Herman Berlinski

Saturday 15 December 2001 01:00

Hermann (Herman) Berlinski, composer, pianist and organist: born Leipzig, Germany 18 August 1910; married 1934 Sina Toldfein (one son); died Washington, DC 27 September 2001.

Herman Berlinski's deep involvement with Jewish liturgical music meant that his compositions didn't get the attention they deserve on the wider stage of concerts and recordings. But in a particular part of the musical world they are part of the central repertoire.

Berlinski was born in Leipzig, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, and studied clarinet, initially, as well as piano, theory and conducting at the Conservatory there. By the time of his graduation, with honours, in 1932, he was already a distinguished pianist: in 1931, for example, he had given the premiere of the First Piano Concerto of his Norwegian fellow-student Geirr Tveitt.

By the time the Nazis seized power in 1933, Berlinski had already composed a number of anti-Hitler cabaret songs, and so he moved hurriedly to Paris; there he enrolled at the Ecole Normale de Musique as a composition student of Nadia Boulanger, also taking piano with Alfred Cortot and composing music for the ballet and the Yiddish theatre.

Although he had been a Polish citizen, Berlinski joined the Foreign Legion, seeing service as a machine-gunner and as clarinettist in a military band, for which the French government awarded him the Croix du Combattant Volontaire. With the fall of France, he had again to flee and settled in New York in 1941, becoming a naturalised US citizen in 1947.

It was now that Berlinski turned with especial attention to the organ and choral music for which he is best known. At the age of 40 he started to learn the organ, with Joseph Yasser at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and after 10 years of advanced studies of Jewish liturgical music he became the seminary's first Doctor of Sacred Music in 1960 (adding that degree to the master's he had already earned from Columbia University).

He also began a series of important posts as organist and choirmaster: for eight years he was organist at Temple Emanu-El in New York and then, after three decades in the city, moved to Washington as Director of Music for the Hebrew congregation there, retiring in 1977. In Washington he founded and directed the Shir Chadash Chorale with which, between the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he presented programmes of Jewish music, both historical and contemporary, principally at Washington Cathedral.

Berlinski was a prolific composer. He wrote a generous amount of music for his own instrument, the organ, making him the direct successor of the Jewish organ tradition of the Polish Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) and the Munich-based cantor Emanuel Kirschner (1857-1938). Chief among his organ works is a series of 11 Sinfonias (1956-78) which reveal a fondness for dark colours, contrapuntal development, and occasional dissonance restrained within a generally tonal framework.

He wrote a generous number of cantatas and oratorios, often on Jewish themes, among them Kiddush Ha-Shem (1954-60), Job (1968-72, revised 1984), Sing to the Lord a New Song (1978) and The Trumpets of Freedom (1988); the German version of Job, Hiob, was premiered at a ceremony for the rebuilding of the synagogue in Dresden in 1998.

In 1993 he was commissioned by the Union Theological Seminary of New York, to write – along with two other composers of religious music, the Catholic Robert Helmschrott of Munich and Protestant Heinz Werner Zimmermann of Frankfurt – a work in honour of the anti-Nazi priest Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and their Altar Tryptichon for Bonhoeffer has been performed on three continents.

His orchestral works include Symphonic Visions (1949), an Organ Concerto (1965) and Prayers for the Night (1968). And his chamber music, alongside the conventional genres of flute sonata (1941, revised 1984), string quartet (1953) and violin sonata (Le Violon de Chagall, 1985), shows an occasional interest in experimenting with unusual colours, as in Chazoth, a suite for string quartet and ondes martenot (1938), and a memorial cantata, MaskirNeshamot ("In Remembrance of the Soul"), for flute, vocal quartet, string quartet and percussion, commissioned in 1998 by the Library of Congress, which earlier this year was the recipient of Berlinski's manuscripts and other papers.

He continued to compose into old age: in June he completed a quintet for clarinet and strings, and three days before he died he finished a setting of Psalm 130 for soprano, trumpet and chorus, which was performed in Washington on 30 September.

He was also still active as a performer. As recently as 1998, Berlinski went back before the microphones to play the organ part in his Sinfonia No 10, for cello and organ (1977). His notes for the CD reveal that he was also a very fine writer:

A few years ago I visited my home town Leipzig for the first time in 48 years. My wife and companion for over 50 years was with me. We walked hand in hand through the streets which were the streets of our childhood. The houses looked smaller, the streets narrower, and time had eaten into the walls of the houses a shade of grey, death and decay. It was bitter cold and all the windows were closed . . .

These were the houses, once our homes. Here lived our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, childhood playmates, school comrades, uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives. Nameplates of people we once knew, attached to the outside of houses, were removed and the gaping holes have never been filled . . . .

At the old cemetery there is only one tombstone with our name. Most of the others have no tombstone, no cemetery.

Martin Anderson

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments