14 January 2011

Out of the Depths: Berlinski’s Sinfonia No. 10 for Cello and Organ

Psalm 130
H erman Berlinksi’s Sinfonia No. 10 was dedicated to the memory of Milton Feist, a rabbi, music publisher, and friend of Berlinksi’s. Crippled at the age of four by polio, Feist lived his whole life in a wheelchair.

T   his life, a never-ceasing struggle against overwhelming power and brutality ... became to all who knew him a metaphor for the triumph of the spirit over a decaying body. Milton Feist was called, after he had passed on, by his ... colleagues 'meir' or “Shining Star.” He was and, through his faith, I still believe he is. The first movement of this Sinfonia is based upon kabbalistic interpretation of the words of Psalm 130. According to kabbalistic tradition it is not from the depths of desperation that we cry unto God. It is into our own depths we must reach... Faith does not merely exist. It must be [summoned into existence and—] acquired from the depths of one’s own being... one must, like Jacob with the angel, fight for it. The cello becomes a metaphor for humans who, groping for wordless prayer and the experience of God, are confronted with a brutal, seemingly impenetrable wall of sound, to be pierced only by deep and abiding faith, which first we must acquire. Only a few among us succeed in this fight, which, after all, leaves all of us somewhat limping. The second movement is based on a melody called: Av-Ha-Rachamim (Merciful Father) attributed to the 19th Century Russian-Jewish composer Abraham Dunayevsky. From a musical point of view it is a set of theme and variations. The hostile wall is slowly overcome, and gives way to prayer which flows towards its intended destination.”
  — Herman Berlinski, Program notes at Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM), 1999.
T his week I have thought about Sinfonia No. 10 for cello and organ (1975-76) “Min-Ha-Maakim” [‘Out of the depths’] after I visited with a musician friend who, with others, is embarking on creating a new civic orchestra devoted to the performance of Jewish music.

A nd, following the tragedy in Tucson, I have listened especially to the first movement of this Sinfonia, ‘Min-Ha-Maakim’ (mimma`amaqqiym qerâ'thiykha). Lori Barnet’s cello and Herman Berlinski’s organ plead together, urgently. (In other words, the organ is not just a wall of sound to be fought and pierced by the cello. The two become ‘one’. Possibly this is ‘kabbalistic’? We encounter the depths as hostile ‘otherness’ and discover to our surprise that depths-Я-us. Then we are able to get somewhere.)

I  am reminded of the ‘refa na lah’ of Moses’s prayer in Numbers 12:13 (רְפָא נָא לָהּ ; Heal her, please). It is a supplication for those individuals who are suffering, surely. But at the present moment, the plea is equally fitting for our nation as well.

I  read in one Hebrew glossary that one meaning of the word ‘maakim’ is ‘precautions’. Apropos, given the events of one week ago. As we listen, hopeful for recovery, we surround ourselves with music that evokes both the concreteness and frailty of the body that each of us inhabits, and the transcendence that can be ours as well. As we stand, grieving, we sing the words of our old culture, a culture that has seen far more than its share of tragedy. As we struggle to learn to be civil or learn to restore civility that has been lost, may we get more out of being civil. Have a listen to this clip and if, like me, it resonates with you, get yourself a copy of the recording (link below). If you are a cellist or organist, maybe you will get yourself a copy of the score. Some useful resources are gathered together in the collection of links below. That is all I have to say. Words fail, music does not.

    [50-sec clip, Lori Barnet & Herman Berlinski, Sinfonia No. 10, ‘Min-Ha-Maqqym’, 1.6MB MP3]

T he recording dates from 10 years ago, but cellist Lori Barnet is still today an active freelance musician in the Washington, DC, area. She is cellist for ensembles specializing in the presentation of contemporary repertoire, including Orchestra 2001 in Philadelphia. She is also a member of the Washington Bach Consort. Barnet regularly appears as soloist, recitalist, and chamber artist, and serves as principal cellist with the National Chamber Orchestra and the Washington Chamber Symphony. She is professor of cello at George Washington University and is cello coach for the Montgomery County Maryland Youth Orchestras.

H erman Berlinski received his primary music education at the Landeskonsevatorium Leipzig, graduating with honors in 1932. Forced to leave Germany at the onset of the Nazi regime, he became a student of the Ecole Normale de Musique, studying composition with Nadia Boulanger and piano with Alfred Cortot. Berlinski, formerly a Polish citizen, enlisted as a volunteer in the French Army, receiving the Croix du Combattant Volontaire from the French government for his wartime service. He fled the German occupation of France in 1941, settling in New York. In 1960 he became the first doctoral candidate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to earn the degree of Doctor of Sacred Music. He held the posts of organist at Temple Emanu-El, New York, and Minister of Music to the Washington Hebrew Congregation. He was the founder and director of the Shir Chadash Chorale, a choir distinguished by its pioneering programs of historical and contemporary Jewish music. He died in 2001.

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