Saturday, January 31, 2009


Last Wednesday, a week after my own practicum, I was happily given the opportunity to sing in the choir for a practicum honoring Avodat HaKodesh--The Sacred Service--by Jewish composer Ernest Bloch. In 1933, using the text of The Union Prayer Book in it's liturgical order, Bloch created a piece for cantor, choir and orchestra that was intended for use in the Reform synagogue. To date, it is the only piece of it's magnitude to mainstream into both the secular and Jewish musical realms, and many parts of it are used in synagogues even today. It is an incredible work, one in which I've come to appreciate more and more as I've worked with it.

As I listened to Mary and Lev sing the cantorial parts, I realized just how special it is to be able to sing this piece and carry it on into my own cantorial career. Pieces like this are rarely appreciated in the synagogues these days, which is a very sad thing. Other religions carry their musical traditions with them in high reguard; Handel's Messiah is one example (who doesn't love the Hallelujah Chorus?) This is the only piece of Jewish music to reach this level of artistic and musical value, and while I so easily found prayer within it, I realize that so many Jews are unable to appreciate it for what it's really worth within a service.

As cantors, it is hard for us to uphold this appreciation while our rabbis and congregations are demanding the current trend of folk-inspired congregational melodies. We must walk a fine line between keeping ourselves musically and spiritually fulfilled and keeping our congregants happy and prayerful. As much as I hate to admit it, the folk songs get boring, and the musical talents we've worked so hard to develop are often wasted within them. Our challenge, as cantors, is to bring back the real MUSIC of our movement while simultaneously responding to the trends within Jewish music. It's not an easy battle, and oftentimes, we lose due to the pressures and demands of keeping everyone satisfied.

Bloch's Sacred Service is a piece that I'm just beginning to understand and appreciate, but already I realize that it's something we must keep active within our movement. This glorious piece of music, with it's exciting harmonics and beyond gorgeous melodic lines CAN NOT go to waste. As a future cantor, I am starting to think about ways to use this service within a real congregation, even one which prefers folk songs to the other music available. I'm certain it can be done (and it IS done within congregations that can afford to buy the rights and perform it) and I'm excited to figure out ways to incorporate it--in all it's majesty--into my cantorate.

My hope is that one day, every Jew will listen to this piece and appreciate it--even a fraction as much as I do.

Before that, however, I must learn to sing the cantorial part. That in and of itself is a HUGE challenge.

BTW, if you're interested, it's available on iTunes. I highly recommend it :-)


Erin Boxt said...

Speaking of "sacred service," Stephanie and I were at HUC's Saturday morning service yesterday...the 5th year student and the Cantor did the Bonia Shur arrangement for the Amidah...and I smiled at Stephanie because the first time I heard that version was when it was sung SOOOO beautifully by you! And I will never forget that service...we miss you terribly!

Raphaela said...

Hi Tracy,
I'm studying at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and writing a seminar paper on Bloch's "Sacred Service." I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about your experience performing it in the practicum. You can email me at