Joseph L. Portnoy

While Sergiu Natra is still an active composer in Israel, he also holds a distinguished, place in the history of Jewish liturgical music in the United States by virtue of SACRED SERVICE, which he composed in 1975 for Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco, California.

This congregation was founded in 1850 by affluent German Jews and soon became the largest, most prestigious Reform Jewish congregation on the West Coast. Its musically sophisticated congregants, who were instrumental in supporting the development of a rich cultural musical life in the city, found it desirable to have the decorum and music of the concert hall duplicated in the synagogue. This musical experience was always provided by their cantor, professional mixed choir, and organist.

The music chosen for the worship service was primarily the prayer settings of synagogue composers from western and central Europe of the Nineteenth Century such as Sulzer, Lewandowski, and Naumberg. Also included in these services were music settings written specifically for the Reform prayer book by contemporary Jewish composers who came to the United States after 1920.

The music available for the Reform synagogue, while serviceable and within the Jewish liturgical tradition, could not equal the quality of religious music written for the church. The congregants hoped to hear religious music in the synagogue that would compare with the classic religious music of Bach, Beethoven, or Handel and to discover a Jewish composer who could provide them with music of such classic quality.

By a fortunate circumstance Ernest Bloch, a Jewish composer of international renown, came to San Francisco as an administrator and teacher for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He was befriended by the congregation’s cantor Reuben R. Rinder, and was prevailed upon to compose a setting for the Sabbath morning prayers of the Reform Jewish prayer book. The work was entitled SACRED SERVICE. It was completed in 1934 and acclaimed as a masterpiece of religious music. Fifteen years later, in 1949, the congregation commissioned Darius Milhaud to compose a sacred service. The services

of both Bloch and Milhaud were works, of epic proportions, symphonic in style, and would eventually take their place among the classics of religious music both for the synagogue and the concert hall.

When, in 1959, I succeeded Reuben R. Rinder as cantor of Congregation Emanu-El, the synagogue that he had served for forty-five years, I was determined to continue the practice of commissioning outstanding Jewish composers to write music for the synagogue.

That opportunity was presented to me in 1973 when the congregation authorized me to select a composer to write a sacred service to celebrate the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of the congregation to the text of the newly revised prayer book, "Gates of Prayer". The music by American synagogue composers at that time seemed, at least to me, to be somewhat static and ordinary. At the same time, I was fully aware of the musical ferment and experimentation which existed among the young Israeli composers in the State of Israel. While spending my sabbatical in Israel, in 1973, I was able to meet a number of these talented composers and listen to their music.

I was most impressed with the music of Sergiu Natra whose conservative approach to atonality seemed an appropriate way to introduce a "new sound" for the Reform Jewish worship service. He accepted the commission to write a sacred service for the congregation that same year.

Since he was unfamiliar with the style of the Reform service, he carefully studied the text of the new prayer book to become acquainted with the length, sequence, the theological content and design of the Hebrew prayer text.

After he had explored the considerable musical literature already available for the worship service, he expressed his concern to me in a letter dated May 2, 1973:
The more I look into the music material I’ve studied, the better I realize the problems such enterprise poses for the contemporary composer; he has to express the text in understandable music - accessible - but without giving up the high standards of expressivity musicians try nowadays to attain. I wish that I shall be inspired enough to write a work such as the text deserves.

The score was completed after two years work. When I received and studied the score in 1975, I felt that Natra had succeeded admirably in solving the many problems that had troubled him when he began to compose the service. He had written a service that was at once personal, but accessible, and had achieved the high standard of expressivity he had imposed upon himself.

He designed the prayer service to be divided into the following sections: Morning Blessings, Yotzer, Sanctification, Meditation, Torah Reading, and Closing Prayers. Within these major sections are included numerous but brief Hebrew prayers. Natra chose to set 21 of these to music. The composer, following the liturgical sequence of the prayers, wrote music that fully expressed their didactic and emotional content.

Beginning with the calm pastoral quality of the Ma Tovu, we are roused by a vibrant call to pray in the Barechu. The Shma Yisrael, after a somewhat lengthy organ introduction, builds to a stirring climax. The quiet, almost recitative style of the Michamocha gives this prayer a unique meaning and is a proper way to prepare for the major significance and prominence accorded to the Kedushah. After a brilliant, brief organ introduction, the Kedushah is sung in sharp, rhythmic declamatory style. The narrow interval sequence and tunefulness of the composition makes it possible for the congregation to join in singing this prayer.

The meditative music which follow the Kedushah and accompanies the Silent Devotion has an almost mesmerizing charm, which culminates in a beautifully lyric Ose Shalom, one of the few selections in which some rhythmic improvisation is permitted. Musical selections for the Torah Reading are given the necessary dramatic intensity to highlight the importance of this portion of the service and fit very well with the staging and movement required during the reading of the Torah.

The concluding prayers: Va’anachnu, Vene'Emar and Yehi Shem Adonay present an expressively proper musical ending for the worship service, sung ad libitum by the cantor and concluding with the choir’s repetition of the final "Amen, Amen".

I have only commented on a few of the musical responses in this SACRED SERVICE to indicate the compatibility of the music with the text of the Reform prayer book. Of the 21 responses, only two would be difficult to include within the framework of the worship service: the elaborate Baruch Ata for soprano and instruments, which follows the Barechu, and the lengthy Ets Chayim at the conclusion of the Torah Reading. 

I found the frequent use of the moderate declamatory or recitative style of music for the cantor, followed by an antiphonal response by the choir, most conductive to expressing the meaning of the Hebrew text. The music for the cantor and choir is not difficult and remains within a comfortable musical range. The more complex, often dissonant, music is contained in the organ accompaniment, which often includes wide interval leaps and complex harmonies that can make it difficult to find the proper pitch for vocal entrances.

The Natra SACRED SERVICE, however, does not pose the problems in performance inherent in Bloch's and Milhaud's sacred services that were written in the style of oratorios to be performed without interruption between the Hebrew musical responses. These responses have no logical musical endings when used in a prayer service that includes responsive readings between the Hebrew prayers.

Natra’s responses have logical musical endings and though the music must be alternated with responsive readings, the musical sequence seems to retain its unity and sensitiveness, thereby giving, the service a recognizable musical structure.

The music does not rely for its appeal on traditional concepts of Jewish music, melody, or lyric sentimentality but offers a fresh, vigorous, contemporary musical expression the Hebrew prayers. While the music might be considered avant-garde, it still remains essentially very conservative. As one listener remarked to me upon hearing the service, some parts seem reminiscent of Britten’s opera, PETER GRIMES.

When the service was first presented at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco on May 15, 1976, the synagogue was crowded with worshippers who sat enthralled by the freshness and beauty of the music that lent new meaning to the Hebrew prayers.

The following review by the music critic Alexander Fried appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 17, 1976: Congregation Emanu-El has over the years fostered an admirably creative attitude toward the uses of new music. A further impressive step in that tradition took place on Saturday morning in the premiere of the SACRED SERVICE by Israeli composer Sergiu Natra.

In the past the Emanu-El congregation has commissioned major ’Sacred Services’ from Ernest Bloch and Darius Milhaud, among other composers. The Bloch and Milhaud works, for example, were compositions of substantial emotional and even dramatic impact. They have kept a place in both religious and concert repertories.

Natra’s approach has been different. His score does not aim so much at tonality architectural powers formally gathered into a piling up of unity. Instead, what he has written is variously applied to segments of synagogue ceremony as they emerge in music, prayer, and sermon.

While the idiom belongs to the 20th Century and offers some dissonance as part of its feeling, it is not modernistic. It spreads warmth and lyrical appeal in its emotional spirit. The elements of music and devotion enrich each other. The music has heart and buoyancy.

By both the congregation’s response and the critic’s review, it was evident that Natra’s SACRED SERVICE, which was significantly different in form and style, compared most favorably with the previous outstanding services commissioned by Congregation Emanu-El.

While it has been helpful to invite music critics to analyze and evaluate the quality of music written by Jewish composers who accept the challenge and hazards of composing musical setting for the prayers of the synagogue, the final judgment will usually remain with the congregant who will decide whether the music serves to enhance his or her religious experience during the worship service. This judgment will always remain subjective and be influenced by illusive factors beyond the control of the composer.

At all costs, however, l believe that the serious Jewish composer must remain true to his personal muse. As a creative artist he must express his individual uniqueness, utilizing his intuition and the knowledge, skill, and talent he possesses. Sergiu Natra is such a composer. He has heeded the words of the psalmist to first "Sing unto the Lord a new song" and then hope that the worshippers will join in that song.

Those of us who have ears to hear, minds to comprehend, and hearts to feel will remain indebted to Sergiu Natra and acknowledge his major contribution to the musical liturgy of the Reform Jewish synagogue.

Joseph L. Portnoy is Cantor Emeritus of the Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, California, USA. He receive his musical education at the Juilliard School of Music, New York City, and earned the degree of Bachelor of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College, New York City. He also earned the degrees of Bachelor of Music from College of William and Mary, Richmond, Virginia; Master of Education from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia; and Doctor of Education from the New York University, New York City, USA.