Catalogued, arranged, and described by ELIOTT KAHN, DMA, October 2006


The Herman Berlinski Music Collection at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary is composed of the published and unpublished music scores of composer/organist Herman Berlinski (1910–2001), 1938–2001. In addition, there are Berlinski's published articles on Jewish music, 1976–1983; some unpublished writings, n.d.; correspondence, 1963–2006; four photographs, ca. 1993–1998; a typescript of "Auto-Biographical Sketches," ([112 p.]), ca. 1991; and an in-depth interview with fellow German-Jewish émigré, Professor Joseph Maier, 1991.

Note: All the musical scores and published books may be accessed through The Library Catalog at:

(Search under "Berlinski, Herman" or title.)

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The Library received the main donation of scores from Herman Berlinski in 1986. Newer works were donated during the 1990s. In 2006 the remainder of the scores, as well as one archival box of papers, were donated by Berlinski's wife, Sina. Additional papers remain with Sina Berlinski in her home in Washington DC.

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Herman Berlinski was a composer, organist, and choir conductor. He was born August 18, 1910 in Leipzig, Germany. His parents were Jews from the Polish city of Łódź, then part of the Russian Empire. Berlinski's father insisted that he and his five siblings receive a traditional, Orthodox Jewish education, as well as speak Yiddish. His mother had the children take piano lessons, and Herman displayed considerable talent at an early age. Berlinski's mother died when he was ten years old. He continued studies in piano and clarinet in his teens and graduated from the Landeskonservatorium Leipzig in 1932 with honors in piano and theory. The music of J. S. Bach, Gustav Mahler, and Max Reger were important early influences. Berlinski wrote political cabaret music from 1929–1932. With the advent of the Nazi government, he left Leipzig in March 1933. After a brief stay in Poland, he emigrated to Paris, where he reconnected with his conservatory colleague and "high school sweetheart," Sina Goldfein. They were married in Paris on May 3, 1934. Berlinski was music director and composer for the Paris Jewish Avant-Garde Theatre (PIAT) from 1934–1939. The members were primarily émigré Yiddish Theatre performers from Eastern Europe. For two years, Berlinski's composition study with master teacher Nadia Boulanger consisted of writing sixteenth-century counterpoint exercises. He shared aesthetic and artistic bonds with a group of Parisian composers known as La Jeune France. Group members Oliver Messiaen and Daniel-Lesur encouraged Berlinski to find the same sacred Jewish dimension in his music that they had found in their own Roman Catholic faith. Berlinski and his wife applied for French citizenship in 1934. Military service was mandatory in case of war, and when World War II broke out in September 1939 he joined the French Foreign Legion. Nearly a year later, Berlinski was one of 250 who had survived from an initial 1,250 soldiers. Upon his demobilization in Marseilles, he was presented with a certificate that stated he was a "foreigner who had no right to work in France." Fortunately, Berlinski and his wife received their visas to emigrate to the United States in March 1941. They crossed the Pyrenees and sailed twenty-two days on an old Spanish ship to reach the United States.

Herman and Sina Berlinski arrived in New York City on May 28, 1941. The only scores he could salvage from their ransacked Paris apartment contained his music from the Paris Yiddish Theatre. This would eventually become the works entitled From the World of My Father. The Berlinskis' son David was born February 5, 1942. By 1944 Herman Berlinski had become an invited member of a prominent group of Jewish composers and musicians known as the Jewish Music Forum. This organization, with its scholarly papers and monthly concerts of new music given by its members, made a lasting impression on him. In 1948 he studied with Messiaen at Tanglewood. Here he also met his future publisher, Milton Feist of Mercury Music. Through the Forum, Berlinski acquired two life-changing musical mentors: Joseph Yasser, who offered to teach him to play the organ in 1951, and Lazare Saminsky, who hired him as assistant organist at New York's Temple Emanu-El in 1954.

Berlinski began formal studies in traditional Jewish music at the Cantors Institute of The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953. He received a Doctor of Sacred Music degree from the Seminary in 1960. His organ piece The Burning Bush was composed in four weeks after a request by Temple Emanu-El organist Dr. Robert Baker to "write me something" that would highlight the synagogue's newly renovated pipe organ. Baker had a national reputation as a concert organist and popularized the new organ piece. The Burning Bush was published by H. W. Gray in 1957. In 1958, Berlinski completed his Friday-evening service Avodat Shabbat, which was commissioned and performed by Cantor David Putterman at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue. When the score was submitted five years later for performance at Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers, New York, Rabbi Abraham Klausner secretly sought the opinion of one of his "musical friends" as to its merits. That is how the work came to be praised by Leonard Bernstein, who wrote to Rabbi Klausner that he "like[d] it very much" and found the work to be "a fine compromise between tradition and somewhat contemporary sounds." On the strength of this recommendation, the service was orchestrated by Berlinski for a concert performance at New York's Lincoln Center in 1964.

In 1963 Herman Berlinski left Temple Emanu-El, accepting the invitation of Rabbi Norman Gerstenfield to become director of music at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington DC. Rabbi Gerstenfield was passionate about contemporary music and Berlinski considered the five years he worked with him to be "the most exciting and creative" of his life. Berlinski's cantata The Days of Awe (1985) utilizes three High Holiday pieces he wrote during this five-year period. The oratorio Job was commissioned by Rabbi Gerstenfield's wife after he passed away in 1968. Herman Berlinski remained "Minister of Music" at the Reform Washington Hebrew Congregation until his retirement in 1977. However, as his liturgical music was desired less and less, he began composing more complex, larger vocal works for what he called "the Synagogue of his mind." He also continued writing what ultimately became twelve Organ Sinfonias (1954-2000).

Berlinski founded the Shir Chadash chorale in October 1977. For the next eleven years the thirty-voice choir gave annual concerts of Hannukah and High Holiday music at the Kennedy Center and Washington's National Cathedral, respectively. During this time he completed two important commissions: Shevirath ha-kelim (The Breaking of the Vessels), for the fiftieth anniversary of Reichskristallnacht in 1988, and the Hannukah oratorio The Trumpets of Freedom (1988). A 1983 cantata, The Beadle of Prague, was revised and ultimately became part of the 1995 oratorio Etz Chayim (The Tree of Life). Two more important vocal/orchestral works were commissioned later: Das Gebet Bonhoeffer's (The Prayer of Bonhoeffer), part of the Altar Tryptichon for Bonhoeffer commissioned by the Union Theological Seminary in 1993; and Maskir Neshamoth (In Remembrance of the Souls), which was commissioned by Ann and Donald Brown, in memory of Jules C. Winkelman. Parts of Maskir Neshamoth were performed at the Library of Congress for the sixtieth anniversary of Kristallnacht (1998).

Herman Berlinski received the Peabody Waite Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984 and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Guild of Organists in 1995. During his final years, Berlinski's music was very well received—and, according to reviewers, very well performed—in Germany. German versions of his oratorios Etz Chayim, Shevirath ha-Kelim, and Job (Hiob) were performed there between 1995 and 1998. He received the Order of Merit in 1995 and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit in 2001 from the president of the Federal Republic of Germany. In his award letter, Berlinski was singled out for praise as a builder of "many lasting bridges over the Atlantic." Herman Berlinski's final composition, Psalm 130 (Shir hamaaloth: Out of the Depths), was commissioned by the National Cathedral to dedicate the installation of its final stained-glass window. The psalm setting was completed September 9, 2001. Herman Berlinski died on September 27, 2001. As a tribute to him, the first performance of Psalm 130 took place at the dedication of the stained glass window on the afternoon of his burial, September 30, 2001.

Note: biographical information comes from The Herman Berlinski Music Collection and from the following sources:

Berlinski, David, ed., A Guide to the Compositions of Herman Berlinski, 1989.

Berlinski, Herman, The Herman Berlinski Collection [at] The Jewish Theological Seminary of America: The Years from 1995-2000, 2001.

Berlinski, Sina, Correspondence and telephone conversations with cataloguer, June-October 2006.

Frohbieter, Ann Williams, The Early Organ Sinfonias of Herman Berlinski, DMA Thesis, Rice University, 2001.

Maier, Joseph, The Religious Significance of Herman Berlinski's Music: A Dialogue Between Joseph Maier and the Composer, 1991.

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Box List

11Articles, published, additional, 1958-1972
2Articles, published, Jewish Week, 1976-1983
3Auto-Biographical Sketches, ca. 1991
4Berlinski's Vocal Music, John H. Baron, ca. 1992
5Bonhoeffer cantata, 1992
6Catalogues, Herman Berlinski Collection, 1993, 2000
7Certificates, diplomas, 1927-1990
8Clippings, 1964, 1988
9Compositions for or with Organ, ca. 1987
10Correspondence, 1963-2001
11Correspondence, Sina Berlinski, 2006
12Photographs, ca. 1993-1998
13The Religious Significance of Herman Berlinski's Music, J. Maier, 1991

Writings, unpublished, n.d.

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