Jacob Sonderling: A Musical Visionary, From Hamburg to LA
A member of Hamburg’s B’nai B’rith Steinthal Lodge as well as an early, ardent Zionist with ties to Theodor Herzl, he was born into an important Chasidic family but eventually found his sympathies lay with the Reform movement. As the erudite leader of a Hamburg synagogue, he kept current with modern art and is believed to have convinced the important Art Nouveau silversmith Friedrich Adler to design his first Judaica pieces in 1914. During World War I, Sonderling was appointed chief Jewish chaplain to German soldiers at the Eastern Front by Kaiser Wilhelm, who later awarded him the Iron Cross.
In 1923, Sonderling immigrated to America, where he hoped to introduce his congregations to a revised liturgy that blended Chasidism’s fervent, mystical exuberance with Reform’s rational philosophy. In 1935, he founded Los Angeles’ Reform Fairfax Temple, known as the Society for Jewish Culture, where its German and English language services attracted recently arrived European refugees.
Three years later, Sonderling would commission the first of a series of choral works from four important musicians. He hoped that this music would eventually be incorporated into the liturgies of synagogues nationwide.
Writing music in a style that contains both classical and modern elements, Ernst Toch (1887-1964), born in Austria, enjoyed fame and prestige during his years in Europe but would struggle for recognition in the United States. Although several of his movie scores were nominated for Oscars, his often-delightful vocal and instrumental works remain largely unknown here. His children’s opera “The Princess and the Pea” is performed at colleges and music schools; other short pieces are occasionally heard in concert.
Visiting Fairfax Temple to recite Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for his mother in 1937, Toch met Sonderling, who invited him to compose a piece for Passover, commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from bondage. In the United States, this narrative often took on the nature of a universal celebration of freedom, as it did during the American Civil War. Yet “Cantata of the Bitter Herbs” is very specific, focusing on the holiday, and the book of Exodus in the Torah. The originality of his score met its match in the English and Hebrew script, the product of a team effort by Sonderling and two emigrés, theater director Leopold Jessner and Paramount Studio Music Director Boris Morros. Premiered at Fairfax’s 1941 on-site Seder, the cantata was later given a full-scale treatment, performed by members of Paramount’s own orchestra, and narrated by movie star Dana Andrews. The recording featured on the Milken Jewish Music Archive stars Theodore Bikel.
Like his namesake — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was a prodigy at age eight, composing ballets, vocal and instrumental music celebrated by Viennese audiences. Known for robust, witty American movie scores like “Robin Hood” and “The Prince and the Pauper” dating from the mid-1930s, he and his family left Europe permanently in 1939. One of the highest-paid film composers, he also wrote for the concert hall: Korngold’s violin concerto is still popular, and his opera “Die Tote Stadt” (The Dead City) is staged worldwide. Many more pieces are being rediscovered. Inspired by the lush romanticism of late 19th-century music, Korngold’s only religious works were commissioned by Sonderling. The rabbi himself compiled excerpts from the Haggadah for “Passover Psalm” sung in Hebrew by soprano soloist and chorus. “Prayer,” a setting of a poem by another immigrant, then-famed novelist and playwright Franz Werfel, was written for tenor, women’s choir, harp and organ. Both were premiered in Los Angeles in 1941, under Korngold’s baton.