One Composer's Spiritual Journey

by Aaron Minsky (Von Cello)

I had a sheltered childhood. It wasn't sheltered in the typical sense. I was certainly not sheltered from the realities of modern urban life, such as sex, drugs, and violence. No, my childhood was sheltered in that most everyone I knew was Jewish. Of course I had some friends who weren't Jewish, but religion never came up for discussion. In our neighborhood people kept their religion to themselves, and most didn't think much about religion anyway. For most of us Jews, it never dawned on us that we were Jewish, or that our beliefs or ways of looking at things were any different than anyone else's. Does a fish know he's a fish? That is why it was such a shock to me when I went away to college and suddenly found myself in a majority Christian environment, surrounded by evangelical Christians trying to convert me.

Actually, my first experience with a conversion attempt happened during high school. I was befriended by a boy who was new to my school. A New Yorker by birth, he had been abandoned by his parents, forced to live in foster homes, finally running away to California. After a couple of years out west, he had returned to live with his mother and finish high school. We never spoke about religion but it was obvious that he was Jewish. The first religious shock of my life came when he revealed that he had become a Jew for Jesus. He explained that while he was on the road, he was taken in by born again Christians who showed him the love he never received from his Jewish parents. After much reading and praying, the spirit of Jesus entered him and he became born again. He used all his powers of persuasion to pull me away from the beliefs of my friends and "save" me. Though this was very upsetting to me, he was only one person in a sea of Jews among whom I found much support. College in Boston was my first experience of being on my own, and being in the minority.

Not having had a thorough religious upbringing, I was unprepared as to how to respond to Christian ideas and the challenges they presented to my own beliefs. Suddenly I was being told that I would end up in a terrible, frightening place called "hell" if I did not accept their strange ideas about a man being born of a virgin, and rising from the dead. This was very disturbing stuff to be confronted with as a teen away from home for the first time. I wasn't even sure if I believed in God, let alone that He became a man and rose from the dead, and I didn't know how to react to this concept that God set up a situation in which you had to believe unbelievable things or go to hell!

Being immersed in music in those days (after all, I was attending a music conservatory) I turned to the great composers for guidance. I noticed that all of them seemed to believe in God. Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms...all the greats wrote music praising God. I became influenced to believe in God because of their wonderful music. I felt that if all these geniuses believed, who was I not to? And it did not go unnoticed that they were Christians. The great J.S. Bach, in particular, devoted much of his writing to Christian themes, leading me to wonder if perhaps Christianity really was the "truth". Otherwise why would God have given so much talent to someone, allowing him to create such wonderful music about something false?

Upon deeper research I noticed that Beethoven, while writing music praising God, seemed to shy away from the specifics of Christian theology. He seemed to have a more open view of God as the "heavenly father" of all mankind. Beethoven's more universalist view of God seemed to imply that there was not one way to God but many. This inclusiveness made me feel better about the beliefs of my upbringing, but I still hoped to find Jewish spirituality reflected somewhere in the annals of classical music.

As I dug further into my musical studies, I became aware that some of the great composers were some extent. For instance, Felix Mendelssohn was Jewish according to Jewish law, but his father had converted to Christianity and raised Felix as a Christian to further his music career in the anti-Semitic climate of Germany. Though he remained supportive of Jewish causes, Mendelssohn did not let Judaism enter his musical output. He even wrote a symphony that he called the "Reformation Symphony" that was full of Christian symbolism. Despite this, he was still looked down upon because of his Jewish ancestry by none other than the famous composers Schumann and Wagner!

Studying the music of the late Romantic period, I discovered that Gustav Mahler had Jewish melodies in his symphonies and he seemed to express in his music the conflicts and searchings of a Jewish soul. It turns out that he too had converted to Christianity to further his career. He would not have been allowed to conduct the Vienna State Opera as a Jew! So he did convert, but he made it clear to friends that it was strictly for business. After his conversion he said he had "changed his coat," implying that the inside had stayed the same. Nevertheless, he was hardly in a position to proclaim an overt Jewish message in his music (though the covert message can be clearly heard).

I found out that there were other unlikely Jewish classical composers such as Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jacques Offenbach, though there was little if any Jewish sound to their music. Meyerbeer did, however, set some Jewish texts to music and remained a committed Jew despite the intense anti-Semitism of his times, including attacks on his music by Wagner and other anti-Semites.

There were modern American Jewish composers such as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin who wrote music as American as apple pie. They sometimes borrowed heavily from African American styles, such as jazz. Though one can detect some Jewish influence in the melodies of Gershwin, neither composer seemed to write music reflecting a Jewish spirituality. In Russia, Shostakovich wrote music that could have been expressive of a Russian Jewish spirituality, but he too, didn't deal overtly with Jewish subject matter except in rare cases such as in his Symphony #13, which includes the poem Babi-Yar, a poem about the mass murder of Jews at a site in Russia, by the Nazis. I think he probably would have dealt more with Jewish themes had he not been under the watchful eye of the Soviet state and its "godless communist" leaders.

Ernest Bloch has the honor of being the first classical composer to make his reputation writing overtly Jewish music. He wrote several short pieces for cello and piano like Scenes From a Jewish Life. These pieces used Jewish sounding melodies to create musical portraits. His magnificent rhapsody for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, expressed very deep levels of Jewish feelings: the stirrings of a restless soul, the anger at the centuries of oppression, and the will to survive. Bloch did set some Jewish texts to music too, but generally, he seems to express the emotions of spirituality, rather than the specifics of theology.

Other modern Jewish composers, such as Schoenberg and Bernstein, occasionally dealt with Jewish themes, ex. Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron, and Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony. In these works, the composers created music that reflected their own commentaries on traditional Jewish texts. Schoenberg created a twist on the Torah's recounting of the relationship between Moses and Aaron, changing the story line to make his own point about sublimating the physical aspects of religion into a solely spiritual relationship with God. Bernstein used the positive statement of faith known as the Kaddish, to question God and even question the existence of God. Questioning is certainly in the Jewish tradition, but I was looking for an affirmation of the Jewish religion, not commentaries questioning its traditional outlook.

I was saddened that I could not find what I was looking for. I wanted to find a Jewish classical music that moved beyond portraits of Jewish life, arrangements of Jewish sounding melodies, and expressions of the Jewish soul. I wanted to hear music like Bach's religious music; music that dealt directly and positively with religious beliefs. Though there are a few examples of such music in classical music history, they are pretty obscure, and most require getting an orchestra and chorus together to perform them. I rarely came into contact with such music, and since that was the case for me, I knew that most other people had even less of a likelihood to do so.

Just as I had once noticed that there were no pieces for solo cello in the standard repertoire utilizing American popular styles, and took it upon myself to fill that void with my Ten American Cello Etudes, I decided that I would try to do the same in this case. I would write music for solo cello that reflected traditional Jewish beliefs. I began this journey by heading to the source: Israel. I went there with the express purpose of digging to the roots of my Jewish heritage, culturally and spiritually. I wanted to understand what it was about that land, and the Jewish religion in general, that had such a hold on the imagination of not only Jews, but the whole world. I spent much time delving into religious discussions and visiting holy sites, and I listened to the music; especially the religious music. After absorbing as much Jewish spirituality as I could in Israel, I came back to New York and immediately wrote what was to become the last movement of Judaic Concert Suite, Sound the Shofar.

Inspired by my trip, I continued my religious studies and my musical research into Jewish spiritual melodies. I became a regular attendee of the Synagogue service, and celebrated every Jewish holiday. It was during these years of steady religious practice that I wrote the Variations on Adon Olam. I had first heard this melody as a teenager, emanating from a synagogue located at the end of the driveway in my back yard in Brooklyn. I remember sitting and listening to the way the melody rose and fell, as it was sung by a congregation of old Jewish men. Even then it seemed to express something deeply spiritual, though at the time I didn't understand the words or the meaning behind them. As my knowledge of Judaism increased, my admiration for that melody and the words attached to it only grew. I knew that Max Bruch had written a popular piece for cello and orchestra based on the melody of the famous prayer known as the Kol Nidre. I felt that Adon Olam also deserved to be transported into the cello literature. It was a perfect vehicle to express in sound my spiritual awakening.

A few years later, I began working with the top Orthodox Jewish bands in New York City, playing at hundreds of Orthodox weddings. Through this process, I became intimately familiar with the modern melodies and rhythms of contemporary Jewish music, from deeply heartfelt ballads, to up tempo dance medleys that would go on for an hour at a time. It was through this experience that I developed the tools to compose Entrance of the Bride and Groom.

Though these three pieces were written several years apart, and were inspired by events in different parts of the world, they seemed to flow together in an uncanny way, as if they were meant to be together; as if they were, as they say in Yiddish, "beshirt." I believe this is the case because they each reflect my spirituality, which has a core that has continued through many years, even as it has changed, developed, and moved in and out of focus. I suppose the composing of this suite could be compared to the writing of a book, which can take years to complete, yet still makes a unified statement.

Aside from using Jewish type melodies and rhythms, I wanted my pieces to go beyond descriptions of Jewish life, to express religious principles in sound. These would not be pieces about a rabbi praying, or a Chasid dancing, etc., these pieces would reach below the surface and express specific ideas from the traditional Jewish faith.

The following is a brief explanation of each piece, written for the sheet music, published by Oxford University Press:

Entrance of the Bride and Groom - portrays a traditional Jewish wedding. After the ceremony, the bride and groom go into seclusion while the guests mingle about quietly. When the couple finally emerge and enter the reception hall, the guests break into wild song and dance, as if a king and queen had entered the room. Spiritually, the bride and groom united, are symbolic of the unification of God and mankind, so the dancing is also a form of prayer, demonstrating the hope that one day God and man will be as one.

Variations on Adon Olam is a set of variations on one of the most famous melodies of the traditional Jewish liturgy. The words of the prayer speak of God as the "Lord of the universe, who reigned before anything was created", and they speak of a time when "after all things shall cease to be, the Awesome One will reign alone." This mood of awe and timelessness is reflected in the musical variations.

Sound the Shofar begins with the call of the ram's horn, known in Hebrew as the shofar. The shofar is blown during the Jewish High Holidays. Its soulful cry is believed to bring the listener closer to an experience of the divine. After dancing at the unification of God and man, and praying to the Lord of the Universe who exists beyond time, it is time for us to open our ears to the shofar and find our own path to the King who reigns over all humanity.

One can see that there is a core belief expressed in this suite. It is a universalist belief, of the type expressed by Beethoven, but it is viewed through a different prism. Many people think of the Jews as a people who see themselves as "the chosen" and who look down upon the rest of humanity. This is not true. Judaism proposes a world where people of all nations can approach God, despite cultural and historical differences. Though the traditionalists do see themselves as having been "chosen" to be the ones to receive the Torah, and to spread its ideas to the rest of humanity, the Bible makes it clear that Jews must show concern for all of God's children. In fact, the Messiah (Moshiach) in Jewish thought, will become not just the "king of the Jews," but the king of all the nations, and will dispense justice to all the peoples. Furthermore, in Jewish belief, God judges everyone based on actions, whether he be a Jew or gentile. The Jewish world view is, in fact, highly equitable and inclusive.

If truth be told, traditional Christianity is a religion that sees its followers as "the chosen", and all who do not follow its precepts as doomed. Traditional Christianity says, "Accept Jesus as your savior or else!" Traditional Islam says, "Accept Mohammed or else!" Of course there are many people in each faith who have modernized their beliefs to be inclusive of other views, but historically each of these religions proclaimed its path as the one and only way to God, and there are still many adherents of each who preach that all other paths lead to hell. Yet in Judaism the belief has always been that the righteous of all nations go to heaven!

It is this message of inclusively that pervades my Judaic Concert Suite. The first movement is about dancing for joy at the symbolic representation of God and man uniting as one. The second movement is a prayer to the King of the Universe, who is the God of all mankind. The final movement is a representation of the shofar, which creates a sound capable of bringing the listener into a feeling of communing with the divine. There is nothing divisive here. Anyone can dance for, pray to, and commune with God, no matter what they conceive God to be.

The Variations on Adon Olam also deal with the concept of resurrection. The last variation is based on words which allude to a faith beyond death: "Into His hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake. And with my soul, my body too, the Lord is with me. I shall not fear!" (The word "wake" can be interpreted to mean regaining consciousness in the afterlife.) This final "funereal" sounding variation expresses the feeling of "passing on". In fact, the final measures portray the spirit ascending, just before the body's final "deep sleep."

The middle choral section of Sound the Shofar is based on the famous Jewish prayer, the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Praised be His name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever." This prayer, though addressed to Israel, is about the oneness of God, implying the oneness of man as well. And though the shofar is only played in Jewish services, through the representation of it in this cello piece, it will now be "heard" by people of every race and creed, and the message of a single world, under God, with liberty and justice for all, will be spread everywhere this music is performed.

My main goal in writing this suite was to express this largely unknown, yet wonderful, aspect of Judaism: this concept of oneness, and the belief in the ultimate unfolding of a world of peace and love for all peoples of all nations. Yet there was also the motivation from my childhood to create music to help young Jews who may be confused about their faith, to see the beauty of their tradition; a tradition as beautiful as Bach's tradition and Beethoven's tradition.

It is my fervent hope that all people will move more and more into an acceptance of other people, and they will move away from beliefs that condemn "the other" to horrible places like "hell," or condone and glorify the murder of those who refuse to accept a certain set of beliefs. I hope my Judaic Concert Suite will help move humanity, if ever so slightly, onto the path of universality and inclusivity!

As I sit here staring at my just published Judaic Concert Suite, with its beautiful blue and white cover, with a Jewish star made out of clouds surrounding the title ... I can only wonder what the future of this music will be. Where will it be played? Who will hear it? Who will be affected by it? Might it remain in the cello repertoire for centuries? Though I will not receive much of a financial reward from the publication of this music, it is the right to day-dream like this, that is one of the great rewards of publishing music, particularly music about one's own spiritual journey.


For those interested in getting a copy of Judaic Concert Suite, ask your local music dealer to order it from Oxford University Press, or send an email to Oxford with your request. Click here:

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