“Kol Nidrei” – a Powerful Jewish Melody

“It seems to me that there is no traditional Jewish melody with similar power or intensity; “Kol Nidrei ” (All Our Vows) is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition and at the same time many composers have composed Kol Nidrei arrangements for various ensembles, or quoted it in their works. There exist numerous arrangements for voice and piano, violin, organ, cello as well as arrangements for choir with small or large orchestras. One of the best known is Max Bruch’s concert version. The melody is easily identifiable at the opening of the 6th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131. Thus the music world came to get acquainted with the melody that opens the prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur”, thus wrote the musicologist and researcher, Avraham Zvi Idelson.

The German composer Max Baruch, who served for many years as the music director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, composed “Kol Nidrei” at the behest of the Jewish community in the city. “When I heard this wonderful melody,” he said, “I felt its extraordinary beauty and after composing a version for the cello, I became enthusiastic about incorporating it in an orchestrated way in my works. I was introduced to Kol Nidrei and other Hebrew melodies via the family of Abraham Lichtenstein, the Chief Cantor at the great synagogue in Berlin.

Kol Nidrei, which opens the Yom Kippur prayers, is a distinct symbol of the Jewish people: it unites the people, members of different economic classes, more religious and less religious. The request to allow the breaking of all vows on the eve of the day of fasting and purification from sins, became a key of sorts to personal and public thinking and contemplation, and the melody that accompanies it has already been expropriated from the authority of the religious public or indeed from the Jewish people itself. It has a universal dimension. Bruch incorporated in his work, as a second theme, another Jewish melody he knew through Cantor Lichtenstein, namely “On the Rivers of Babylon”, a melody composed by cantor and musicologist Yitzhak Natan who later became one of Australia’s first famous composers.

“Kol Nidrei” was played by great cellists, including Pablo Casals, who gave the Jewish prayer an exciting performance. Exciting is also the story of the cellist David Popper, the son of a cantor from Prague. In the 1880s, Popper appeared in Odessa. At the end of the performance, after returning to the artists’ room, Popper heard a knock on his door. A man dressed elegantly entered the room and asked him to play Kol Nidrei by Bruch. Popper sat down and played the piece. When the music was over, the guest thanked Popper from the bottom of his heart and slipped a thousand rubles into his hands.

Kol Nidrei was known not only among the Jewish communities, but also to the Gentiles in Europe. They actually did not approve of the text, otherwise it is difficult to explain the following: In the late 1930s, in the days of the Weimar Republic, Jews in many communities in Germany and other European countries used the Kol Nidrei melody for Chapter 11 in Psalms, “From the Depths I have called Thee”. They feared the Gentiles who knew the melody and had a straightforward interpretation of the text. Every year the Jews sing during the prayer of the holiest day of the year: “Here I am freed from all obligations and duties.”

Pablo Casals in a recording from 1936


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