GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to "Mad About Music" with my guest today, the Senior Rabbi of New York's Temple Emanu-El, David Posner.
KAPLAN: He serves as the Senior Rabbi at the world's largest synagogue, a position he has held since 2002. But he's been associated with Temple Emanu-El in New York for 36 years. It has been his only job, joining the synagogue the moment he was ordained as a Rabbi. But if anyone illustrates the power music can exert in our lives, it is my guest today. After eleven years at Temple Emanu-El, he suddenly enrolled at Columbia University to study music and went on to earn his doctorate—a fascinating story we'll explore today. David Posner, welcome to "Mad About Music."
DAVID POSNER: Absolute pleasure being with you! Thanks for having invited me.
KAPLAN: All right. I'd like to begin with that leap I just described with you jumping into the study of music. You're now in your eleventh year as a Rabbi and suddenly you decide to pursue a completely new field.
POSNER: Religion and music have a very well-connected relationship. Actually, I think that it was Elizabeth Brentano who said to Goethe, it may have been the other way around, perhaps Goethe said it to Elizabeth Brentano, who may have been the Immortal Beloved, and she is reported to have told Beethoven that he said that "music is the mediator between intellectual and spiritual life". I had learned this when I was studying, when I was taking my doctorate at Teachers' College, Columbia in piano, and I thought that this was a link that somehow connected me with religion and with music; that it was natural, it was inextricable and was something that I always knew on an emotional level since I was a child, but now I appreciated it all the more as I continue to grow both religiously, spiritually, and I'm happy to say, musically.
KAPLAN: But I'm thinking of someone from a career point of view, you're just getting started really, although eleven years is not just getting started, and all of a sudden it sounds like a detour. Now did you stop working at that time to go to school or was this sort of in addition to?
POSNER: I'm very happy to tell you that not only was I working seven days a week, which I always do - I never take a day off. I was working seven days a week, I was, along with my wife, raising two small children, taking them to all of their activities, including music activities, officiating at between 90 and 110 weddings a year, in addition to all of the funerals and bar and bas mitzvahs that I did. Nevertheless, somehow, someway, I found time to take a doctorate in piano pedagogy. I wrote my dissertation sitting at my desk at 4:30 in the morning at the Temple, and I took courses either mid-afternoon, late in the evening, summers whenever I could, but as I speak now, I don't know how I did it.
KAPLAN: Well, it sounds very impressive. You know, I think you once said that having had this degree and this technique, you could teach anyone the easiest and fastest way to playing Chopin etudes. Now many of our listeners on the show are people in their 50s, 40s, 60s, who have never played the piano. How good can you be if you start at age 50 to play the piano for the first time?
POSNER: You could develop when you’re 50, I don't mind saying that, actually what I'll do is I'll quote something that Johann Sebastian Bach who is reputed to have said. He's reputed to have said that "playing the clavier is very simple. You put the right finger on the right note at the right time, and the piece plays itself". I don't know how that translates if one is a 50-year-old, but I think that is the ultimate way of understanding what one does when one learns a new piece of music. So it can be done with patience. I would imagine that a string instrument is much more difficult to start at an older age. But if somebody were willing to invest two to three hours a day of practice, and if that person were somewhat older, that person with five or eight years under his or her belt could accomplish something.
KAPLAN: Well, all right. Well while we're on music, let's turn to your music, the music you'd like us to play today, and it's a show I notice mostly of piano music, which makes sense given your background, and we start with Brahms.
POSNER: It's very interesting that my parents introduced me to the most serious types of compositions at a very young age. Many children begin listening to music with Rimsky-Korsakov, Sheherazade, or the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture. My parents put on for me when I was four years old, Rudolf Serkin playing Brahms's First Piano Concerto. These were 78 records so you were changing them almost immediately. I don't know how it was done. The impression that I can remember from that time is that I thought that music was a very serious affair. And just the few opening chords of Brahms's First Piano Concerto can illustrate the seriousness, the gravity - the grave nature of music and its deep importance.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the first movement of Brahms's First Piano Concerto, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Fritz Reiner with Arthur Rubinstein at the piano. The first selection of my guest today on "Mad About Music", the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York, David Posner. This, his first exposure to classical music at age four. Now I suppose it would be fair to say that this was also the start of music always being a significant part of your life, right?
POSNER: Absolutely. Whatever recordings my parents got for me, I was listening to constantly. Now, I started studying the piano when I was six, but shortly thereafter my father went to work for a freight-forwarding company that shipped both Decca Records and London Records. This meant records wholesale in my house, so one of the first things that my father brought home was a complete recording of all of the Beethoven sonatas on London Records, and that was done by Wilhelm Backhaus, who was always a great favorite of mine to listen to on records. Never heard him in person, but was always getting his recordings, especially Beethoven, Brahms and even a Chopin recital by him. All of these recordings introduced me more and more as I was taking lessons, I was simultaneously playing, but I was even more listening. And that was a very wonderful environment in which my parents raised me.
KAPLAN: So music was obviously important in your home. Were your parents musicians?
POSNER: They weren't musicians, but they were music lovers and you could play with my late father "drop the needle," and he'd be able to identify virtually anything. It was remarkable. It was all in his head.
KAPLAN: Now to what degree have you passed this on to your own children? You mentioned you have children.
POSNER: I have an older daughter and a younger son. My daughter is thirty-one; my son is twenty-eight. She took piano lessons for, I would say, eight, ten years, and my son, the same thing with cello. My daughter was an excellent amateur pianist, played everything from classical music to the Broadway show tunes that she loves. And my son and I actually, when he went to college, as part of his admissions package he and I made a recording of the first movement of the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata. He used to play the entire sonata beautifully.
KAPLAN: Wonderful. Did you ever play four-hand piano with your daughter?
POSNER: Played four-handed piano with her all of the time, from Mozart sonatas, to Dvorak Slavonic dances. We did it all.
KAPLAN: Wonderful. All right, well let's come back to your music list and next on our agenda is Beethoven.
POSNER: The reason that I selected this sonata was that it was played on a program which was the first piano recital that I ever attended. I went with my father one evening, and it was at Town Hall. Never forget a piece on that program also, which was the Beethoven Sonata No. 30, Opus 109. I had never heard it before and I remember exactly where we were seated. We were not sitting on the keyboard side; we were sitting facing the pianist. And that has always and forever been my favorite area of a concert hall in which to sit. I don't have to look at a pianist's hands, I want to look at a pianist's face, I want to see into a pianist's brain. I will never forget the facial expressions of this pianist, whose name, unfortunately, I can't remember, exactly what he looked like when he played this glorious music.
KAPLAN: The second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 performed by Artur Schnabel—music chosen by my guest today on "Mad About Music", the Senior Rabbi of New York's Temple Emanu-El, David Posner. When we return, we'll explore Rabbi Posner as a performer.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on "Mad About Music", the Senior Rabbi of New York's Temple Emanu-El, David Posner. Now I understand the Synagogue is the largest in the world; seats 2,500 – more even than St. Patrick's Cathedral. I understand you once gave a piano recital there yourself.
POSNER: I performed a recital there about four or five years ago, after the regular Sabbath service ended at six o'clock. We had a Sabbath dinner for congregants, and I played a program of Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms. Most especially did I enjoy performing Brahms at that recital. Brahms has so much that is so deep from a personality that was very often an enigma. Brahms understood joy; he also understood great suffering and great tragedy.
KAPLAN: I understand that you once did a roving recital. I think it was in nursing homes in New York, playing Brahms.
POSNER: Yes, it was an all-Brahms recital of the Opus 39 Waltzes, the Opus 10 Ballades, and then the Brahms Handel Variations. I decided I wanted to feel what it was like to be a touring virtuoso. Virtuoso I am not, but at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, I did have about 300 people in attendance, with at least twenty retired piano teachers, sitting keyboard-side, watching what I was going to do. In order to alleviate my nervousness at all of these occasions, I always made them lecture-recitals. But I'll never forget, at one of the homes, somebody said to me, "Rabbi, why don't you play something freulich? Why don't you play something happy?" And I lifted up my hands, as if to say, what can I do? And I said "I'm sorry, I only play this kind of music!"
KAPLAN: All right, well let's come back to that kind of music, the Brahms you took around, and I see Brahms is next, but this time it's chamber music.
POSNER: Love Brahms chamber music, from the piano quartets to the piano quintet, to the piano trios, and this one is one of two sextets that he wrote. This one you might classify as early Brahms, and the other one somewhat later. But this B flat Sextet, with a second movement of variations—it's one of course the great things about Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. These were the greatest composers of variations that we ever had. This slow movement of variations, especially on the end where he puts on the brakes and slows the tempo down significantly is so stark and so tragic, perhaps even in his life, foretelling the sadnesses that would ultimately befall him.
KAPLAN: The concluding moments of the second movement of Brahms' Sextet in B flat, performed by a distinguished group including violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Pablo Casals, a musical selection of my guest today on "Mad About Music", the Senior Rabbi of New York's Temple Emanu-El, David Posner. I'd like now to turn to the connection between music and religion. And to do that let me quote Pope Benedict who has said that "music is an authentic art, and in that sense is equal to prayer". Do you share that view?
POSNER: Actually, I agree with that somewhat. But I would like to take that a little bit further than...
KAPLAN: Better than prayer, or?
POSNER: Well, it's on a different level. There is an epistemological – epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with knowledge and what we know and how we know it. Now, inspiration knowledge is not a knowledge of a thing. It is a knowledge really of reality as conveyed to us by a great artist because that artist understands and appreciates reality in ways that are both immediate to him and also more sublime. Let's look at music now, specifically. Not to give a litany and a whole list of all of the great composers who lived between the period of the 18th century and the 20th century, who even lived specifically in a range of territory from Paris to Vienna. Just look at Vienna. There was a time in Vienna where Franz Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert walked the streets of Vienna virtually at the same time. A city which, at that time, only had 250,000 inhabitants, had within a period of two generations those four composers, the likes of which we would say, if one of them lived in a century, we could say, as we say in Hebrew, Dayenu, it would have been enough for us. It absolutely borders on the miraculous. And what are these composers, great composers in music, tell us? They tell us something about reality. When Beethoven writes [sings the opening melody of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony], he's not just writing notes. He's telling us something about reality that is so sublime and so mysterious, and that word mysterious then would bring me to the highest and most mysterious realm of knowledge of them all, and that would be revelation knowledge. That is a knowledge of the will of the most high. And this is the kind of knowledge that is so sublime when you study religion. Religion is ultimately revelation knowledge. But to come down one step, music is utterly fantastic and it borders on the miraculous, and that's why we love it so much.
KAPLAN: Well, you know, you ended this very interesting discourse by saying, if we come down one step to music. I think the Pope was suggesting that prayer and music were on equal terms. You don't go that far?
POSNER: I wouldn't go that far but I'd love to speak to him about it.
KAPLAN: Well, do you ever sometimes turn to music instead of prayer at a difficult moment?
POSNER: I turn to both music and prayer at all moments—at light ones, at serious ones. I thank God for the good times and I bless him when times are also not so good, but I am surrounded by both religion and music constantly.
KAPLAN: Do you ever turn to music for consolation?
POSNER: Music for consolation - yes, absolutely.
KAPLAN: And what might you listen to?
POSNER: I especially listen to Beethoven for consolation, because Beethoven has a spirit of heroism and a spirit of the triumph over despair which I think is second to none. In those moments when I have felt personal difficulty, I have turned to Beethoven.
KAPLAN: O.K. Well, this combination of music and prayer, in a way, best shows up in the next portion of our show, which we call the "wildcard," where you can choose music that's not classical music, not opera, but I see you have chosen, nonetheless, classical music, but in a most original setting together with prayer.
POSNER: I do remember when I was younger, ten, eleven years old, I must have stopped by the time I was eleven years old, listening to Elvis Presley recordings, the Everly Brothers, I remember. I thought they were very good country singers. So I chose the Kurt Weill "Kiddush" because this is a jazz version of the "Kiddush", which is the sanctification of God with the instrument of wine, praising God for being the creator of the fruit of the vine, and also thanking God for the Sabbath, on which this particular "Kiddush" is always recited, 52 weeks a year. Temple Emanu-El started to use this version of the "Kiddush" among maybe eight or ten that our Cantor does. And at first the congregation was somewhat uneasy, but after a half a dozen listenings, they were totally convinced and totally sold on a jazz version of the Kiddush, normally that they've always heard in chordal harmonies, very straight, and now with a fluidity that is so appealing and so mystical in its own way.
KAPLAN: Kurt Weill's jazz arrangement of "Kiddush", the Hebrew blessing for wine, sung by Cantor Lori Corrsin and the Chorus of Temple Emanu-El in New York, where my guest today on "Mad About Music", David Posner, serves as the Senior Rabbi. This unusual setting for "Kiddush" was Rabbi Posner's "wildcard" selection. When we return, we'll discuss whether music can play a role in fostering peace in the Middle East.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on "Mad About Music", the Senior Rabbi of New York's Temple Emanu-El, David Posner. You know, you were saying before how much the congregation was leery at first and then embraced this Kurt Weill arrangement of "Kiddush", the prayer for wine. Now traditionally, all music in the Synagogue is in the minor key. But at Temple Emanu-El, some of the prayers are now in a sunnier major key. Do you think it is a good idea to abandon these traditional prayer melodies?
POSNER: Oh, it's a very good thing to do because there is a very large world out there, and creativity should not be limited or stifled. In fact, if we Jews do anything, we always take certain motifs of a host culture, and we give it our own special flavor so as to transform it into something new and original.
KAPLAN: Well, that was an original answer! You know, before, I was mentioning the Pope equating music with prayer. He's also a pianist like you, and he's also a pianist as is Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archbishop of New York. And he was on this show, and I believe you two know each other. I think he indicated he knew you, and I wonder if you've ever played together.
POSNER: Unfortunately, we've never been able to play four-handed music together, but we were once at the home of a member of Temple Emanu-El—it was an evening for about fifty invited guests, and they had a grand piano there, and we were both asked to play. I certainly motioned to His Eminence that he should be playing first, which he did; he played the Chopin Nocturne in E flat, one of the early opus numbers. That's that two-page nocturne which many of us students play. And then I followed with another Chopin nocturne, the one in C sharp minor. He loves music passionately, and whenever we have been together, most of our conversation is not about religion, not about world events. We talk about music when we're together. That's a pleasure for both of us.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, then, let's turn to world events and music in world events. I'd like to talk about the role of music as a political force and more specifically, what your view is of Daniel Barenboim's orchestra, where he combines Israeli and Arab musicians, plays in Israel, plays in Palestine. Is this a good thing? Can it help politically? Does it hurt politically? What is your own view on this?
POSNER: I love him as a musician. I'll never forget a performance of Brahms First Piano Concerto a couple of years ago with Zubin Mehta and the Philharmonic. And the profound nature of that interpretation; he was wonderful. I wish I could agree with him about his desire to bring harmony – no pun intended – to both Israelis and Arabs with music, performing in Ramallah, things of that nature. I don't want to be overly critical, after all he was raised in Israel; I was raised here in America. There are a significant number of Israelis who would be sympathetic with him. I'd rather withhold judgment and wait another couple of years, and maybe I'll know more, and maybe I'll be able to see more of his side. I would hope so.
KAPLAN: But what would be the problem with it as you see it?
POSNER: The Middle East conflict is much broader than the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I'm afraid that there are those who don't understand the very grave nature of the threat that we are facing. It wouldn't have helped one bit had Jewish conductors decided in the 1930s in Germany, to go into schools totally committed to Nazi ideology, and see if they could bring them closer to an understanding of human relations if they were to play music together, Jewish musicians and avowedly anti-Semitic musicians. I don't know if it's exactly the right thing if Maestro Barenboim is correct in this. I'd rather really withhold judgment. I'm sure that his heart must be in the right place.
KAPLAN: All right, well let's come back to your musical heart, which is always in the right place I'm gathering today, when we come to Beethoven. And so now we come back to Beethoven for a second piece.
POSNER: I only wish that I had more time to practice more Beethoven because he will always be my favorite composer. He is the great role model when it comes to the triumph of heroism and courage over despair. And that's why Beethoven is so great. He is the paradigm of the person who suffers, but who transcends suffering and ultimately emerges victorious. And his music conveys it all of the time, especially music that he writes in the key of E flat major, such as the "Eroica" Symphony, of course; and the "Emperor" Concerto, and a good number of his piano sonatas, one of which I try to keep about eight of them under my fingers at all time. That means very slow playing. And if time only permitted, I would work some more of them up. It takes time to work up a Beethoven sonata, but one of them that I always loved playing was the 18th. I forgot what Franz Liszt said the opening of that described to him a lovingly, tenderly because of the way it begins – [sings] but the last movement is one in which all jocularity breaks through, and a lot of courage, a lot of strength. It's, I think the only tarantella that Beethoven has ever written but it has a sweep and a movement that is so vital. And I think the recording with Artur Schnabel, where Schnabel throws caution to the winds - he's willing to take it as fast as he can, and let the notes fall where they may, is absolutely splendid. He really gets into the spirit of the thing.
KAPLAN: The last movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, performed by Artur Schnabel, the music and the pianist selected by my guest today on "Mad About Music", the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York, David Posner. All right, as almost the entire show features music for the piano, I suppose I should ask you whom you regard as the foremost pianists performing today.
POSNER: I don't go to concerts the way that I used to because Temple Emanu-El has me morning, noon and night. I'm always with members of the congregation. Who do I love today who are thank God still alive? I think of Evgeny Kissin is wonderful. I think that some of the pianists from Europe whom I hear, whose recordings I hear on the radio, Jean-Yves Thibaudet - magnificent. Leif Ands - the Norwegian pianist -
POSNER: –– Fabulous performer! Martha Argerich, for example. Thank God she's still with us. I think Martha Argerich is not to believe, such a virtuoso, staggering. There are people of these capabilities.
KAPLAN: All right, you were just saying before in this context of people who are still alive. Now, as the Chief Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, you of course officiate at many funerals. I've often wondered what percentage of the people who die, which is all of us, but what percentage of the people for which you are officiating funerals have chosen the music they want played themselves, during their lifetime?
POSNER: That's a good question, and it's fewer than it used to be a generation ago, when I first came to the congregation. It may have been the case that more people had better music educations than they do today. It doesn't happen that often. I'm trying to recall any pieces that were selected. I know I have mine picked out. I don't think I've shared this with my children yet, but I don’t mind telling the listening audience, that when it's my time -
POSNER: Well, no, actually, it would be the Schumann E flat Piano Quintet, the second movement, which is a funeral march. [Sings.] Tremendous piece!
KAPLAN: It's interesting that you have done it. All right, well let's turn away from funerals, and come to your final selection, which has a more upbeat title, called –
POSNER: Yes, Carnaval! Absolutely! We couldn't make a better transition. Schumann, I love to play, I love to listen, very difficult for me to play. He's got technical issues, technical problems, it doesn't necessarily come that naturally to the hand, or even to the brain, I'm sorry to say. I'm just revealing my own limitations. Carnaval, I think, is his greatest piano composition. Interesting thing about Schumann, and we see this with many of the composers, some of them are born geniuses, but they die talents. Some tend to peter out. That was not the case with Beethoven, who got greater and greater. It's somewhat the case with Brahms – the Fourth Symphony is certainly not as great as the First Symphony, and even the Double Concerto, which is his last orchestral work, is not as sublime, say as the Violin Concerto. Same would certainly hold true for Mendelssohn, and I'm afraid, Schumann as well. Carnaval is Opus 9, so this is Schumann at his most robust, and most creative, enormously difficult piece. And my favorite recording has always been Rachmaninoff's recording in 1929, which is vintage Rachmaninoff. His technique is at its apex.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Schumann's Carnaval, performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the final selection of David Posner, Senior Rabbi at New York's Temple Emanu-El, my guest today. Well, as we come to the end of the show there are two things left I would like to ask you about. First, do you ever regret that you didn't pursue a career as a pianist?
POSNER: It's one of my greatest fantasies, about two things. Number one, being a touring concert pianist. If I only had the ability, I think I would have loved it. And if I couldn’t do that, the second fantasy I have is always being a conductor. I would love to conduct Brahms' First Symphony. I would love to conduct any of them. Always enjoyed that so much, and whenever I listened to music as a youngster, I always pretended to conduct. Actually, in high school, I did conduct our high school orchestra: Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, in the Coriolanus Overture by Beethoven. I spent about three or four sessions with the orchestra on that, and it's something that I'll never forget.
KAPLAN: Well, I said to you I had two things to ask you, but you answered them both. I was going to ask you what would be your fantasy in music, and now you've already told us. Well, Rabbi Posner, you've been a fascinating guest, and it really can't be a bad thing when our religious leaders embrace music to the extent that you do. Thank you for joining us today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for "Mad About Music."
"Mad About Music"
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer