"Passacaglia und Fuge über “Kol Nidre” an original recording from a Reconstruction Concert at Dr Hochs Konservatorium on 13th June 2004. Courtesy of Joyce Ward.

Siegfried Würzburger’s Passacaglia und Fuge über "Kol Nidre" was written for a sacred concert that took place at Wiesbaden’s Great Synagogue on 15 April 1934, organized by the local Lodge and the Jewish Lehrhaus (an adult academy dedicated to Jewish studies of the highest intellectual standard). Würzburger premiered the piece himself. He conceived the Passacaglia and Fugue during a time when he began expanding his activities, participating as organist in events organized by the Jüdischer Kulturbund and contributing to benefit concerts and various musical events. These activities filled a gap that came with the Nazi rise to power in 1933, when Würzburger’s position as a teacher began to be limited and unstable since most of his students were not Jewish.

Passacaglia and Fugue are based on the central prayer of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidrei, which is recited at the beginning of the evening service right after the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark. The Aramaic prayer is a kind of declaration in which all personal vows made to God are annulled. The Passacaglia consists of six parts: the introduction of the theme followed by five variations over the basso ostinato. The first four measures introduce the very beginning of the Kol Nidrei-melody solo in the pedal. The subject of the four-part double fugue is based on excerpts from Kol Nidrei as well, with the subject derived from the synagogue song. Würzburger does not strictly follow the melodic course of the Kol Nidrei, but rather puts motives together on the basis of tonality (the first subject is minor; the second subject is major).

The contemporary Jewish press praised the piece as a “masterwork of counterpoint”. It is one of the few 20th century organ compositions that uses a Jewish melody in combination with a strict retrospective-looking contrapuntal style. The Fugue especially shows how synagogue chant and counterpoint can be connected in organ music, but without the intention of creating a uniquely Jewish expression. Thus, the piece represents a total assimilation into Western art music.

ByTina Frühauf