Not widely appreciated during his lifetime, composer Gustav Mahler famously predicted, “My time will yet come.” And it did. Aaron Blumenfeld, a 77-year-old composer from the San Francisco Bay Area, hopes a similar future is in store for him – and the sooner, the better.
Blumenfeld – who may be the only man in the world who can compose a traditional piano concerto one moment, a ragtime rhythm the next, and a chassidic niggun the moment after that – is, as he calls himself, “a late bloomer.” The son of a Newark, New Jersey rabbi who authored nearly 20 halachic works, Blumenfeld didn’t even know he had musical talent until he scored exceptionally well on a music ability test that a counselor administered to him when he was 16.
In the test’s wake, Blumenfeld began devouring such works as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Soon he found himself in New York University’s School of Music Education, and by age 20 he was accepted to the Juilliard School of Music.
Soon thereafter, however, Blumenfeld got married and, like many practical-minded young men, thought to himself, “Who the heck needs this?” And so Blumenfeld left Julliard. Twenty years would pass, during which time he raised three children and earned a living as a Hebrew school and public school teacher, before finally returning to school to complete his studies. And as of this year, in addition to 301 chassidic niggunim, two Yiddish operas, and two Holocaust memorial symphonies, Blumenfeld has composed over 200 sonatas, sonatinas, concertos, and other works. He has also authored two books, The Blues, Boogie and Barrelhouse Piano Workbook and The Art of Blues and Barrelhouse Piano Improvisation.
Leaving Juilliard, however, wasn’t the only significant decision Blumenfeld made in his younger years. Although brought up in an Orthodox home, Blumenfeld drifted away from Orthodox Judaism as he grew older, searching for a more mystical life. In 1958 he joined “The Work,” a group based on the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff a Greek–Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher. “I considered it to be continuation of Judaism,” Blumenfeld told The Jewish Press, “and that’s what the founder of this movement claimed himself, so I didn’t feel altogether out of place.
It took Blumenfeld 10 years and the “tremendous miracle” of the Six-Day War, which “extremely moved” him, for him to finally leave the group.
“I told my father at that time that if he bought me a pair of tefillin I would put them on for the rest of my life. He bought them for me and I’ve been putting on that same pair for 40 years now. I undertook to become strictly Orthodox and today I keep kosher, wear a tallis katan, put on my tefillin, go to shul, and meditate every morning and night,” Blumenfeld said.
Despite his eclectic background and despite working with three distinct styles of music, Blumenfeld said he is careful not to let the different musical styles spill over into one another. “Nowadays in Jewish music,” he said, “you have many composers of chassidic music highly influenced by rock ‘n’ roll and blues. I keep it totally separate. My chassidic music is truly chassidic from the old tradition. There is no blues influence there at all, and it works the other way too. I do not mix in chassidic themes or even klezmer with blues. I’m very careful about that.”
And yet Blumenfeld said, “The feeling of Jewishness in my music permeates everything. It’s the way I turn my melodies. They have a certain sound to them which is typically Hebraic, either coming from various chants, nusach or Yiddish melodies which have a certain kind of nostalgic sound to them.”
Perhaps Blumenfeld’s greatest pride is his orchestral arrangement and elaboration of the legendary Modzitzer niggun, Ezkera. The niggun, which contains 36 sections and takes about 25 minutes to sing, was mostly composed by the first Modzitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Taub, when he was forced to have his leg amputated without anesthesia in 1913.
Blumenfeld spent 10 years on the project, which partly helped him complete his Masters degree in music composition at Rutgers University. However, despite positive reviews by several Modzitzer chassidim who heard it (including, Blumenfeld says, Modzitzer niggun expert Ben Zion Shenker), Blumenfeld’s orchestral arrangement of Ezkera has only been performed once. Modzitzer chassidim consider Ezkera to be a holy song, and this belief, combined with internal Modzitzer politics, has kept his arrangement from the public, Blumenfeld said.
Ezkera is not alone in its obscurity, though. While some of Blumenfeld’s music is available for listening on his website, and while various local orchestra and musical groups in California’s Bay Area have performed many of his works, Blumenfeld’s music is by and large not available to the public. “I’m not very good at the commercial aspect of being a composer,” Blumenfeld confesses.
Regarding marketing his Jewish music, Blumenfeld says, “Listen, it’s not as if I haven’t tried. The Jewish music world is one balagan. Velvel Pasternak [an expert on Jewish music] likes my music very much. But when I’ve written to Jewish publishers or people involved in the Jewish world, they’ve replied that the Jewish music world is so superficial – is so unaccepting of anything but the most superficial kind of foot-tapping music – that anyone who likes serious things like I do is not going to get accepted.”
Blumenfeld’s greatest wish, however, is simply to make a difference. “I want very much to get the Jewish music that I wrote into the culture to influence the upcoming generation. I feel that would be observing the mitzvah of v’shinantam l’vanecha.”