In November 2018 The Zemel Choir marked the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, (‘Night of the broken glass’) where on the 9th and 10th November 1938, the Nazis carried out a massacre of the Jews in Germany and Austria. To commemorate this horrific event, Westminster Abbey is holding a service of solemn remembrance and hope. How poignant is it that the world has just witnessed another massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh?
This is the third time that the choirs of Belsize Square and West London Synagogues, along with the Zemel Choir, have performed for a service of this kind. Under the direction of Dr. Benjamin Wolf, these services have sought to provide music that is appropriate for the purpose of Holocaust commemoration, while also remaining true to elements of both Jewish and Christian liturgical practice. During the service they will perform a selection of music that spans many hundreds of years, including compositions by three living composers.
Four Rabbis will be officiating in the service including Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and Rabbi Baroness Neuberger DBE, alongside the Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend Dr John Hall. There will also be personal testimonies of survivors.
The service begins with organ music by Walter Arlen (born Aptowitzer). Arlen was born in Vienna in 1920 (he is now ninety-eight years old) and fled that city in 1939. He has spent most of his adult life in the USA, where he worked for many years as music critic for the Los Angeles Times. His compositions have been discovered and performed relatively recently (the first CD of his music came out only six years ago), and many of them are inspired by his direct memories of Kristallnacht, as well as the memory of his father’s removal to Buchenwald, and of his mother’s subsequent suicide. The organ music at the end of the service is by Ernest Bloch – an earlier (and more famous) Jewish émigré composer who also spent most of his life in the USA, and his known for music that combines both classical and Jewish musical traditions.
The service is introduced by one of the earliest pieces of Jewish choral music. Composed by Salamone Rossi—a Jewish musician who worked for the Gonzaga court in Mantua in the sixteenth century—this is one of a collection of compositions through which Rossi brought the world of contemporary polyphony into the synagogue. The famous text of Psalm 137 is also appropriate, recalling a previous era when Jews went into exile as a result of violence. The service continues with a traditional High Holyday melody (Shema Koleinu) that is sung throughout the Anglo-Jewish communities, and with music by Louis Lewandowski, Director of Music at the Neue Synagoge in Berlin, and the most famous composer of nineteenth-century Jewish choral music. His music formed part of the liturgy that was familiar to German Jews of the 1940s, is regularly performed at Belsize Square Synagogue, and is an important part of the Anglo- Jewish repertoire. The Enosh Ke’Chatzir is probably his most famous memorial piece. The short excerpt from his Deutsche Schul-Lieder, however, has probably not been performed since the nineteenth century. This collection of songs was created for the children that he taught at a Jewish school in Berlin. It was evidently popular in its time, as it ran to five editions, but these songs for children have not achieved the same ongoing popularity as his liturgical music. The short song that will be performed seems particularly evocative as it speaks of children seeking shelter.
Aside from Arlen, living composers are represented in Malcolm Singer’s Meditation and Cecilia McDowall’s Through a Glass Darkly. Singer’s piece was composed in memory of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor and former Rabbi of West London Synagogue who was very involved in inter-faith dialogue. This evocative piece concludes with an arrangement of Nurit Hirsch’s famous setting of the Oseh Shalom (may he who makes peace in the highest bring peace to all of us). McDowall’s composition was commissioned by the Zemel Choir and the Jewish Music Institute for Westminster Abbey’s Kristallnacht Commemoration in 2013, and will be performed again for this event.
In 2013 the Zemel Choir went stateside. Last seen by US audiences in 1987, the UK’s leading mixed-voice Jewish choir went on a whistlestop tour of the East Coast and Canada, with concerts in Boston, Rhode Island, Long Island, New Rochelle and Montreal. You remember the Spice Girls, you’ve heard Adele, you’ve listened to Mumford and Sons. Now, armed with two cantors and a tour bus, the Zemel Choir brings you its very own British invasion (but without the spangly Union Jack dresses).