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Herman Berlinski

Herman BerlinskiHERMAN BERLINSKI (1910 – 2001) was a German-born American composer, organist, pianist, musicologist and choir conductor of Polish descent. The last of six children, he was brought up in the tradition of Orthodox Judaism and spoke Yiddish at home. His mother arranged piano lessons for each of the children, Herman’s starting when he was 6 years old. He was educated at the Ephraim Carlebach School, Leipzig’s only Jewish school at that time. Deborah Berlinski died in 1920 leaving the children in the care of their father who never remarried. After observing the formal mourning period called shneim asar chodesh, Herman began private piano lessons with Bronya Gottlieb, a Polish-born woman and a gifted graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory.

Having shown early talent in music and after winning a clarinet scholarship, Berlinski commenced study at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1916 at the age of 17. His first year majors were clarinet and conducting, with piano as his minor. The following year he changed his major to piano, with theory as his minor.

His teachers at the Leipzig Conservatory included Otto Weinreich (piano), Sigfrid Karg-Elert (theory), Günther Raphael (counterpoint) and Max Hochkofler (conducting). Fellow students included the Norwegian composer Geirr Tviett, and it is a sign of Berlinski’s skills as a pianist that he gave the première performance in 1931 of Tveitt’s dynamic First Piano Concerto. Berlinski graduated in 1932 with an honors degree.

Berlinski’s initial exposure to Lutheran liturgical music and the organ arose from attending Friday evening concerts at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where he heard repertoire largely centered on the period from J.S. Bach to Reger. Having overheard Berlinski rehearsing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the piano, Karl Straube, then cantor at the Thomaskirche and professor of organ at the Institut der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Landeskirche Sachsen, offered him organ lessons at the institute. But, because it was a prerequisite that Berlinski become a Christian to have access to this program and as he was not prepared to take that step, the idea proceeded no further.

Emigration to Paris
As the National Socialist party gained power in German politics, general restrictions, including involvement in the arts, were imposed upon the Jews. In 1933, having gained a Polish passport at his father’s urging, Berlinski returned to Łódź, where his parents lived originally. However, Berlinski found himself disadvantaged by being unable to speak Polish, and he was disheartened greatly by the misery of the Jewish community within which he was living. Finally, when called up for military service, he fled to Paris with Sina Goldfein, a former fellow-student both at school and the Leipzig Conservatory, herself a pianist and singer; they married in 1934.

Soon after arriving in Paris, Berlinski enrolled at the École Normale de Musique and studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and piano with Alfred Cortot. Although he valued the training he received from Boulanger, Berlinski eventually found some of her musical ideas incompatible with his own, discontinued studies with her after two years and enrolled at the Schola Cantorum of Paris, where he studied Jewish liturgical music with the Sephardic synagogue composer Léon Algazi and composition with Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur. Through Daniel-Lesur he met other young composers who were members of the group called La jeune France. Most influential were Daniel-Lesur himself and Olivier Messiaen, who although strongly inspired by their Catholic background encouraged Berlinski to explore and express his Jewish heritage.

From 1934 onward, Berlinski became involved with a Jewish art theater group known as the Paris Yiddish Avant-Garde Theatre and made up largely of immigrants formerly involved with Yiddish theatre in Vilna. Their repertoire ranged from works by Jewish playwrights such as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leib Peretz to classic Russian plays presented in Yiddish translation. Berlinski was soon appointed as music director, a role in which he continued until 1939, and for this group he directed plays or conducted, performed, arranged and composed incidental music.

In this context, Berlinski met many Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian Jews who had been driven out of their own countries. This was highly influential on the development of Berlinski’s own music style and introduced him to many themes and ideas he explored in his later compositions.

Escape to the United States
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Berlinski offered to enter military service and joined the French Foreign Legion. At the end of almost a year, he was one of only 250 survivors out of 1,250 who had been assigned to battle on the Belgian border.

In 1940, after the surrender of France to the Germans, the newly established Vichy régime collaborated with the invaders by declaring certain groups including Freemasons, Communists and Jews as “undesirables.” Thus, when Berlinski was demobilized in that same year, he received a certificate that declared him to be a “foreigner who had no right to work in France.”

Facing the high risk of internment, Berlinski and his wife obtained visas and finally sailed to the United States, arriving in 1941. With them, they took only fragments of the compositions he had written for the Yiddish theater that they had been able to save from their ransacked Paris home. Berlinski eventually would draw on this material for works he wrote soon after arriving in New York.

In New York, Berlinski was reunited with his father, Boris, who had escaped earlier from Germany. There were also other members of the family who had migrated from Łódź and were living in New Jersey. Herman and Sina Berlinski set up their home in Manhattan, and their son, David, was born there in 1942. Berlinski first earned a living by giving private piano lessons and quickly made contact with the city’s large Jewish community.

A significant event in Berlinski’s professional development was a meeting with Moshe Rudinow, who at that time was cantor of New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Through Rudinow, he was introduced to the then-named Jewish Music Forum, a body that was set up to promote the study and analysis of all aspects of Jewish music and to organize the performance of new music; Berlinski became an invited member in 1944. There he met key musicians, composers and musicologists including Lazar Weiner, Joseph Yasser, Abraham Wolfe Binder and Lazare Saminsky. He also heard there the then young and relatively unknown Leonard Bernstein performing his new works, including a piano reduction of his first symphony.

In 1948, Berlinski studied composition with Olivier Messiaen at the Tanglewood Music Center and gained from him an understanding of rhythmic and harmonic techniques that would affect Berlinski’s approach to using Jewish melodic forms in his later works.

A change in Berlinski’s career occurred in 1951 when Joseph Yasser offered him organ lessons. As a result, Berlinski quickly demonstrated a high level of skill both as a recitalist and as a liturgical organist, setting the direction for the future both in terms of his professional appointments and the types of works he composed. By 1954 he had been appointed associate organist at Emanu-El, working with Saminsky as music director. Berlinski gave his first public recital the following year. He served at Emanu-El for a total of eight years, during which time he composed many works, including choral and other liturgical music as well as pieces for the organ.

In 1953, while continuing his organ studies with Yasser, Berlinski undertook post-graduate studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), where he engaged in a musicological analysis of the origins and practices of ancient Jewish music. He also studied composition with Hugo Weisgall, an experienced composer who was descended from a long line of cantors and was interested in both sacred and secular Jewish music. Working with Weisgall and being in the climate of the seminary provided an ideal stimulus for Berlinski to explore further and express his Jewish background, which in turn became more recognizable in his music.

Having completed his masters degree program at JTSA, Berlinski undertook doctoral studies in composition there. A major set-back occurred in 1958 when he had a heart attack, but he recovered and was able to complete his doctorate in 1960 — the first person ever to be awarded a doctorate in sacred music by JTSA.

Move to Washington, D.C.
In 1963 Berlinski became music director of the Washington, D.C., Reform Hebrew Congregation. He worked under the leadership of Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld, who was enthusiastic about contemporary music and wanted the temple to be presenting the best sacred music in the city. Berlinski continued composing music for liturgical use as well as many other works, and he was called upon widely to lecture and write on the subject of Jewish music. He also gave many organ recitals, including appearances at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Leipzig’s Thomaskirche.

When Rabbi Gerstenfeld died in 1968, ending five years that Berlinski described as being “the most exciting and creative” of his life, Rabbi Gerstenfeld’s widow paid tribute to her husband by commissioning Berlinski to write the oratorio Job. Berlinski continued as minister of music at the Washington Congregation until his retirement in 1977.

After his retirement, Berlinski remained in Washington, D.C., and founded his own performing group, Shir Chadash Chorale, through which he was able to arrange the performance of much Jewish music in the city and the surrounding areas. This 30-voice choir continued its work for 11 years, giving concerts of Chanukah and High Holy Day music annually at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Washington National Cathedral.

In early 2000 Berlinski was invited by the Milken Archive to Berlin to participate in the first recording of Avodat Shabbat for release on the Naxos label as part of its Milken Archive of American Jewish Music series. Later that same year, his Sinfonia No. 12 (Die heiligen Zehn Gebote/These Holy Ten Commandments), for organ, choir, soprano, tenor, baritone, two trumpets and percussion, received its world premiere at the Leipzig Thomaskirche. A second performance was held at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich with Berlinski present. Reports say that in Munich the work received a standing ovation and that Professor Robert Helmschrott, who was then president and rector of the Munich Hochschule and to whom the Sinfonia was dedicated, greeted Berlinski in a speech at the conclusion of the concert as “his spiritual father and his music as a link between Judaism and Christianity.”

Berlinski’s last visit to Germany was early in 2001, after the Federal Republic of Germany awarded him the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit for his artistic achievements and his contribution to interfaith dialogue.

Berlinski’s final composition, Psalm 130 (Shir hamaaloth/Out of the Depths), for solo voice, choir and organ, had been commissioned by the Washington National Cathedral for the dedication of its last stained-glass window. He completed the work just weeks prior to his death, and it was first performed in the cathedral on September 30, 2001, the day of his funeral.

Berlinski was survived by his wife, Sina, and his son, David.

— Stephen Baggaley

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