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Leonard Bernstein playing a shofar
Leonard Bernstein playing a shofar during rehearsal for "Mass" at the Kennedy Center, September 1971. Box 235, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division.

High Holiday Music in the Music Division

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Tonight at sunset (Friday, September 15, 2023) through Sunday after nightfall, Jewish Americans and Jews around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to welcome the year 5784 in the Jewish calendar! This holiday begins one of the busiest and holiest periods in Judaism known as the High Holidays, High Holy Days, or Days of Awe. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) follows Rosh Hashanah at sundown on September 24 until nightfall on the 25th.

Color postcard print shows Moses and Aaron. Moses holds the Ten Commandment tablets, Aaron an incense burner. Between them are two vignettes relating to Moses' life.
“A Happy New Year.” Hebrew Publishing Company, 1900-1920. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Music is central to Jewish observances, and the Music Division does not disappoint with its holdings of both religious and secular music for this time of celebration, well wishing, reflection, and repentance. Jewish composers have been inspired throughout the 20th and 21st centuries to incorporate the feelings, philosophies, and music of these holidays into secular concert works. I’d like to share a small sample of the gems in our holdings with you so that we may celebrate together.

Photograph of David Diamond, Felicia Bernstein, and Leonard Bernstein
David Diamond, Felicia Bernstein, and Leonard Bernstein in Pisa, Italy, March 1954. Box 213, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division.

I’ll start with the very greeting Jews give one another on Rosh Hashanah, “Shana tova,” which means “a good year” in Hebrew. “L’Shana Tova” is also the title of an unfinished 1992 composition by Jewish-American composer David Diamond (1915-2005). The David Diamond Papers contain a piano sketch in pencil that is 21 measures long; the collection also contains a photocopy in another person’s hand of two melodies, a Rosh Hashanah “niggun” (“wordless melody”) and a song for Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles), which follows the High Holy Days. The photocopy may have been used by Diamond as a reference for the piano sketch, which also includes a dedication “for Tirino.”

More information about this dedication is gained through a work Diamond composed in 1991 with a direct link to Yom Kippur, “Meditation on Kol Nidre.” In synagogues, Jewish congregants sing the Kol Nidre prayer to begin the Yom Kippur worship service. The David Diamond Papers contain scores as well as sketches. Pianist Thomas Yehudah-David Tirino, the work’s dedicatee, premiered the work on October 9, 1991 at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.

Cover of orchestra score for "Fetes juives" by Vladimir Dyck with Jewish holiday movement names
Cover of “Fêtes juives” by Vladimir Dyck. Call number M1003.D997 F3, Music Division.

Another work worth highlighting is “Fêtes juives: suite symphonique en trois parties pour grande orchestra” by Russian-born French composer Vladimir Dyck (1882-1943). This French title translates to “Jewish Holidays: Symphonic suite in three parts for full orchestra.” The three parts, or movements, of this work are the holidays Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Simchat Torah. Dyck composed the work in Paris from May through October 1932, and it was published by the major French music publisher Éditions Salabert in 1933.

In WorldCat, a worldwide online library catalog, only two other libraries report holdings: Bibliothèque nationale de France and Bibliothèque musicale de la Ville de Genève. This edition is also special because it’s a published facsimile of the composer’s full score, so you get to see what his musical hand looked like, including his signature at the end. Even more significant, though, is that Dyck’s life and musical voice was cut short because he was murdered by the Nazis at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943. Because his biographical information is sparsely available, this work along with the rest of his Jewish-inspired and other concert works are the most intimate windows we have into who he was. You can read a biographical sketch of Dyck available online from L’Institut Européen des Musiques Juives.

Related to the Jewish European, or Ashkenazi, experience, is the Music Division’s Yiddish American Popular Sheet Music Collection. This digital collection contains scans of sheet music from the Music Division’s general collections, the Irene Heskes Collection, and items in the custody of the Library’s Hebraic Section in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED). One such score related to Rosh Hashanah from our holdings is “Unsane toikef” by Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant, composer, lyricist, and conductor Louis Friedsell (1863/5-1923). A score AMED contributed is “A gut masoldig yohr,” or “A good lucky year,” a greeting for Rosh Hashanah in Yiddish. Jacob Weinberg (1879-1956), another Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant, published his String Quartet, op. 55 in 1950 in New York. This piece uses holidays for movement names – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot – like Dyck’s “Fêtes juives.

Leonard Bernstein playing a shofar
Leonard Bernstein playing a shofar during rehearsal for “Mass” at the Kennedy Center, September 1971. Box 235, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division.

Music for the High Holidays is incomplete without its signature sound: the shofar, ram’s horn. In “The Shofar: Its History and Use” (2015), Jeremy Montagu discusses the instrument’s secular uses – sounding alarm, serving as a war trumpet, declaring joy or sadness – as well as liturgical ones that include signature call patterns. If you want to learn more about blowing the shofar, the Music Division holds “The Shofar Sounders’ Reference Manual” (1993) by Arthur L. Finkle.

Enjoy apples with honey and pomegranates, and have a sweet new year!


  1. During this time of escalated challenges re DEI, thank you for today’s splendid & informative post, with much appreciation.

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