Thursday, September 09, 2021

Beethoven's Kol Nidre

This is beautifully described in a 1971 letter to the editor of the New York Times
Joseph Roddy's piece on the Guarneri Quartet (“The New ‘In’ Group Is the Guarneri,” March 7), refers to the adagio of Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Opus 131. Michael Tree, the group's violist, in response to some friendly joking about his playing “Jewish” in this movement, is quoted as saying, “Look, this is the Jewish movement. Beethoven took this from a synagogue... It is very well documented.” Since neither Mr. Tree nor Mr. Roddy indicated what this documentation is, may I point out that what one hears in the opening bars of the adagio is the 1,300‐year‐old “Kol Nidre” melody which is chanted in all or most synagogues on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Leo Tolstoy, I might add, once described the “Kol Nidre,” which he had heard in a Russian synagogue, as the “saddest, yet most uplifting” of all the melodies he had ever encountered, ethoing, as it does, “the story of the great martyrdom of a grief‐stricken nation” According to Abraham Idelson in his book, Jewish Music In Its Historical Development, Beethoven's use of the melody is probably related to the request by Viennese Jews in 1825 that he compose a cantata for the dedication of the new Reform Temple. Actually, Idelson points out, Beethoven was considering the request, but somehow never got around to it. Then, a year later, Opus 131 saw the light. Undoubtedly, in earlier times, members of such outfits as the Joachim String Quartet and the Budapest String Quartet must have noticed the remarkable similarity between the Jewish melody and the opening measures of the Beethoven adagio, but the first to call attention to it in print was Emil Rreslaur, in Leipzig in 1898 in his book on the ancient origins of synagogue and secular Jewish song.
There it is, abstracted and contracted, in the very short (twenty-eight measures long) sixth movement of Opus 131:

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