YOM KIPPUR

Tolstoy’s Kol Nidre: A Mystery Unravels

By Curt Leviant

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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One day, more than two decades ago, I walked into a Jerusalem bookstore — and stepped into a mystery. At the store, I met a man who was shopping named Reb Moshe Ashbel, an elderly, white-bearded Russian immigrant. As we got to know each other, Ashbel told me that he was a Lubavitch Hasid, a mathematician, and a lover of classical and Jewish music who 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 that he could not find in Israel — scores to compositions by Max Bruch and Ernest Bloch, as well as a couple of geometry texts. Oh, and he added, a copy of Mikhail Erdenko’s “Kol Nidre” score, which I never had heard of.

As Ashbel explained it, in 1910, Leo Tolstoy told Erdenko that the Jews had a beautiful, age-old Yom Kippur melody, and Tolstoy asked the violinist and composer to arrange a version for violin and piano. When Ashbel finally realized his dream of making aliya, the Soviet authorities confiscated his sheet music at the Moscow airport. Now he wanted another copy.

Thus began my 20-plus-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 even performed at Carnegie Hall. He suspected that Erdenko might even have been Jewish and had changed his name. Another lead was provided by the adult education chairman of a New Jersey synagogue, who suggested I contact Rostislav Dubinsky, the founder of the famed Borodin Quartet and the author of “Stormy Applause,” a moving memoir of a Jewish musician in the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors. Dubinsky taught at the great Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington. I called and was referred to his wife, pianist Luba Dubinsky. She sadly informed me that her husband had died a year earlier — but in response to my Erdenko story, she said she was sure that Erdenko was a Jew and that the Soviets had purposely erased every trace of him. But if Erdenko had been Jewish, why, when Tolstoy asked him about “Kol Nidre,” did he not say: “Of course I know that melody”?

Still, none of this information brought me any closer to the music. Meanwhile, Ashbel died in Jerusalem.

Then, in 2000, I wrote a piece for these pages on my fruitless search, and a sea change occurred. It was like a tonic shift from minor to major key. Events that had moved like tar suddenly speeded up like those scenes in double-quick motion in the old silent comedies.

The first person to call was Eric Fettman, a journalist for the New York Post. He said he did a search for “Erdenko, violin” on his computer and found that a man named Sergei Erdenko had given a concert with his Loiko Trio in a Phoenix synagogue in 1999. The synagogue had a Web site, which provided a host of fascinating information. The Loiko Trio was based in, of all places, Ireland and — drum roll, please — Sergei was identified as the great-grandson of Mikhail Erdenko. Now a new fact was added: Erdenko had been a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and was a friend of Leo Tolstoy. Eureka!

The synagogue’s Web site also listed a woman — also improbably named Luba — in Phoenix, who was involved in ticket sales. I called her, and she immediately gave me two addresses: the Loiko’s Ireland address and Sergei Erdenko’s private address in Paris. Since the trio performed in a synagogue and was listed as playing Russian, Gypsy and Jewish music, I asked Luba about the Jewish component of the concert, for I was still in a quandary as to whether Mikhail Erdenko had been a Jew. If there was a Jewish substance to the trio’s music — passed on from father to son over four generations — then the Jewishness of Erdenko would be confirmed. But Luba laughed. No, she said, they just played “Hava Nagila” and one other old Jewish musical chestnut from ages ago.

With the two addresses that Luba had given me, I wrote one letter to the Loiko Trio in Ireland, and another to Sergei Erdenko in Paris. Nearly a year later, I am still awaiting an answer from Dublin. The letter to Sergei Erdenko was returned, stamped inconnu, unknown, some seven weeks after I mailed it. The light shining through the door — my hoped-for opening to resolve the mystery — was suddenly extinguished.

But then, a couple of months later, I got a call from a Russian named Oleg Timofeyev. He left a message telling me that his ex-professor at Duke University had read my article in the Forward and passed on the interesting information to him. A musician himself, Timofeyev was now at the University of Iowa teaching Russian literature. He told me he had done his own search and learned that the library at the University of California had a copy of Erdenko’s “Kol Nidre” score, which he would order for me.

I waited patiently. I can’t say I dreamed 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.’ They have a listing for it, but they can’t find it.”

“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 noted.

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

Here I was again: Hurry up and wait.

Meanwhile, someone else called to say that he had seen a composition by Erdenko on a CD but didn’t recall its name. I called a record store and was told that a CD by Erdenko indeed existed — in a performance by Nikolai Erdenko. Now there was a new name. Who was he? In typical Russian fashion, it was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Meanwhile, another man wrote, telling me that the Loiko Trio had performed in Maryland — still more information retrieved from yet another Web site — and that by following it I might be able, in the man’s poetically formulated but factually incorrect words, “to fulfill Moshe Ashbel’s dying wish.”

Then, Timofeyev called back.

“Good 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 it as you are.”

Three more weeks passed. The mailbox 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.”

On the same day, I received two packages. The first, from the second Luba (from Arizona), contained a cassette and a CD of music made by the Loiko Trio. The liner notes told a bit more about Sergei Erdenko, including the fact that his colleague on the trio was his first cousin. The bio continued by saying that both cousins’ families were musical and that — bingo! The circle was closed and the mystery unraveled — another cousin of Sergei Erdenko, Nikolai Erdenko, was also a musician.

Then I opened the second packet and found the sheet music — finally, finally — 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 that we all know, with all its grace notes and cantorial ornamentation. Evidently Erdenko had 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 had 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.

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 10 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.






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