Erdenko’s Haunting Melody

by Curt Leviant | September 2010 | 1 Comment »

One day, nearly a decade ago, I walked into a Jerusalem bookstore — and stepped into a mystery. At the store, I met a man named Reb Moshe Ashbel, an elderly, white-bearded Russian immigrant from the Soviet Union. As we got to know each other, Ashbel told me he was a Lubavitch Hasid, a math teacher and a lover of classical and Jewish music. He said he spent five years in a Soviet gulag for expressing joy in 1948 that the State of Israel had been founded.

Before the end of my stay in Jerusalem, he asked me if I would mind sending him some things he could not find in Israel — musical scores by Max Bruch (a non-Jew who wrote the famous “Kol Nidre for Cello and Orchestra”); musical scores by the Swiss Jewish composer Ernest Bloch and a couple of geometry texts. And oh, he added, a copy of Mikhail Erdenko’s score to “Kol Nidre” — a composer and a composition I had never heard of.

As Ashbel explained it, in 1910, the famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, told his young friend, Erdenko, that the Jews had a beautiful, age-old Yom Kippur melody, and asked the violinist and composer to arrange a version for violin and piano.

When Ashbel finally realized his dream of making aliyah, the Soviet authorities confiscated his Erdenko sheet music at the Moscow airport, and he now wanted another copy. I was able to fulfill all of his requests — except the “Kol Nidre.” Thus began a 10-year odyssey.

I wrote to music academies and conservatories here and in the Soviet Union and asked every musician I met for possible leads. One musician in Philadelphia told me that Erdenko had come to the United States in the early 1930s and had even performed in Carnegie Hall. He suspected that Erdenko might even have been Jewish and changed his name. But if Erdenko had been Jewish, when Tolstoy asked him about “Kol Nidre,” wouldn’t he have replied, “Of course I know that melody”?

Still, none of this information brought me any closer to the music. Meanwhile, my beloved elderly friend Moshe Ashbel died in Jerusalem.

Later, I wrote a short piece for a newspaper about my fruitless search for the Erdenko score, and a sea change occurred. It was like a tonic shift from minor to major key. Events that had moved like tar suddenly sped up, like those scenes in double-quick motion in the old silent comedies.

The first person to call was a New York Post reporter. He said he searched online for “Erdenko, violin” and found that Erdenko had been a professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

A couple of months later, I got a call from a Russian named Oleg Timofeyev. A musician himself, Timofeyev told me he learned that the University of California library had a copy of Erdenko’s “Kol Nidre” score, which he would order for me.

I waited patiently. I can’t say I dreamt about the score, but I did visualize it, reading the notes, in C major of course, to make it easy for myself. (In fantasies you have a choice of key signatures.) But I knew it was in a minor mode, so there would be sharps and flats.

A couple of weeks later Timofeyev called me.

“I have bad news and good news,” he said. “The bad news is that the University of California cannot locate the score to the Erdenko ‘Kol Nidre.”

“And the good news?” I asked.

“The good news is that I have a friend who works at the Moscow Conservatory…”

“That’s where Erdenko taught,” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” Timofeyev continued. “And I’m going to call him and ask if perhaps the score is there.”

A week later Timofeyev called back.

“Great news,” he said, his voice glowing all the way from Iowa City. “My friend in Moscow phoned and told me that the Erdenko ‘Kol Nidre’ is in the Moscow Conservatory archives. It makes sense — Erdenko had taught there. My friend will try to get it Xeroxed and will mail it to me. By now I’m as interested in seeing the score as you are.”

Three more weeks passed. The mailbox  remained empty. Day after day — nothing. I called Timofeyev again.

“It’s on its way,” he promised. “As we speak it’s flying over the Atlantic.”

The next day it finally came: the sheet music to Mikhail Erdenko’s arrangement for violin and piano of the traditional “Kol Nidre.” I rushed to the piano to play it.

Erdenko’s version has all the haunting qualities of the Yom Kippur melody that Ashkenazic Jews have been chanting for some 500 years.

The score is faithful to the melody we all know, with all its grace notes and cantorial ornamentation. Erdenko had evidently penetrated the soul of this stirring melody, which is the nonpareil expression of Jewish longing and spirituality on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The score had two covers, one with the Hebrew words “Kol Nidre” and beneath it “Kol Nidre” in Cyrillic characters. The other cover had the title in Latin letters. The music was published in 1912, jointly in Kiev and Warsaw. The “Kol Nidre” is Erdenko’s Opus 3, which means that it is one of his earliest compositions. The violinist also wrote it and found a publisher in a relatively short time after his 1910 visit to Tolstoy (who died that same year).

Dear Reb Moshe! When I played the melody on the piano for the first time (not in C, but in F), I thought of you. I thought of sending you this melody that comes from the depths of Jewish hearts, a melody that binds you and me in love and friendship. Yes, it comes many years too late, but I know with what joy I would have mailed you the score that was wrenched from your hands by the Soviet authorities when you left for Israel, and with what joy you would have received it. But a happy conclusion to a search is always a simcha, no matter how long it takes.

One Comment to “Erdenko’s Haunting Melody”

  1. Tom Clowes says:

    Hello Mr. Leviant,
    This is an incredible story! Crossing Borders Music Collective would likely be interested in performing, and perhaps recording, this rare work. I have read it is quite beautiful. We’re interested in producing a concert of works by Roma composers in the coming season. I hope this message gets to you. Thanks, Tom

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