Von Sam Adler

After completing his army service during World War I, my father, Hugo Adler – composer of Barak and Bilam, studied at the University of Cologne as well as at the Musik-Hochschule in that city. He graduated with a degree in piano, voice and composition while retaining a ‘Lehrer’ position in the little town of St. Wendel. In 1921, he was called to the position of second cantor in Mannheim. There were three cantors at the Hauptsynagoge and besides cantorial duties, he was asked to work with the organist and choir to upgrade the quality of the musical performance.

Hugo Adler ‘musical rebel’ by nature

He was by nature a ‘musical rebel’ and found the traditional music used at this synagogue not to his liking since it was all music of the 19th century written by organists who had served the Mannheim congregation during the past 70 years of its existence. Equipped with his new knowledge of ‘modern’ harmony, he started to change the existing music so that it would sound more jewish as well as harmonically more interesting.
The members of the congregation especially the board were incensed by his actions and threatened to fire him after two years. It was at this crucial period of his life that he met a beautiful woman who he decided to marry. Her father conveniently was a member of the synagogue board and to fire the son-in-law of a board member became a bigger problem. As a result, this second cantor was only given a reprimand and simply told never to alter any of the traditio- nal music in the future. With the good influence of his new bride he stopped his actions and she instead convinced him to write his own music rather than alter the old.

Hugo Adler´s Lehrkantaten

He followed her good advice and looked to larger project teaming up with the senior rabbi Dr. Max Grünewald to write a series of works they called Lehrkantaten. These works written on Biblical subjects to teach the audiences about im- portant stories with added lessons drawn from them. In 1929 they cooperated to create a Chanukah Cantata called LICHT UND VOLK which was very successfully performed in the largest venue of the city of Mannheim, the Musensaal in the Rosengarten. It was a tremendous success and performed all over Germany. The forces were the Liederkranz made up of the Synagogue choir, the High Holiday choir and the youth choir plus an orchestra and organ.

After the Nazis came to power, the Kulturbund was founded

In 1933 after the Nazis took over power in Germany and professional jewish musicians and singers were dismissed from orchestras, opera companies and other professional musical ensembles, the Kulturbund movement was founded in all the major cities of Germany. The Kulturbund organization employ- ed the musicians who had lost their jobs because of the racial laws and sponsored seasons of concerts, operas, dramas etc.

Balak and Bilam – a tremendous success

By 1933 Hugo Adler had been promoted to Oberkantor of the Hauptsynagoge and had established himself as a major composer of both Synagogue and concert music. In 1934, he wrote his most successful Lehrkantate BALAK UND BILAM which was preformed from 1914 to 1938 over 30 times in many cities including in 1934 in Berlin’s Oranienburger Syn- agoge and in 1936 in Jerusalem in Hebrew over the Pales- tine BBC as well as in several other cities including Tel Aviv. Because of my father’s close friendship with Martin Buber, he used the Buber-Rosenzweig German translation of the Bible for the text of the cantata and the special Buber translation of the Psalms for the 44th Psalm. Because of the success of Balak, my father continued to write music for the Kuturbund including in 1937 a cantata on the Binding of Isaac called Akedah to be premiered in Stuttgart in March of 1938. This work was written again with the cooperation of Max Grüne- wald, and in the ‘learning’ part of the work, compared Isaac’s near sacrifice with the persecution of the Jews of Germany. It was done very cleverly disguised so that the censor did not catch the inference and passed the text.

Balak and Bilam scores confiscated and burned

However, someone in the censor office must have reread the text and the SS came to the dress rehearsal in 1938 and forbade the work to be performed, confiscating all scores and parts and burning them. It was the last time a perfor- mance of my father’s works in Germany was scheduled and a year after that we had emigrated to the United States where he became cantor and music director at Temple Emanuel in Worcester MA and where he rewrote Balak in English with many changes from the German version.
The performance at the Lewandowski Festival 2019 however presents the original version with the limited forces that the earlier performances faced since many of the Kulturbund orchestras were quite small in size. I am hoping that the performance of my father’s and Heinrich Schalit’s works will renew interest in the larger works written especially for the Kulturbund by so many composers at that time so that these will enjoy a renewed life.