In the summer of 1938 Rabbi Jakob Sonderling of Los Angeles asked Arnold Schoenberg to arrange the traditional melody Kol Nidre for the upcoming Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish holidays. The commission was timely for Schoenberg, as events in Europe and concern about his family there kept the situation of the Jews constantly in his thoughts.
Schoenberg began the work, which was set for speaker, mixed chorus, and orchestra, on August 1, completed it on September 22, and led the premiere in Los Angeles on October 4. Only a month later came the infamous Kristallnacht in Germany, where synagogues, homes, and businesses were destroyed.
As he started his research on the Kol Nidre text, Schoenberg was shocked to discover what he considered its "immorality" in releasing Jews from the obligations and commitments which had been assumed during the year. In his version the text is somewhat altered to indicate that this act of absolution involves only those sinful vows that run counter to Jewish belief in God.
Schoenberg also rethought the question of the Kol Nidre melody. He observed (as he later wrote to a friend) that "there is no melody as such, but a number of melismas which resemble each other up to a point." Schoenberg treated these units as independent but related motives, which he then manipulated according to the traditions of instrumental variation and development inherited from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Although Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre is principally a tonal work, the musical material resembles that of the twelve-tone Fourth Quartet, completed two years earlier, as the scholar Alexander Ringer has pointed out.
Schoenberg explained that in the Kol Nidre he wanted to "vitriolize out the cello-sentimentality of the Bruchs, etc." He referred here, of course, to Max Bruch’s popular work of 1881. Schoenberg succeeded admirably in his goals: although lasting under fifteen minutes, the Kol Nidre is a modern yet timeless work of stark, compelling power.
Schoenberg prefaced the liturgical text with an orchestral prelude and a narration, delivered by the speaker, who is also the Rabbi. Derived from the oral Jewish tradition of the Kabbalah, the story describes how God, having created light, crushed it to atoms, which are then spread throughout the world and can be perceived only by the faithful. The Kol Nidre text itself is then presented as a dialogue–really a set of parallel invocations–between the speaker and the chorus.