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Max Bruch (1838-1920)

Kol Nidrei for cello and piano

February 18, 2024: Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Michael Stephen Brown, piano

When Bruch was selected in August 1878 for the directorship of a choral society in Berlin, he expressed surprise since the Stern’scher Gesangverein had taken no notice of any of his choral works. He had really hoped for a position in England, which did come to pass two years later, but meanwhile he took up his duties in Berlin. He worked on just two compositions there, the Scottish Fantasy and Kol nidrei.

Bruch assumed the position of director of the Philharmonic Society in Liverpool in late August 1880, completing his Kol nidrei there that fall. Subtitled Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra, the work was composed for Liverpool’s Jewish community. The composer described his sources:

Two of the melodies are first-class—the first is an age-old Hebrew song of atonement, the second (D major) is the middle section of a moving and truly magnificent song “O weep for those that wept on Babel’s stream” (Byron), equally very old. I got to know both melodies in Berlin, where I had much to do with the children of Israel in the Coral Society. The success of Kol nidrei is assured, because all the Jews in the world are for it eo ipso [by that very fact].

Bruch’s first-mentioned melody is traditionally sung on the eve of Yom Kippur during the service of atonement, when worshipers proclaim that all vows (“Kol nidrei”) made unwittingly or rashly during the year should be considered null and void. Many melodies and their variants have been employed for the Kol nidrei, varying according to local tradition. Bruch’s Kol nidrei melody is the approximately 200-year-old Ashkenazi version, parts of which may go back more than a thousand years. Though he had to condense it, he retained most of its most characteristic turns of phrase. Bruch’s work unfolds as a paraphrase with variational sequences on the melody, and though he was writing for cello and orchestra, his approach seems vocally oriented—an area in which he always felt comfortable.

The second theme enters soulfully in the cello atop harp and string arpeggios. This melody, too, is repeated and embellished in many ways, though it never loses its poignant quality. Its treatment takes us to the end of the piece, which closes in tranquility after three rising arpeggiated figures in the cello. The composer was quite partial to this theme—he employed it again in his choral work Three Hebrew Melodies. Though a Protestant, Bruch was often thought to be Jewish because of the strong Jewish affinities so compellingly woven into his music. 

Of the many cellists asking Bruch to write something for cello along the lines of his violin concertos and Scottish Fantasy, it was Robert Hausmann, said Bruch, who had plagued him for so long that he eventually composed Kol nidrei for him. Bruch was pleased by trial performances in Liverpool by cellist Joseph Hollmann and in the arrangement he made for violin which was tried out by Ernst Schiever. Hausmann did in fact receive the dedication and gave the public premiere in Berlin. Bruch surmised from Hausmann’s reports that the work had suffered in the Berlin orchestral sessions because of “an insanely slow tempo” and vowed to conduct it himself when he came to Berlin at the end of December 1880. With Hausmann’s ensuing performance in London, Hollmann’s in Russia, Jules Delsart’s set for Paris, and publication in 1881, Kol nidrei received an auspicious launch that translated into a well-deserved place in the repertoire.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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