MaxBruchA concert piece for cello and orchestra uses sacred music from the center of Jewish tradition. Consider the Kol Nidre of Max Bruch, a work with wide appeal from an unlikely composer.

At the center of the Jewish year are the High Holy Days, culminating in Yom Kippur. Leading to this Day of Atonement is Kol Nidre, which is a service and a prayer. All vows, all words spoken against righteousness, are repented.

Composer Max Bruch was a Protestant in 1880s Berlin, but knew the city’s cantor-in-chief, Abraham Lichtenstein. Bruch learned the Kol Nidre melody and others from the Lichtenstein family. He loved the beauty of these tunes. Complex rhythmic shades were woven into deceptive simplicity—just like Gregorian chant, in fact, just like the folk music of other traditions.

Bruch composed Kol Nidre for cello and orchestra, not for a sacred service. He assembled tunes for a cellist who asked him for a piece. It’s music to be played in a concert hall for people of all faiths and no faith.

But perhaps it is a prayer. Perhaps something happens when we hear the Bruch Kol Nidre. In the midst of our busy comings and goings, among our vows to accomplish this or that, this Kol Nidre stops us and calls us to something deeper.

Perhaps, at the center of every tradition, lies the universal.