There is a sense in which Jack Gottlieb is a quintessentially
American composer. His upbringing and education exposed him
to most of the distinctive musical traditions of America and
he has assimilated and redeployed most of them in his own music.
Brought up in one of the suburbs of New York, the young Gottlieb
absorbed the music he heard on the radio – notably jazz and
the Broadway musical. He played the clarinet in marching bands;
he taught himself the piano. At summer schools he was influenced
by the choral conductor and composer Max Helfman, important
in the history of American Jewish music, who encouraged Gottlieb’s
interest in his Jewish heritage. Gottlieb later studied with
Irving Fine, Aaron Copland and Boris Blacher, amongst others.
From 1958 to 1966 Gottlieb was Leonard Bernstein’s assistant
at the New York Philharmonic; he has edited writings by Bernstein
and the Bernstein newsletter, Prelude,
Fugue & Riffs. From 1970 to 1973 Gottlieb was the musical
director of Temple Israel in St. Louis; he has written important
academic works on the traditions of Jewish music.
His music is as various in form and style as
all this might suggest. He has written a string quartet and
two one-act operas; a setting of the Song
of Songs and music for piano duet; Downtown
Blues for Uptown Halls, for voice, clarinet and piano, and
incidental music for Twelfth Night. And, of course, a body of sacred music – some of which
is represented on this Naxos CD in the series devoted to the
Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.
Composers as eclectic as Gottlieb present obvious
problems – but there are rewards too. At times the listener
to this CD will be forcibly reminded of Bernstein, especially
of the Mass and the
Age of Anxiety; of Copland; of the Broadway musical and of mainstream
jazz; of the traditional chant of the synagogue – and much else.
For the most part, the sheer honesty of the musical and religious
intention(s) sustains the eclecticism and recommends it to the
I found the settings of the Psalms,
in Shout for Joy and Psalmistry
particularly pleasing and interesting. In the first of these
Psalm 84 and substantial passages from Psalms 95 and 81 are
set, in English. The work is in three movements, with the verses
from Psalm 95 and psalm 81 framing the setting of Psalm 84.
The first and third movements use a brass sextet, two flutes,
organ and piano. The central movement employs only the organ
and the flutes. There is a genuine sense of joy, of dance rhythms,
in these settings, their jazz inflections well judged,
textually apt and thoroughly integrated into the larger
structures. The writing for flutes, which sometimes imitates
phrases in the text (“the sparrow has found a home / and the
swallow a nest for herself”) is especially attractive. Psalmistry is presented through extracts.
The choral writing is not especially original or individual,
but articulates successfully the first of the four sections
that we hear, which are headed ‘Praises’, ‘Mysteries’, ‘Jubilations’
and ‘Wonderments’. A closing ‘Envoi’ rounds of this selection.
Songs for the Sabbath – a setting of the Friday service
– is also presented as extracts; we hear nine of nineteen sections.
Much of Gottlieb’s writing here seems more suited for the concert
hall (or even the theatre) than for the synagogue, though the
work was commissioned by Hazzan David Putterman for performance
at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. There are some
moments of striking radiancy in the music, and, as elsewhere,
Gottlieb makes very effective use of a reading voice. The reader
on this recording is the actress Tovah Feldshuh and she is consistently
superb, flexible in voice, intelligent in her phrasing and unsentimentally
As A Seal unites texts from the Song
of Songs and the Book of Deuteronomy and Gottlieb’s setting
of them is a forceful affirmation of the power of love. The
programme opens with a sequence of Candle Blessings, whose texts
are spoken in English and sung in Hebrew. These Blessings have
a quiet, contemplative and private quality quite unlike the
more public, even boisterous music of some of the Psalm settings.
The CD closes with a short prayer of blessing in which traditional
modes are dextrously employed, the resonant voice of Cantor
Robert Abelson well blended with those of a small choir to make
a moving conclusion.
The booklet notes are extensive and helpful,
including comments on each work by the composer. Extensive texts
Music of specialist interest and not music
by a ‘great composer’ perhaps. But much of it is moving, all
of it is, at the very least, very well crafted. Anybody who
has been enjoying some of the music from the Milken Archive
issued on Naxos will certainly enjoy this addition to the series.