As with any art form, the more you engage it, the more familiar you become with those who practice it – sometimes it’s easy, like discerning Picassos in the Modern Museum of Art. Sometimes it’s less so, requiring some familiarity – signature dance moves mark the difference between Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, signature word patterns mark the difference between David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, and signature guitar licks mark the difference between Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
(Good lord, they’re all white men up there… well, sorry, y’all. Sometimes white men happen.)
But back to my point… such is the case too with choral music. There are some choral composers and arrangers that have signatures – I would bet many Unitarian Universalists could pick out a Jason Shelton piece in a heartbeat. Ralph Vaughn Williams has a signature sound (as we’ve talked about many many times already and probably will again because we’re not done with him), as do other modern and more classical arrangers/composers. If we’re singing as a soloist or chorister, we cheer (or groan) at the name on the score. But sometimes, we hear a piece and a few measures in can tell “this is a Moses Hogan arrangement” or “dear god, more Benjamin Britten.”
And when it comes to 20th century sacred music from the Jewish tradition, every single time I hear a piece and fall in love instantly, it’s Max Janowski.
An opulent “Akeinu Malkeinu” sung by Barbra Streisand? Max Janowski.
A lush “Sim Shalom” sung by the Zamir Chorale of Boston? Max Janowski.
This gorgeous prayer? You guessed it. Max Janowski.
Every single time I find a beautiful piece of Jewish sacred music, it’s Janowski. Now I’m sure thre are other great composers of Jewish sacred music, and I’m fairly certain I have sung and loved singing them. but just the opening measures of this simple song, based on an English translation of the Hebrew prayer Yih’yu’l’ratzon,” screams Janowski to those who know his work.
The prayer, said at the end of the silent prayer portion of a service, is an incredible prayer of repentance and renewal.
Who can say, “I am free, I have purified my great heart?”
There are none on earth. There are none on earth.
A new heart I will give, not stone, but one that frees.
A new heart I will give, and one that frees.
May this day make us strong like a tree of life with good fruit.
Bless us now, amen. Bless us now, amen.
May we now forgive, atone, that we may live,
may we now forgive that we may live.
“A new heart I will give.” Wow. As my colleagues are wont to say, “that’ll preach.” And I could, but I already waxed far too poetically about white men whose artistic endeavors I know and love (except for Britten – blech. I’ve only liked one of his pieces, a song from A Wealden Trio, but that may be more because of who I sang it with).
But the truth is, this piece moves me deeply, from the tips of my toes to beyond the top of my head. I feel this piece – the music and the prayer – deeply in my body. I have only ever sung it or heard it sung as a solo, and I think there is something about the solo voice on this that highlights the purity of this prayerful plea. And it’s possible I’ve gone on and on about Britten and Janowski because this almost doesn’t need any more words.
Postscript: Listen to that Aveinu Malkeinu – you will weep from its beauty. I do, every. single, time.
Image is of the Flame Nebula.