One of the hallmarks of nineteenth-century Romanticism in music was the rise of the virtuoso violin or piano soloist, influenced by those two great showmen, Niccoló Paganini and Franz Liszt. Nearly all composers of the period tried their hand at satisfying the insatiable demand for new virtuosic concertos, and some of them are remembered today primarily for their contribution to this genre.
Other instruments did not fare as well. The cello, which in the late Baroque and early Classical periods inspired many concertos, especially at the hands of Antonio Vivaldi and Luigi Boccherini, fell into disfavor in the nineteenth century. Only the concertos of Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Dvorák and Lalo have maintained their popularity. One other work for cello and orchestra from that period is Max Bruch’sKol Nidreii.
One of the minor figures of German late Romanticism, Bruch spent most of his career moving around Germany from one minor post to another. Only in 1891 were his talents finally recognized, and he became professor of composition at the prestigious Berlin Conservatory. Among his students were Ottorino Respighi and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Bruch was a musical conservative who, drawing his inspiration from Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, had little use for the musical innovations of the late nineteenth century. Since his youth, he had been a prodigious composer, best known for his choral works. Today, however, he is remembered mainly for his Violin Concerto in G minor, his Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, and Kol Nidrei, based on a melody from the Jewish liturgy for the evening of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
The prayer – in Aramaic – which releases Jews from all vows made during the year, has over the centuries been taken as a reason to distrust Jews. The text, however, refers not to vows made to other people, but only to those made to God, in recognition of the fact that human beings cannot adequately fulfill such promises. During the anti-Semitic persecutions of the past two millennia, Jews understood Kol Nidrei (All Vows) to annul forced conversions to Christianity, which would have been regarded as vows to God.
Bruch composed Kol Nidrei in 1881, while serving as conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic. According to his letters he became acquainted with the Kol nidrei (All Vows) and a few other Jewish melodies from the chief cantor of Berlin. He wrote” “…I became acquainted with Kol nidrei and a few other songs… in Berlin through the Lichtenstein family, who befriended me. Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies and therefore I gladly spread them through my arrangement.”
After an orchestral introduction, the cello enters with the main theme, derived directly from the liturgical melody.