The Friday Evening Service, composed in 1963, was commissioned by the Park Avenue Synagogue of New York City and performed there for the first time on May 3, 1963, by Cantor David Putterman and a choir under my direction.
In composing the Service I tried to create an expression of directness and intimacy, relevant to the modest, undramatic conduct of worship in the traditional synagogue. The atmosphere of the music seeks to draw the congregation in, to encourage a reverent yet joyous communion; to this end the voices have been given absolute primacy, and the organ and the role of punctuation and color. Forms have been kept simple, polyphony avoided, and all elaboration of material kept to a minimum. Indeed, were it possible to further reduce the texture to a single line of adequate strength and richness, I would gladly do so; for I am more interested in the image than it its elaboration, the bare theme more than its variation and extension.
Traditional fragments have been used in a very free way, but the traditionalism of the Service stems more from absorbed experience than applied method. I have confronted the multiple traditions which are my inheritance and have extracted the essence of those which have meaning for me in my effort to create a new expression of tradition.
Since its first performance in 1963, The Friday Evening Service has been performed with some frequency, almost always in a liturgical setting as an integral part of the worship service. I never thought of this work as separated from its function as a service of worship. It was not intended to be performed as an organic continuity in a concert hall, in the manner of an oratorio of a cantata. Had that been the intention, the structure of the composition, its dramatic flow and the connection between movements would have had an altogether different design. Nor had I ever succumbed to the temptation to orchestrate the supporting instrumental music. The seemed to me to be too fancy an idea, flying in the face of my original concept creating a worship service for normal use, “modest, direct, intimate and undramatic.”
These comments about the scale and intention of The Friday Evening Service help to explain why I resisted the temptation to detach this music from its synagogue function and to bring it into the concert hall. I designed the piece to fulfill the worship activities within the synagogue, not to preempt them. In the face of this, what made me change my mind about encouraging The Friday Evening Service to be performed “in public,” so to speak?
The answer lies in the state of synagogue music in our culture today. It is possible the orthodox ritual has retained its traditional chants in a fairly undefiled practice. But in most Conservative and Reform synagogues, the music has undergone a disastrous decline. Choirs, when available, inflict bland anonymous music mostly descended from the lowest rung of 19th-century church liturgy. Cantors intone the same old “sentimental” chants occasionally spiced up with renditions of pseudo folk songs from Eastern Europe, East Broadway and the Near East. Youth groups, blandly accompanied by mindless guitar strums, sing campfire songs of “authentic cowboy” origins to liturgical texts. Where in this is spiritual aspiration, where fervor, passion, conviction? Is this what “traditional” means? Is Disney World our tradition of choice? Are we aware of the depth and richness of our heritage from many sources, epochs and cultures?
Under such circumstances it is clear that liturgical music such as mine cannot find a happy home in the synagogue. Nor for that matter can the music of Achron, Bloch, Fromm, Milhaud and Lazar Weiner. Therefore, if I want my liturgical work to be heard, I must find a way to make it presentable in a public forum. Such adaptations are not unheard of: Handel, facing the demise of the Italian opera house in London, made the necessary modifications in his approach. He continued to give full play to his unparalleled dramatic impulses but now in oratorio form with arias, massive choruses, biblical subjects and English texts.