use of the organ as “an imitation of the Gentiles” and “an imitation of the heretics” and he forbade its employment in the synagogue. *Ellenson, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity 136. The combination of the sacred shofarot and the secular street organs in Felix Nussbaum’s painting Entombment (Organ Grinders) (Chapter 4.18) might well be a provocation. This Ḥukkat Ha-Goyyim (“Statute of the Gentiles”), the ban on adopting non-Jewish habits, was based on Lev. 18:3: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”

In contrast to the Reform movement, Orthodox congregations in the 19th century continued to practice the miẓvah of shofar blowing and hearing and they held the instrument in high religious esteem. As a musical instrument, the shofar had a low status in both the Orthodox and the Reform movements, but for different reasons: to the former, it was hardly a musical instrument at all, whereas the latter considered it an imperfect musical instrument. On the eve of World War II, the Reform movement reached a turning point and in 1945, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Hebrew Union College published the Union Prayerbook for the High Holy Days with the restored “blessings proceeding the sounding of the shofar,” used by Berlinski. It was a half-hearted restoration, because the shofarot offered by the organizations had metal trumpet mouthpieces and therefore were easily playable but not kosher, since the Talmud states about the shofar: “If the least quantity is added to it whether of its own material or of another material, it is not valid.” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 27b.

In 1984, twenty years after Berlinski’s composition, the Reform movement came to a full recognition of the shofar as a musical instrument: “The Shofar Ritual is highly structured, comparable to a beautiful painting, a finely-crafted play, or a symphony, in that its appreciation depends on our ability to recognize the artistic scheme that governs the relationship of the parts to the whole.” *Hoffman: Gates of Understanding 2 96. From the system of 100 blasts, only 30 were left: 10 in Malchuyot, 10 in Zichronot, and 10 in Shofarot. As a convert to shofar aesthetics, the author, Lawrence A. Hoffman, is carried away by his enthusiasm and compares the system of 30 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service with a symphony. *Ibid. 99. Though there is indeed an “artistic scheme,” there is no modern thematic development of the tekiʿah, shevarim, and teruʿah, but instead—and not less interesting—only repetition of unchanged shofar blasts, based on the numbers 3 and 10.

Berlinski’s Shofar Service was received positively by the addressees of the Reform congregations; it was one of the few compositions to fit seamlessly into synagogue service, which is confirmed by Neil Levin: “apart from its obvious artistic value, it did find substantial acceptance in Reform Rosh Hashana services during the 1960s and 1970s, especially among those congregations with sophisticated music programs and the necessary resources.” *Levin, Shofar Service, CD Booklet 14.

In Berlinski’s composition, the relations between the Present and the Past of shofar tradition are more complicated than in most of the other discussed works of art. The Present of the composition (1964) is directed by the Past of the shofar’s rehabilitation in the Reform movement after World War II. This recent Past was a reaction to the further-away Past from the early 19th century until World War II, a period in which the shofar was discarded and replaced by the more “civilized” trumpet or organ. The 19th-century trumpet returns in Berlinski’s composition, however, not as an alternative to the shofar but as a substitute for the ḥaẓoẓrah, the silver trumpet from a much further-away Past. This biblical and mishnaic Past of ḥaẓoẓrah blowing is altered by the Present of the 20th century, because the trumpets play a rich polyphonic texture, accompanied by an organ, instead of their traditional monophonic blasts. At the same time, the Past of ages of traditional shofar practice in Orthodox liturgy is altered by the Present of Berlinski’s Reform composition: the composer introduces something new, which originates from a still further-away Past than the standard Orthodox shofar practice, namely the biblical and mishnaic ensemble of the shofar and the ḥaẓoẓrot.


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