Remembrance and Renewal: Interview with Sina Berlinski

Herman Berlinski at 100: A Conversation With Sina Berlinski, April 2010

Excerpts of a conversation between the late composer's wife and JTS music archivist Eliott Kahn.

PARIS, 1933–1940

Eliott Kahn: Do you feel that Jewish music grounded your husband?

Sina Berlinksi: Absolutely. He studied with [Nadia] Boulanger, but he never played her one of his compositions. He was working with the Yiddish Theatre in Paris [PIAT, from 1938–1940]. That opened him up completely. When he came to his composition teacher [Daniel Lesur], he confirmed him and Lesur said, "You should do for the Jewish liturgy what [Oliver] Messiaen is doing for the Catholics."

EK: The Nazis ransacked your apartment [in 1940] and there was nothing left there but the manuscript from PIAT. Is that correct?

SB: Yes, that's correct.

EK: Where is the manuscript?

SB: I have it. [It's three pages long.] He wrote out the entire piece [of incidental music], but the melodies themselves are what survived.

EK: And the three suites entitled From the World of My Father, including [this evening's] Second Suite for Cello and Piano?

SB: It's all material from that time.

NEW YORK, 1941–1963

SB: Don't forget, he studied at your institution [JTS Cantors Institute and School of Sacred Music, 1953–1960]. And this opened up a lot of worlds for him.

EK: In what way?

SB: Knowledge. Just sheer knowledge of the traditional nusah, and he used it extensively. That opened doors in his mind. He combined it with a language that was not from the last century but from our century. One day, Yasser [organist and JTS music professor Joseph Yasser was Herman Berlinski's mentor and friend] overheard [Lazare] Saminsky say he needs a helper at Temple Emanuel in New York. Yasser said, "I will get you a helper." He says to Berlinski: "You know, Berlinski, you are traveling all over New York to give piano lessons, and one day you are going to get a heart attack and it will be the end of you. You're a gifted man. I'll teach you the organ." In no time did he learn what he needed to learn, to take over the organ at Temple Emanuel. Four to six months. When Berlinksi put his hands on the organ, he knew that was it. That took hold of him. 13

In 1957 Herman Berlinski was commissioned by the Park Avenue Synagogue to compose the Friday evening service Avodat Shabbat for cantor, choir, and organ.

EK: Why did [Cantor David] Putterman select him and how was the piece received?

SB: I cannot tell you why he selected Berlinski, but he had on his roster a lot of talented people and he took a gamble. It was richly rewarded because, wherever this piece goes, it gets nothing but good reviews; it gets recognition. The Milken Foundation went way out to make a record of it.

EK: How long did it take him to orchestrate it? Do you remember?

SB: A lot of it I corrected—a lot of stuff. I have to proofread it, make sure there's no mistake in there. It took a good two years to orchestrate. He never revised it.

Mrs. Berlinski had her own career as a pianist and accompanist and, like her husband, was a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory and studied with French pianist Alfred Cortot.

WASHINGTON DC and EUROPE, 1963–1990

EK: What was Washington Hebrew Congregation like when he came down [to become Minister of Music in 1963]?

SB: The Rabbi [Norman Gerstenfeld] was a very learned man, a very musical man, and a very demanding man. He wanted to make the Jewish temple [into] the Jewish cathedral. So he had the highest ambition, and that was something my husband just cherished. They spoke the same artistic language. When my husband came, nothing was Jewish. [There had been a Gentile organist, cantorial soloist, and choir. The choir was large, with eighteen to twenty-four professional singers.] The first year he wrote something every week. Little by little, the congregation was on his side. Sometimes not, sometimes yes. All listening. No participation. Milton Feist [owner of Mercury Music] published everything he wrote. [They met in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, in 1957.] They were very close. Feist was strictly Orthodox. And he was [and remained] our friend to his dying day.

In 1963, Herman Belinski was invited to play the organ at an organists' convention in Philadelphia.

SB: After the concert, a man comes over to him and says: "I'm a builder of organs [with the Walker Organ Company in Germany], and I was so taken in by your music. I didn't know there was such a thing in the world as Jewish music. Would you be so kind, would you please come to Germany and play for us, because we don't know what Jewish music is. In 1963, Herman asked our dear friend Milton Feist, "Should I go or not? My heart does not want to go." Milton Feist said to him, "If you think you can make the world a little better by going there, go." So from1963 up to the year he was ninety years old [2000], he went almost every year, all over Europe, playing his music. It started a whole new life. Everything he couldn't get through here [in the U.S.], he got through there-every composition, with a big orchestra, and with soloists. They couldn't do enough for him.

EK: Where did your husband play when he went to Europe?

SB: In cathedrals. Notre Dame. Tell me a country he didn't go. All in Europe. Scandinavia and England. That's something that restored him, I guess.

EK: He lost his mother when he was ten years old. Do you think that affected him?

SB: It affected him immensely. It never really left him. He told me when he played in Paris, [in] Notre Dame, he could swear his mother was sitting in the upper region. And that she was crying. Sitting there and crying. He believed that.

Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld died in 1968. After Herman Berlinski retired from Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1973, he began writing a series of cantatas and oratorios, the first one, Job, was commissioned by the rabbi's wife in 1968 and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1972.

EK: Something about Job strikes me as different.

SB: I see there is more thoughtfulness and more heartache [that] went into working on Job. Even when he was finished with it, it wasn't finished. I think at the end of his life, he would have liked to revise it. It was a problematic child.

EK: You said to me, "There must be a place for this music." What did you mean by that?

SB: There's a heritage, especially in Jewish history: you don't throw away what has been given to you. Something good has been given to you, you have to take care of it. Now where is it taken care of? There is an abundance of beautiful contemporary Jewish music available, and it is not played anywhere. Not in any synagogue you go, you won't find it. It came from the synagogue. It was inspired by the synagogue. Why does the synagogue deny it? Why does it reject it? Why doesn't it think, "It's a heritage I have to take care of"?