A Reminder of Bitter Tears

Ernst Toch's `Cantata of the Bitter Herbs' was revived by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony recently. Toch's grandson, Lawrence Weschler, tells the story of its creation

My grandfather, the composer Ernst Toch, had just turned 50 and was in the second year of his exile in Southern California when he received word in December 1937 of the death of his beloved mother in his hometown of Vienna.

Over those 50 years, as he had risen to the forefront of the modernist Neue Musik movement in Weimar Germany, he had fallen away from his own Jewish roots, but in deference to her Orthodoxy, he now sought out the solace of a local synagogue where he could partake in the recitation of the kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

While there, he happened to encounter an eminent local rabbi, Jacob Sonderling (likewise of German origin, but a veteran of a much earlier emigration), and the two of them got to talking about a fitting memorial gesture.

For some years, Toch told Sonderling, he had been recalling the gemuetlich family Passover gatherings of his youth, and he had recently taken to contemplating the service as possible source material for an oratorio. Sonderling endorsed the idea and promised the support of his synagogue in mounting a full-scale production that Passover. Toch said he was unqualified to craft an appropriate text, so Sonderling (with their mutual friend Leopold Jessner, the great Weimar emigre theater director and celebrated Hebraicist) put himself into that task, and Toch set himself to crafting the music.

There could hardly have been a more charged moment in which to be doing so. As Toch and Sonderling labored over their account of the liberation of the ancient Jews from the bondage of Pharaoh's tyranny, the news out of Europe was growing bleaker. The very week that Toch turned to the most hauntingly poignant and lyrical passage in the entire piece - the tenor solo derived from Psalm 126 "When Adonoi brought back his sons to Zion, it would be like a dream" - word came of the Anschluss, with Hitler's storm troopers triumphantly goose-stepping their way into his beloved Vienna. And word came flooding out of the desperate situation of dozens of Toch's own relatives and cousins, newly trapped there behind enemy lines (more than half of whom, including his wife's sister, would never make it out).

For all the urgent immediacy of the piece's composition, Toch never conceived of his "Cantata of the Bitter Herbs" as a narrowly Jewish piece. Rather he recognized in the fate of those ancient Jews a universal theme - the yearning for freedom and liberation experienced by oppressed peoples everywhere.

In an effort to render such convictions more universally accessible, Toch consciously bent his musical idiom to a more tonal range (a range more in keeping with the Hollywood style, which would presently net him a brace of Academy Award nominations).

That Passover, Sonderling marshaled an impressive array of forces, including master players from the Paramount studio orchestra under the direction of producer Boris Morros, for the premiere of the Toch Cantata at Fairfax Temple. In addition to the piece's many other elements, it required a children's choir, and there, prominently in the first row was Toch's only child, Franzi - his recently deceased mother's eight-year-old granddaughter, the girl who would in turn become my own mother.

Fifty years following the death of my grandfather's mother, my wife gave birth to his first great-grandchild, Sara. A year later, my mother (her grandmother) was killed in a pedestrian accident.

Several years later, when Sara was eight, we happened to be traipsing through an abandoned and overgrown Jewish cemetery in a lush forest in rural Poland, contemplating the tossed and tumbled ancient headstones, evidence of a once vibrant presence, now achingly absent. The tombstones featured all sorts of weathered carvings - vases, candles, menorahs and, most mysteriously, pairs of outstretched hands, their fingers peculiarly spread in a V-formation, the thumb and two adjacent fingers to one side, the pinky and its neighbor to the other.

"Why," Sara asked, quite sensibly, "are they all saying, `Live long and prosper'?"

A few months later, while preparing a Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker around the theme of KCRW's recent Jewish Short Stories radio series, I got a chance to interview that series's host and moderator, the actor Leonard Nimoy, author of a recent memoir of his Star Trek experiences, "I Am Spock." I mentioned my daughter's query to him, and he burst out laughing, for as it turned out, he now told me, she had gotten it "exactly right."

As he had been preparing the Spock character in the early days of the series, Nimoy, who had been raised in Orthodox Jewish surroundings in Boston's West End, had thought of the eternally exiled Vulcan as a sort of cosmically Wandering Jew cast among that otherwise homogenous crew. Called upon to invent a ritualized greeting gesture for his Vulcan alter-ego, Nimoy related how he suddenly recalled one of the most charged moments of the services at his local synagogue when he was a child: how the Kohanim, the representatives of the priestly tribe, approached the raised stage and formed a semi-circle, their shawls draped over their extended arms, and their fingers outspread in that four-fingered V-configuration.

"It was a very loaded moment," Nimoy explained. "You weren't supposed to look as they began chanting, for it was said that at that moment the Shekhinah, the holy presence of God, entered the sanctuary, and that this spirit was so powerful, so beautiful, that if you saw it, you'd die. Being an eight-year-old, of course, I peeked, and the sheer theatricality of the occasion made a lasting impression, one that I subsequently summoned forth in creating that `live long and prosper' gesture."

I recorded this in The New Yorker a few weeks later, titled "Oy, Spock," and as the years passed, allowed the revelation to recede from my memory. Until recently.

Four years after my grandmother's death in 1972 (Toch himself had died eight years earlier, in 1964), I'd taken it upon myself to spread word of his remarkable musical legacy. His last 15 years in particular witnessed a remarkable late efflorescence, including an opera and seven symphonies (the third of which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize) - but Toch's work never again regained the resonance it had once held.

Recently things have begun to change. All sorts of Toch CDs have begun pouring forth - especially from Germany, where they are being very well received - ventures I had absolutely nothing to do with. To cap it off, a few months ago I received word that Noreen Green and the L.A. Jewish Symphony were going to be reviving the cantata at one of their concerts. They asked me if I had any ideas for a possible narrator. Remembering my conversation with Nimoy, I asked whether he'd be willing. He agreed.

So, earlier this month, a full-scale revival of this long-neglected work took place at the California symphony's regular digs at the Beverly Hills High School Auditorium. I myself have just turned 50 - the very age Toch was when he undertook the work's poignant challenge. At the concert I was accompanied by my daughter, granddaughter of that little girl who sang in the very first row of that very first concert.

The writer, who was on staff at The New Yorker for 20 years, was recently named director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University.

By arrangement with the Forward