Tag Archives: Jewish Bach

Is Jewish Bach possible?

In our last post we discussed the Hebrew version of the first Kyrie eleison in Bach’s Mass in B minor. We gave an interpretation of the Hebrew text used by Sara Itzig Levy, which implores God to draw near. We also provided a digitalized version of the score. Those of you who can read the score, or follow it while listening to a recording of the Mass, can see that Sara did not have a difficult time substituting her text for the Greek, in so far as the music is concerned. The same is true for the second Kyrie eleison; both Kyrie movements are fugal in nature, and the text repeats itself according to the same patterns in all voices. The Christe eleison, a duet in which the two voices either sing together in harmony or imitate one another, also presented no difficulty for the substitution of a new text.

For the Greek Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy on us), Sara substitutes Ḳ’răv-na mălkenu (Come near, our King, we pray). The long e in the penultimate syllable of both elenu and mălkenu approximates the ei in eleison. Some Hebrew speakers might say that the second e in elenu is longer than the e in mălkenu because it is followed by a yod, creating a diphthong like the ei in eleison; but Robert is not sure about this, and feels strongly that the Hebrew is more beautiful when sung with pure vowels. Therefore elenu and mălkenu should be sung with the same pure, long e sound. Notice also that in order for the rhythm to come out right, the vocal schwa in Ḳ’răv-na elenu, represented by the apostrophe, must be given the space of a full vowel; while the schwa in Ḳ’răv-na mălkenu must be rushed, so that the second ḳ’răv is pronounced as if it were a single syllable. This is quite natural, as the vocal schwa is a sort of half vowel, with a short, indeterminate sound which can be rushed over or stretched out in a musical phrase.

Here, in the Hebrew version of the Christe eleison, we have the first example of one of the principles used by Sara Levy in creating her Hebrew version of the Mass. Whenever there was a Christian concept or element of the Mass which could not be carried over unchanged for the Jewish version — in this case, the concept of Christ as God — she looked for something in Judaism that was analogous to it, or related to it by way of association. The term Christ, from the Greek Χριστός (Christós), like the Hebrew mashiăḥ, means “anointed.” Christ, in addition to being God, is the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the heir to King David’s throne. In the Hebrew Bible, mashiăḥ always refers to God’s anointed one, his chosen king. But God Himself is the King of kings, and is addressed as King in various parts of the Jewish liturgy. Just as the Kyrie text shifts from addressing God first as Lord, then more intimately as Christ, the Jewish version begins by addressing God without naming Him, and then addresses Him in a more personal way as a subject to a king. By using analogy and association in this way, Sara sought to preserve not only the inner logic of thematic elements in the Mass, but also the affective tone of each individual movement.

I would like to continue analyzing the Hebrew version of the Christe eleison, but I feel impelled, before doing so, to bring up a disturbing problem, which has been nagging me since we discussed the Kyrie eleison in my last post. It is a problem that, in fact, is alluded to in Sara’s letter to Emanuel Bach. She writes, “You are perhaps still skeptical…about the possibility of harmoniously uniting Jewish prayer with music that is so imbued with the Christian spirit.” This tells us that Carl Philipp Emanuel had raised an objection to her project, suggesting the impossibility of adapting his father’s music to a Jewish liturgical text, because the music itself is in some way inherently Christian. She does not answer this objection in the letter. She hopes that her Hebrew text “is worthy of the music” and “embodies the spirit of Judaism”; but she does not address the thorny question of Christian elements that might be built into the fabric of the music itself. We may wonder, along with C. P. E. Bach, whether J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, unlike his Passions and Cantatas, is so universal in character that it can be ripped from its Christian root and transplanted on the soil of a religion which, although closely related to it, nevertheless has its own theology, religious symbols, and history.

In coming to grips with this problem, I will refer to the marvelous blog verba docent written by Chris Shepard, Music Director of the Dessoff Choirs. In a series of blog posts in 2011 and 2012, leading up to a performance of the B minor Mass, Shepard analyzed many aspects of the music, including the ways in which the central doctrines of Lutheran theology — the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Trinity — are represented in the musical figures of the Mass, and in its form. For example, in the fourth bar of the first Kyrie movement, Shepard interprets the descending sixteenth notes in the first violin part as an image of the Incarnation:
Ḳ’răv-na elenu (I) page 1
In the continuo part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a similar sixteenth note figure accompanies the announcement of Jesus’ birth.

Shepard finds images of the cross everywhere in Bach’s music, as literal representations of Jesus on the cross, or as allusions to the cross as an agent of moral change for the believer. The horizontal beam of the cross is represented by the three equidistant notes of the diminished triad in the first bar of the second soprano part above. In Bach’s Saint John Passion, when the Evangelist reports that Jesus is being led away to be crucified, a visual cross is represented in a diminished seventh chord, with four equidistant notes.

There are sequences of notes that trace out a cross on the staff, as in the first three notes of the theme in the second Kyrie eleison movement, announced in the bassoon and bass parts of the opening measure:
Ḳ’răv-na elenu (II), page 1
The use of sharps (this movement is in F# minor) is also a reference to the Crucifixion, because the German word Kreuz can mean a musical sharp as well as a cross.

The Trinity is coded in the Kyrie section of the B minor Mass in various ways, according to Shepard. First of all, it has a three-fold form, and each of the three movements can be understood as being addressed to a different person of the Trinity; second, there are the triads, including the diminished triads that refer also to the cross; third, the rhythm of the first “Kyrie” figure is a trinity of sorts, with the dotted quarter note containing three eighth notes; and fourth, in the men’s voices the word “Kyrie” is repeated three times, as if addressing the three persons of the Trinity.

The first movement of the Kyrie, according to Shepard, depicts man as he anxiously struggles to reach upward towards God, only to be continually dragged down. There is little relief from the somberness of the minor mode. But Shepard points to a short passage in the second ritornello, beginning in measure 76, where the second flute and second violins play the fugue subject in a major key, and suddenly there is a sense of relief.

Ḳ’răv-na elenu (I) mm. 72-76Ḳ’răv-na elenu (I) mm. 77-81

He interprets this as a “moment of promise” or even a miraculous appearance of Christ, the Son, within the frist Kyrie eleison, which represents God the Father.

For the second Kyrie movement, Bach uses the Renaissance style known as stile antico, which represents both the Church, the locus of mercy, and the Holy Spirit. The cross, the instrument of mercy, is visually represented in this movement’s first motive. In the middle of the movement, a secondary motive is introduced, which Shepard calls the “mercy” motive, an urgent descending figure that provides relief from the “cross” motive, and is an answer to the plea for mercy. It begins in the bass voice at the end of measure 31, and is passed upward to the other voices:
Ḳ’răv-na elenu (II)--mercy motive

The Christe eleison explicitly addresses Christ, the second person of the Trinity. Shepard understands it as a duet between the Father and the Son; the fact that the two parts are interchangeable represents their consubstantiality. Shepard conjectures further that Bach intended the third voice, that of the violins playing in unison, to represent the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit:
Ḳ’răv-na mălkenu--page 1
And this is not just idle speculation on his part, as he has an example in hand: the Pentecost Cantata O Ewiges Feuer (BWV 34), in which Bach uses running sixteenth notes to represent the Holy Spirit descending as fire.

As Sara Levy might have exclaimed in one of her less distinguished moments, “Oy vey!” Should she have just admitted that Judaizing Bach is impossible, and abandoned her project? I don’t think so. Of course there is no denying that Bach, a devout Lutheran, inserted symbols of his faith into his music, and that his Great Mass is part of a long tradition of sacred Christian music. But I have listened many times to the music while hearing, in my head, Sara’s Hebrew words, and I am convinced that it can also work as a sacred Jewish piece. However, for those listeners who are sensitive to the figurative and formal elements of the music that have theological significance, I think it will be worthwhile to see if these can be reinterpreted within the framework of Judaism. I will attempt this for the Kyrie section, in a tentative way, in my next post.