by Michael Kannen
We remember and we imagine. We memorialize the past and nurture hopes for the future. We use tradition as raw material for the new and the innovative. These ideas are the motivating forces in Gerald Cohen’s music. He is a composer, but he is also a cantor, a teacher, and a parent. All of these pursuits involve a passing on of traditions- musical, religious, family- so that others may carry them into the future.
From life comes art, and so it is natural that the pieces on this disc are all, in one way or another, involved with the idea of tradition passed on. There are contemporary settings of traditional Jewish texts. There is a memorial to a late father and a blessing for a young child. Even the musical building blocks- the forms and the language- reflect an engagement with tradition, making new ideas comprehensible by their relationship to the old.
Cohen avidly weaves together several different traditions, including the “classics” of western music (especially the music of Beethoven and Brahms); the musical traditions of the twentieth century (some crucial composers in that regard are Mahler, Bartok, Britten and Copland); the traditions of Jewish texts; and the traditions of Jewish liturgical and secular music. His comprehensive knowledge of Western art music informs his specifically Jewish works, and the echoes of his cantorial training and his cultural heritage appear, as if inevitable, in his pure concert music. His music reflects all of these traditions, creating a musical voice that is distinctly his own.
In the end, however, a musical work does not succeed because of its origins or preoccupations. Gerald Cohen’s music succeeds so beautifully because it lives and breathes with vitality, energy, tenderness and sincerity.
The two chamber works on this recording are large-scale compositions, deeply felt and expertly crafted. Both pieces consist of three movements which are motivically connected and which build from movement to movement to form a compelling whole. The Trio for viola, cello and piano was composed in 1999 for the performers on this recording. The composer writes, “One important inspiration for this piece came from the challenge of writing for this combination of instruments, which differs from the ‘standard’ piano trio by replacing the more usual violin with the viola. The great advantage of this combination is the focus on the beautiful warmth and particular intensity of the viola and cello, and the wonderfully close relationship between the sounds of these lower strings.”
The work is in three uninterrupted movements, with a central scherzo surrounded by slow movements. The principal ideas of the entire piece are heard early in the first movement: the quiet chords and repeated notes of the opening, the melancholy theme heard in the viola soon after, and finally the more energetic theme in the cello later in the movement. That theme eventually transforms into the main theme of the scherzo, a movement featuring Cohen’s love of lively shifting metrical patterns. The last movement, in which a sense of quiet calm slowly builds to a return of the previous movements’ passions, ends with melting poignancy.
Many of Cohen’s vocal works, including the two heard here, are settings of Jewish liturgical texts, but are as suited to the concert hall as to the synagogue. The Four Songs on Hebrew Texts are among the many of the solo settings that he has composed, often originally for himself to sing, and it is a special feature of these recordings to hear Cohen both as composer and performer. Two of the songs were inspired by deeply personal events. The melody of Y’varech’cha, with the mood of a lullaby, was originally written in 1995 on the birth of his son, Daniel. The text is a blessing used on many different occasions, together with a special blessing usually recited for one’s children at the beginning of the Sabbath. Adonai Ro’i is a setting of Psalm 23 and was written in 1989 for the funeral of a close friend. The text of this Psalm is mainly a poem of comfort, with only a single, vague reference to death, but it has always been used in Jewish liturgy as a funeral/memorial psalm. The setting heard here is the original one, but the song has also become widely known in versions for chorus, children’s chorus, and voice and orchestra.
In contrast to the personal genesis of these first two songs, Ad Matai was commissioned in 1999 by the Cantors Assembly, with the text—Psalm 82—as a specific part of the commission. Cohen says, “I was assigned to write a piece on this psalm, and then found myself strongly drawn to its dramatic and bitter cry for social justice. The musical images came from the force of those words.” The text of V’haarev Na comes from the early part of the daily morning service. The song begins with a “recitative” section in a cantorial style, and then evolves into a meditative reflection of gratitude for God’s gift of Torah, and for our capacity to study and to learn. Cohen explains that in writing V’haarev Na and Ad Matai, “my aim was to use traditional cantorial elements, and then to expand the musical language in a way that still feels tied to that tradition. ”
V’higad’ta L’vincha (And You Shall Tell Your Child…) was commissioned in 1996 by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, and is based on the text of the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah, or “telling,” is the text that is used at the Seder, the family meal–full of discussion, ceremony, and song—that is the central feature of the Passover celebration of freedom and rejoicing.
In a program note, the composer writes: “One of the most significant themes of the Haggadah, emphasized in my choices of text for the piece, is that we all must experience the story of the deliverance from slavery as if we ourselves had lived through it; we must then tell our children that story so as to pass it down, vividly, from one generation to the next. Children are thus the central figures in the Seder, and it seemed most appropriate to write a setting of the text for children’s chorus.
“The piece begins with a chant-like presentation of the biblical verse that instructs us to tell our children the story of the Exodus, and then moves, as does the Haggadah, from the oppression of slavery to the joy of deliverance. That joy is expressed especially in the famous text Dayeinu (“It would have been enough…”), set here as a lively dance, and in the final L’fichach, which gives thanks to God in a procession which grows from a quiet beginning to an exuberant conclusion.”
Cohen’s String Quartet No. 2 was commissioned in 1991 for the Franciscan String Quartet. A composer writing a string quartet at the end of the 20th Century inevitably confronts the overwhelming traditions of that genre. For Cohen, “it was perhaps the pull of this tradition that led me to cast the first movement in sonata form–with its patterns of presentation, development and recapitulation—and also to have major and minor triads as important dramatic elements in a piece that is not tonal in the traditional sense. “ That formal structure is used in this movement to create an engaging, musically dramatic narrative that is by turns tender, playful, and intensely driving. Also influenced by sonata form, the third movement is a whirling scherzo of runs and repeated-note figures, with some lyrical interludes and a central section that is a slower, whimsical dance.
It is in the central slow movement that other elements from Cohen’s life emerge. This movement was composed as an elegy for his father. It is based on a synagogue melody that he had written earlier for a central prayer of the Jewish High Holidays, Hineni (“Here Am I”), in which the cantor expresses humility before God in being an emissary for the congregation. Once again, Cohen’s varied roles as composer, cantor, and family member come together in this piece. He says, “I used this music to communicate my thoughts and feelings about the process of mourning, and about my father, who was and is essential to my connection with Judaism.”
Gerald Cohen’s music speaks to us through its ability to respond to the personal, translating these emotions through his musical craft into an art that is expressive, important and vitally alive. That is the touchstone of his work, and its connection to a living, ongoing tradition.