About this Recording
8.559434 - JACOBI, F.: Cello Concerto / Hagiographa / Sabbath Evening Service


Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1932)
Sabbath Evening Service (excerpts) (1931)
Hagiographa (1938)
Ahavat olam (1945)
Two Pieces in Sabbath Mood (1946)

Born in San Francisco of German-Jewish descent, Frederick Jacobi was a composer in the general classical music tradition whose reputation today rests largely on his Jewish related compositions, both liturgical and secular.  In addition, he was one of the few American composers of his time to use indigenous sources in his works, reflecting his intense interest in some of the ethnic music that he felt contributed to the creation of an aggregate American musical tradition.  Just as Bartók collected the folk songs of Hungary, Jacobi, in the 1920s, visited Pueblo and Navajo tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, absorbing their traditional motifs, rhythms and sonorities, and subsequently using them in a number of his concert works.

His other major ethnic musical interest, which eventually became his primary inspiration and marked his most significant works, arose from his own Judaic heritage.  His “discovery” of his Jewish roots was probably ignited in 1930, when he was commissioned by Lazare Saminsky, music director of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, to compose a complete setting of the Sabbath Eve Service for that congregation.  Despite a lack of formal Jewish education or religious background, Jacobi seems to have been motivated from that point on to explore the artistic possibilities inherent in Jewish historical, religious and musical tradition, and soon gravitated towards biblical lore and liturgical subjects as inspiration for his creative endeavors, both sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental.  As Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil Levin points out, “In turning to Jewish musical wellsprings and thereby extending American music to include established Jewish elements and references, Jacobi was often considered part of the lineage of such composers as Ernest Bloch and Aaron Copland…who enriched American music in part by Jewish content or allusions.” 

Jacobi’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra was written in 1932, shortly after the premiere of his Sabbath Evening Service at Temple Emanu-El, and could be considered almost a spiritual outgrowth of that work.  Inspired by the Book of Psalms, it is a series of meditations on the feelings expressed in, and evoked by, Psalms 90, 91 and 92.  Each of the three movements is prefaced in the score by a quotation from those texts, which project an undeniable spirit of confidence in God’s protection.  In the program notes for a Cleveland Orchestra performance of this concerto, the three movements are described as presenting different aspects of the same religious mood: the tender, the buoyant, and the poignantly dramatic.  This concerto is not a virtuoso display vehicle for the soloist, but rather an opportunity for intense solo instrumental singing, spiritual introspection, and reflection.

New York’s Temple Emanu-El was probably the first American synagogue to commission serious 20th-century classical composers to write for its liturgy.  Four excerpts from Frederick Jacobi’s Sabbath Evening Service, commissioned by this prestigious Reform congregation, are heard on this recording.  Scored for baritone cantor and choir, the work is to be performed a cappella, without organ, reflecting the composer’s desire, as he expressed it, to “seek a return to the more simple style of the older Jewish ritual.”  While the music is clearly original in melodic and harmonic content, there are echoes of modality that evoke a common (though not necessarily historically accurate) perception of antiquity; these modal references are employed with artistic freedom and ingenuity.  The solo recitative passages have definite hints of idiomatic cantorial ornamentation, always treated with restraint, and the choral sections feature transparent textures and fluid voice leading.

Jacobi’s best-known chamber work, Hagiographa (Sacred Writings), for piano and string quartet, was written in 1938, commissioned by and dedicated to the legendary patroness of Amerian music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.  The work is a rhapsodic interpretation of episodes and moods from three biblical booksJob, Ruth and Joshua, featuring musical portraits of their principal characters.  The composer’s own notes describe what he intended to convey: “In the first movement I endeavored to reproduce the dramatic intensity of the Book of Job: the sorrows piled high upon the head of the patient Job; his resignation to them; the advent of his friends; his stormy argument with God and their final reconciliation.  Ruth is a mood-picture, idyllic and pastoral…Joshua is the siege of Jericho: the battle, the trumpets, the city’s fall, the hymn of thanksgiving, and the suggestion of a ritualistic dance.  Despite the programmatic content, each of the movements is written in a form which would be convincing from the purely musical point of view...”

Jacobi’s Ahavat Olam is a setting for cantor, choir and organ of the evening prayer text.  It was commissioned by Cantor Putterman for the 1945 annual service of new liturgical music at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue; that same evening, individual prayer settings by composers including Leonard Bernstein, Darius Milhaud, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco were also presented.  This Ahavat olam exhibits a more traditional flavor than that found in Jacobi’s earlier Temple Emanu-El service.  During the intervening 15 years, he had become increasingly involved with Jewish liturgical musical concerns, and the result can be heard in the flow of the solo melismatic cantorial lines in this setting, as well as the cantorially inspired ornamentation in some of the choral passages.  Appropriately, the setting reflects the twofold Sabbath spirit of peace and joy.

Two Pieces in Sabbath Mood (1946) is a two-movement orchestral tone poem that also depicts the dual spiritual parameters of the Sabbath in Jewish life and tradition: the tranquility that results from the avoidance of practical daily concerns; and the mandated experience of uplifting joy on both personal and social-familial levels.  Neil Levin points out that in this work, ”there are several unidentifiable but clearly derivative melodies or melodic archetypes that recall synagogue chants, modes, and motives; and there are subtle references to ubiquitous fragments of Jewish folk tunes.”

Frederick Jacobi studied with Ernest Bloch, Rubin Goldmark and Rafael Joseffy, and produced, in addition to his Jewish related compositions, piano and violin concerti, two symphonies, string quartets and other chamber works, solo piano pieces, art songs and choral works, and a three-act opera.  During the years surrounding the birth of the State of Israel, Jacobi was active in numerous national Jewish musical organizations, and became increasingly concerned with the balance between Jewish cultural nationalism and the use of folk elements on the one hand and artistic originality and imagination on the other.  At the same time, he stressed the importance of preserving elements of the Jewish musical tradition, such as biblical cantillation, prayer modes and melodic patterns.

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