About this Recording
8.559460 - SPIRO, Simon: Traditional Cantorial and Concert Favorites



The release of this recording of cantorial classics for both the synagogue and the concert stage is an example of the Milken Archive’s mission to preserve and bring to new and broader audiences important aspects of the rich musical heritage of Jewish life in America.  The selections heard here embody interpretations and extensions of the eastern European Ashkenazi cantorial tradition that developed in Czarist and Hapsburg Europe from the late 19th century until World War I.  This cultivated tradition, known as hazzanut, involves highly developed, intricate and often florid vocal idioms based partly on Hebrew prayer modes, biblical cantillation motifs, and traditional tunes, with additional influences derived from eastern European folk music.  Several of the works on this CD were written by prominent, émigré cantor-composers and cantorial choir directors who came to this country from Europe during the inter-war years, often attaining celebrity status; they include Moishe Oysher, Samuel Malavsky, Joshua Lind and Zavel Zilberts.  Cantor Spiro has arranged many of these compositions, overlaying contemporary musical sonorities and sensibilities on a traditional foundation.

The opening selection on this new CD, Ba’avur David, is a liturgical piece intended for that portion of the service on Sabbaths, Festivals, or High Holy Days when the Torah scrolls are returned to the arc following the biblical readings.  One of the most familiar of the virtuoso cantorial “warhorses,” this work represents a kind of composite pastiche not infrequently found in the liturgical repertoire: much of the piece is based on various motifs that were gradually embellished and extended by different cantors over time.  The last section, however, beginning with the word “hashivenu,” is the acknowledged work of two composers: Joseph Rumshinsky, who wrote the melody, and the celebrated cantor, David Roitman, who adapted and popularized the piece.  Rumshinsky, one of the best-known composers of the popular American Yiddish theater and a powerful force on the Second Avenue scene, nonetheless maintained a connection to synagogue music.  As Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil Levin points out, “Most early choral arrangements of ba’avur david have leaned toward pedestrian harmonization, deferring to cantorial interpolations and improvisations to build musical interest.  This new arrangement by Simon Spiro, commissioned expressly for the Milken Archive, combines a variety of English, American, and eastern European choral timbres and idioms with a fresh harmonic approach and extended chord structures.”  At the same time, it offers opportunities for expressive improvisation in the great cantorial tradition.

The beloved Shalom aleikhem, one of two Sabbath z’mirot or “table-songs” heard on this disc, is customarily sung at home before the prayer over the wine at the start of the Friday evening meal, to usher in the Sabbath peace.  The tune heard here, by Rabbi Israel Goldfarb, who was also a cantor and an influential figure in American Jewish music for half a century, is ubiquitous among American Jews, and has acquired the status of a folk tune. 

The setting of Haven Yakkir Li Efra’im by Samuel Malavsky is an example of a liturgical piece that has been transformed into a concert work.  During the “Golden Age” of cantor-composers in the United States (the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s), it was not uncommon for religious texts with inherent emotional, even theatrical qualities to receive musical treatment designed to appeal to a broad audience for performance on the concert stage.  The text of Haven Yakkir Li, taken from the Book of Jeremiah, comes from the Rosh Hashana (New Year) liturgy, and refers to God’s remembrance of the Jewish people and His unswerving assurance of compassion.  The poetry alludes to a relationship in which a beloved child, though he has provoked justifiable parental anger, is nonetheless remembered tenderly by the parent and loved just the same.  In the liturgy, this promise extends to the entire Jewish people.  Samuel Malavsky wrote this work in a theatrical vein expressly for the Malavsky Family Choir, in which he was joined by his six children; the Simon Spiro version heard on this CD, while deeply expressive, reveals a more restrained approach.

The seven wedding benedictions or sheva b’rakhot constitute the final part of a Jewish marriage ceremony following the groom’s formal avowal of the marriage, the placing of the ring, and the reading of the marriage contract.  Intoned either by the wedding officiant or by several individuals, the recitation of the sheva b’rakhot has been interpreted as a means of relating the establishment of a new Jewish home to the Creation and to Israel’s history.  The first benediction is recited over wine, as a symbol of joy, and the final one blends the personal and the communal, linking the rejoicing of the couple with the collective joy of Israel.  In traditional wedding ceremonies, these prayers often provided a vehicle for extended cantorial and choral expression.  The elaborate cantorial-choral setting of the sheva b’rakhot by Simon Spiro heard on this Milken Archive CD is based on a combination of two earlier compositions by Sholom Kalib and Meyer Machtenberg.  In his new arrangement, Cantor Spiro has gone far beyond the original versions of both sources, adding inventive chord structures and progressions and incorporating other traditional cantorial passages, as well as new material.

Eastern European Yiddish folklore is the source for the final work on this recording, Strange Happenings: The Holy Day Calamities of Avremele Melamed.  Recounting examples of his comical misfortunes while feigning commiseration, the song pokes fun at Avremele, a hapless village Jewish schoolteacher, religious instructor and born “loser.”  His luck seems always to be against him at holy day times: forbidden grains appear in his matza dumplings on Passover, he arrives too late at the synagogue on Rosh Hashana to hear the shofar, his rooster dies before he can perform an atonement ritual before Yom Kippur.  One of a number of settings about this hapless bumbler, the dramatic concert arrangement heard here, with its virtuoso solo cantorial element, is by Maurice Goldman (d. 1984), a prolific composer of both Hebrew liturgical and Yiddish choral music

Born in London, Cantor Simon Spiro drew upon his family heritage of Hassidic and Yiddish cultures and its earlier cantorial tradition in finding his calling.  A leading interpreter of the cantorial art renowned for his virtuoso abilities, his varied repertoire ranges from classical renditions of traditional European hazzanut to popular Yiddish song, and from contemporary Jewish musical styles to popular entertainment.  Cantor Spiro’s first pulpit was at the famous orthodox St. John’s Wood Synagogue, then the seat of the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, and he has subsequently held positions at major synagogues in Canada and the United States.  His concert tours have taken him to Australia, South America, Israel, South Africa, and the Far East—performing both cantorial and more popular music and appearing with well-known stage personalities.  In addition, he is an accomplished composer and arranger whose arrangements of liturgical music are in great demand by cantors and choirs throughout the world and can be heard on several successful recordings.

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