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ClassicsOnline Home » WEISGALL: T'kiatot / Psalm of the Distant Dove / A Garden Eastward
Hugo Weisgall, one of the 20th century’s most individualistic and creative composers, united an early affinity for the musical aesthetics of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern with a lifelong commitment to and fascination with his Jewish heritage. His symphonic masterpiece, T’kiatot, is based on a central section of the traditional Rosh Hashana service in which the shofar (ram’s horn) is sounded three times. The aweinspiring blasts of an actual shofar are set within a richly chromatic orchestral texture to brilliant effect. The song cycle Psalm of the Distant Dove, based on biblical and medieval Hebrew-Spanish poetry, celebrates the mystical, age-old relationship between God and His loving but suffering people Israel, represented by the image of a dove. Also inspired by the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry is A Garden Eastward, one of Weisgall’s most rhapsodic vocal and orchestral conceptions, which the composer once called his “most beautiful work.”
Hugo Weisgall (1912-1997)
T'kiatot • Psalm of the Distant Dove
Four Choral Etudes • A Garden Eastward
About the Composer
Although he wrote a substantial body of music for a number of media, Hugo Weisgall (1912–97) is probably best remembered as one of America's most important composers of opera and large-scale song cycles, reflecting his intense lifelong interest in both western and Judaic literature. "I am attracted by the verbal, I am sucked aside by words", he once said, "and I want to deal ideologically and musically with difficult problems". The literary merit of his compositions, their original vocal style, and their serious attention to musical and dramatic detail all mark a significant contribution to American music.
The scion of a highly cultured family that boasts several generations of cantors in the Bohemian-Austrian orbit (and the nephew of the illustrious Zionist leader and producer Meyer Weisgal), Weisgall lent his artistic gifts on many occasions to the expression of historical, literary, biblical, and liturgical Jewish themes and subjects. In a class by himself, he belongs among the highest ranks of the American musical establishment, but he also championed the perpetuation of authentic Jewish musical tradition and of the Central European cantorial legacy. Among serious American Jewish composers, his singularity extended even further to the practical realm. Not only was he fully conversant with the entire range of American and European synagogue choral repertoire, which he taught to cantorial students for more than forty years, but he knew the intricacies of the modal formulaic system of Ashkenazi liturgical rendition known as nusah hat'filla, and he functioned as an authoritative ba'al t'filla (lay cantor or precentor) well into his retirement.
Weisgall was born in Eibenschitz (Ivancice), a town in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic), where he claimed to have begun singing in a synagogue choir at the age of three or four. His father, Abba Yosef [Adolph Joseph] Weisgall (who added the second l to his name in America, though his brother Meyer did not), was both a cantor at the local synagogue and a classical lieder and light operatic singer. From childhood, Hugo Weisgall absorbed the Central European liturgical traditions and the western lieder and operatic canons from his father, whom he also accompanied on the piano. The family immigrated to America in 1920 and soon afterward settled in Baltimore, where Abba Yosef served for more than four decades at one of the city's oldest and most prestigious synagogues — Chizuk Amuno Congregation. From his earliest years in Baltimore, Hugo Weisgall became intimately involved in the musical life of that congregation. For many years he conducted its choir; and he also organized and directed a mixed chorus, based there and known as the Chizuk Amuno Choral Society, which performed concert works as well and — with the esteemed cantor Jacob Barkin — issued one of the most artistic LP recordings of classic and contemporary cantorial-choral repertoire.
Apart from some consultations abroad (he went to Europe shortly before the Second World War hoping to study with Bartók, who was unwilling to take on further students), Weisgall received all of his formal education in America. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and then intermittently with Roger Sessions. At the Curtis Institute he studied with Fritz Reiner and Rosario Scalero and earned diplomas in conducting and composition, but his variegated interests led him to pursue a doctorate in other academic areas, and in 1940 Johns Hopkins University awarded him a Ph.D. for his dissertation on primitivism in 17th century German poetry.
Weisgall's operatic sensibilities and his gravitation to that medium were fueled not only by his natural love for the human singing voice but also by his inherent love of theater. That lifelong love affair dates to his youth. As a child of eleven, he once organized a "production" of a play he had stitched together himself about the "Knights of the Round Table", pressing into service the children in the neighborhood for the various roles. (To no one's surprise, the young Hugo played King Arthur.) Later, while pursuing his musical studies, he acted in small repertory theaters. From the time he began composing operas, he was always intensely involved in a working collaboration with his librettist.
During the Second World War, Weisgall served in the armed forces and for a time was an aide-de-camp to General George F. Patton. His fluency in languages eventually led to assignments of sensitive diplomatic responsibilities. While he was an assistant military attaché in London, and then a cultural attaché in postwar Prague, he conducted concerts by some of Europe's leading orchestras, in which he promoted American music and featured American works. He also managed to compose in those difficult surroundings. In London his discovery of an anthology of war poetry inspired his song cycle Soldier Songs (1944–46), considered his first important work. In an air-raid shelter in Brussels after the Battle of the Bulge, he began writing The Dying Airmen, to words that had been published anonymously but which Weisgall maintained was actually a Spanish Civil War work by W. H. Auden. And upon viewing the hospital conditions at Terezin, the former German-built ghetto and concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, he commenced music for the Wilfred Owen poem ‘Futility', about the earth's ability to regenerate itself but the impossibility of regenerating a lost human life.
Behind the scenes during the immediate postwar years, Weisgall quietly used his military-diplomatic position to help many refugees and German concentration camp survivors. Without the required approval of his superior officer (who later congratulated him secretly), and at the risk of serious reprimand or worse, he took it upon himself to order a delay in the sealing of certain Czech border areas so that as many people as possible would not be permanently trapped behind the communist lines once the iron curtain descended.
After the war, Weisgall declined several offers for permanent conducting posts in Europe. Following his return to the United States, he founded and directed the Chamber Society of Baltimore and the Hilltop Opera Company; directed the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts; and taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1951 until 1957 — all the while continuing his work with synagogue choirs. But dearest to his heart was his forty-four-year involvement with the Jewish Theological Seminary. He established and stewarded the foremost curriculum in America for education and training in cantorial art. From its opening in 1952 until his own retirement in 1996, Weisgall was chairman of the faculty at the Seminary's Cantors Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Music (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School ). In that capacity he functioned as a de facto codirector of the school — especially vis-à-vis its musical (as opposed to Judaical) parameters. He devoted a major portion of his energies to that role, bringing both his broad worldview of Jewish music and his exacting western musical standards to bear upon the Seminary's approach to cantorial studies. He also taught graduate level composition and was the doctoral dissertation advisor for such important American composers as Herman Berlinski and Miriam Gideon. His legacy at the Seminary is permanently etched.
In 1961 he simultaneously became a professor of music at Queens College in New York, retiring in 1983 as Distinguished Professor. And he taught for thirteen years at The Juilliard School.
Apart from the music on this recording, many of Weisgall's other works were inspired by his strong sense of Jewish identity. His fifth mature opera, Athaliah (1964), on a libretto adapted from Racine's biblical tragedy, includes texts drawn from the Book of Psalms, and a synagogue chant is used as a cantus firmus toward the end. His next opera, Nine Rivers from Jordan (1968), deals with issues pertaining to the Holocaust, collective guilt, the collapse of the European order, Zionism and the State of Israel, and theological conceptions. That score, which drew upon the whole range of Weisgall's personal, musical, and religious experience, incorporates such divergent elements as a well-known Passover melody and his own mock-German song.
In The Golden Peacock (1980), a setting of seven mostly familiar Yiddish folksongs, Weisgall used the original melodies as starting points to flesh out a sophisticated art song cycle that presents genuine Yiddish folk melos within a 20th century frame of reference. The chromatic piano parts with inventive sonorities are derived from motivic details of the tunes; and the vocal lines are treated ingeniously in order to retain their basic substance, with subtle alterations and extended material in the context of contemporary musical vocabulary and expressionist dissonance. The work, which was recorded by soprano Judith Raskin, has been called a Jewish counterpart to Bartók's Hungarian songs and Benjamin Britten's English songs.
In an open-ended series of perhaps a dozen short chamber pieces that he called Graven Images, Weisgall used fragments of music he had written for the 1966 CBS documentary Of Heaven and Earth, which dealt with ancient artwork by Jewish artisans. Among the individual pieces are jaunty ‘Holiday Dances' that refer to Jewish festivals and are scored for a number of instrumental combinations. And one is a charming Stravinskian setting of Psalm 29, in Hebrew, for solo voice (or chorus) and piano.
Although he occasionally wrote liturgical settings when he first directed synagogue choirs in Baltimore, it was not until the 1980s that Weisgall was commissioned to write a complete formal synagogue service. That work, Evening Liturgies, is a Reform Friday evening (Sabbath eve) service according to the Union Prayer Book, scored for baritone cantor, mixed chorus, and organ. Prior to the premier of the entire work, two orchestrated movements, under the title Sacred Fragments, were performed at an international conference in New York. Bernard Holland, in his review in The New York Times, observed: "Here, the love of soaring stentorian singing and sweeping string sound served to soften Weisgall's acid, penetrating harmonies". Another of his important Judaically related works is Love's Wounded, a setting of poetry by Yehuda Halevi (ca. 1075–1121) for baritone and orchestra, premiered by the Baltimore Symphony conducted by David Zinman.
Probably the greatest critical success and, on certain levels, the crowning achievement of Weisgall's artistic career came late in his life, with the New York City Opera's 1993 premiere of his tenth opera, Esther. Based on the biblical Book of Esther, whose narrative underlies the Jewish festival of Purim, it generated accolades unprecedented in Weisgall's experience. "The composer's triumph could not have been more complete", wrote New York Times critic Edward Rothstein; "its power is unmistakable". Another referred to it as the most important American opera in decades. Opera News magazine acknowledged that "the work's seriousness of purpose… won the 81-yearold composer nothing but admiration". "You would have thought that Verdi had risen from the dead", wrote Anthony Tommasini sometime later, also in The New York Times, describing the ovation for Weisgall at the premiere.
No proper consideration of Weisgall can ignore some of his operas outside the Judaic realm — especially Six Characters in Search of an Author (1956), based on the Pirandello play. Probably more than any other, that work first catapulted him to international attention in the opera world. Among his other important operas are The Tenor (1950), based on Frank Wedekind's expressionist one-act play, Der Kammersänger ; The Stronger (1952), written expressly for his Hilltop Opera Company and based on Strindberg's psychological monodrama; and Purgatory (1958) to William Butler Yeats's allegorical verse play, in which Weisgall adapted twelve-tone techniques for the first time. His instrumental works include orchestral pieces, a piano sonata, incidental music, chamber music, and several ballets.
Weisgall was an intellectual of broad, high-minded interests. He published articles on American Impressionist painting and on contemporary music and composers, and he lectured widely on Jewish and general musical topics. He was president of the American Music Center (1963–73) and of the League of Composers-ISCM, and he was a composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1966. Among his numerous prizes, awards, and honors were three Guggenheim fellowships, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Opera America (1994), the Gold Medal for music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1994), the William Schuman prize from Columbia University, the first award in the arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and several honorary doctorates. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, and he served as its president from 1990 until 1993. He also directed the inaugural term of the composer-in-residence program of Lyric Opera of Chicago (1988–97).
Projects on Weisgall's desk at the time of his death included the beginnings of a second set of settings of Yiddish folk melodies; operatic versions of two plays by Jean Anouilh, several scenes of which were sketched out to libretti by Charles Kondek, the librettist for Esther ; and a new opera based on John Hersey's novel The Wall, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (according to Kondek, they had almost finished a draft of the complete libretto), which was to have been produced by New York City Opera. He was also sketching out a group of liturgical settings for the typical format in Conservative synagogues.
Weisgall's earlier style has been appraised as a fusion of nontonal neoclassicism with certain influences of the Second Viennese School of composers, such as Alban Berg, colored by the general opulence of that period. But his later music more closely approaches that Second Viennese School, especially its most lyrical aspects. Even at its most rigorous-sounding moments, however, it is generally more a matter of strident, even severe chromaticism than actual atonality — although Weisgall himself was never comfortable with such classifications.
In 1958 the eminent American composer George Rochberg described Weisgall's music as leaning "towards free tonality; he is never quite atonal". But nearly twenty years later Weisgall assessed his own approach from another perspective: "Generally my music is considered complex", he said. "It is texturally thick and multifarious; rhythmically disparate; and [it] has harmonic lines that move along on their own. It is what is commonly called atonal, but it is not nonmelodic".
Rochberg also astutely summarized Weisgall's basic artistic credo at that time: "Among American composers he is one of the few who remain heedless of the musical clichés which superficialize and debilitate American music. There is strength and hope in such an independent attitude". Weisgall remained steadfast to those principles for nearly forty years more. He never succumbed to popular tastes or the lure of wider acceptance; and he never strayed from his own artistic integrity.
Neil W. Levin and Bruce Saylor
Bruce Saylor was Hugo Weisgall's longtime protégé and his most successful student, and he has written extensively about his mentor.
T'kiatot: Rituals for Rosh Hashana
Composed in 1985, T'kiatot: Rituals for Rosh Hashana, one of Weisgall's few purely orchestral compositions, was given its premiere in New York City the following year. The work was commissioned by the 92nd Street YMHA, an important New York cultural institution that sponsored the Y Chamber Symphony. For more than ten years, beginning in 1977, that orchestra, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, its founder, premiered a number of new works, including this one, which Weisgall dedicated to the memory of his parents.
T'kiatot is not, however, absolute music. And for all its purely instrumental makeup, it may be one of Weisgall's most manifestly Jewish pieces on a religious plane. The Judaic aspect does not apply so much to the overall sonority or style, which conform rigorously to the abstract, atonal affinities Weisgall shared with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern — his musical and aesthetic models from the so-called Second Viennese School. Rather, its Judaic connection derives from its framing structural idea, which is based on a major section of the Rosh Hashana liturgy; from its integral absorption of a canonized Ashkenazi Rosh Hashana synagogue tune of medieval origin into the very fabric of the musical flow; and from its introduction of the ancient Temple-era instrument, the shofar, which, though used in antiquity for a variety of both religious and secular (including military) occasions, is today most emblematic of the High Holy Days. The shofar functions in T'kiatot as a "placing" and punctuating element, sonically as well as motivically.
The title, T'kiatot, refers to a central tripartite section of the Rosh Hashana mussaf liturgy, which this music expresses and interprets instrumentally according to its evocations for the composer. (T'ki'atot is the presumed plural of the Aramaic t'ki'ata, the term signifying each of those three parts.) Mussaf (lit., additional service) is the required service appended to the morning service on Sabbaths, Festivals, and High Holy Days, originating from — and reflecting — the "additional sacrifice" required in antiquity after the morning sacrificial ritual in the Temple in Jerusalem on those occasions (i.e., in addition to the usual weekday service). The term mussaf, however, can be misleading, since it is not optional or "extra" in that sense. For all practical purposes, it amounts to an integral extension of those morning services. Especially on the High Holy Days, the mussaf contains many poetic and dramatic texts that are unique to it. Over the centuries, the Rosh Hashana mussaf liturgy in the Ashkenazi rite has acquired a rich musical tradition specific to it — a number of melodies as well as particular modal formulas and constructions (the nusah hat'filla) that apply exclusively to that service. Moreover, the mussaf for Rosh Hashana (as for Yom Kippur and the Three Festivals) contains some of the canonized seasonal leitmotifs known as missinai tunes, which date to the Middle Ages and are universal throughout Ashkenazi practice. The one for the t'ki'atot section, for the introductory text — aleinu l'shabbe'ah la'adon hakol (We adore the Lord of all …) — serves as a binding element in this orchestral work. It is believed to date at least to the 12th century.
The t'ki'atot section of the liturgy comprises three divisions: malkhuyyot (Divine sovereignty); zikhronot (remembrance); and shofarot (trumpet-like or shofar sounds heralding Divine revelation and fulfillment of the Divine promise for ultimate messianic redemption and liberation). Each division concerns and illustrates one of the three central theological themes of Rosh Hashana: 1) God's absolute Kingship of the universe (malkhuyyot) and the ramifications of that supreme authority, in connection with which Rosh Hashana is also known as yom hadin — the Day of Judgment; 2) God as the Divine recorder of all acts and deeds (zikhronot), who therefore remembers all promises and covenants, in connection with which Rosh Hashana is known as yom hazikaron — the Day of Remembrance; and 3) God as the Revealer of Himself — through His Teaching, the Torah, and ultimately through Israel's redemption from exile and its return to Zion, as well as the redemption of all humanity. In this connection Rosh Hashana is known by yet a third name: yom t'ru'a — the Day of the Shofar Blasts, which heralded God's revelation on Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to the people through Moses, and which will also herald the ultimate redemption.
In modern contexts these three themes can translate to God as the primeval source of all existence itself — i.e., God as Creator of the universe and everything in it, and of nature itself; God in terms of history, and in Israel's collective memory; and God the ultimate Revealer of truth and wisdom.
Each of these three liturgical divisions contains ten biblical quotations that pertain to and support its theme: three from the Torah followed by three from Psalms and then three from the Prophets, concluding with yet another from the Torah. This ritual and order is traceable at least to the 2nd century C.E., since it is mentioned in the Mishna (Rosh Hashana iv, 5–6), which dates to that period. At the conclusion of each division, the shofar is sounded according to a prescribed set of articulations, or "shofar blasts". This practice, too, is cited in that same 2nd century Mishna.
Each of the ten sets of biblical quotations is also preceded by a prologue and followed by a prayer and its related benediction. The insertion of these texts is attributed to the 3rd century scholar Rav, who founded the Sura academy in Babylonia.
The great medieval sage and scholar Moses Maimonides interpreted the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana (which also occur at other points in the service) as proclaiming: "You who are asleep, awaken! Search your deeds and repent! You who indulge all year in trifles, examine your souls and alter your ways. Let each one renounce his evil course".
The composer provided the following notes in the program booklet at the premiere:
The [aleinu] melody begins with a descending major triad followed by an upward octave leap [continuing back downward — initially in stepwise motion]. I have used this motive in my first movement, which is an extended and generally slow fantasia. At the end of this movement, the shofar is sounded very far offstage.
The fantasia is characterized by majestic dotted rhythms; juxtapositions of the separate orchestral choirs, with special emphasis on the brass; and many statements of the triadic, diatonic synagogue motive [the missinai aleinu tune] by the solo French horn … accompanied by dissonant harmonies in the brass. Additional musical material includes elaborate, cantillation-like figuration and rapid repeated notes, recalling shofar calls. [These are notated in Weisgall's preface to the score.]
The second movement is basically a scherzo, which brings an optimistic mood to the remembrance theme. The third and final movement is built largely on motifs that are based on the various prescribed shofar blasts, or "calls":
They are sounded in turn first by all the brass instruments, and then by the woodwinds and the strings. In this movement, the shofar is made part of the orchestral fabric of the score, and is sounded, still offstage, but [this time] very close to the audience.
Weisgall presented the shofar calls here in a different order from the prescribed one, but as in the synagogue service, the movement concludes with the t'ki'a g'dola — the long, sustained shofar blast, while the orchestral music grows slower and softer.
Neil W. Levin
Psalm of the Distant Dove
In Weisgall's last years, his work dealt increasingly with Jewish life and Jewish subjects and issues. His last opera, Esther, concerned a biblical subject; his last choral work was a large-scale sacred service; and his last long song cycle was Psalm of the Distant Dove: Canticle in Homage to Sephardi Culture. This was commissioned by the Friends of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where it was premiered in 1992. Raymond P. Scheindlin, a professor there of medieval Hebrew literature and one of the foremost authorities on the subject (as well as on Arabic poetry), selected and translated the poetry; and his wife, mezzo-soprano Janice Meyerson, sang in that performance, with Brian Zeger at the piano.
The literary and religious issue of Psalm of the Distant Dove is the complicated, age-old relationship between God and His loving but suffering people Israel, poetically represented here by the image of the dove. Throughout Mediterranean literature — and especially Arabic poetry — doves are associated with lovers. They do not abandon their life partners. Weisgall's cycle alternates three short selections — which he calls preludes — from the biblical Song of Songs and from Midrash Raba (rabbinic commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, often by way of allegory and metaphor, dating to the 5th–6th centuries C.E.) with poetry from the so-called Golden Age of Spanish Jewry in the era of Moslem rule on the Iberian Peninsula. That poetry is drawn from verse by three poets: Shmuel Ha'Naggid [Ismail ibn Nagrela, ca. 993–1055], statesman and leader of Spanish Jewry, military commander, vizier of Granada, and poet and Hebraic scholar; Yehuda [Judah] Halevi, probably the most widely recognized and familiar Hebrew poet and philosopher from that era; and an anonymous poet.
Specific literary connections lead the listener from one section of the cycle to the next, and it concludes with aching cries for the redemption of Israel, as the poet painfully recalls the more joyful passing of seasons from the first prelude from Song of Songs. In the prelude and its pendant excerpt from Midrash Raba 1:15, for example, Weisgall symbolizes the joy of friends or lovers — or the steadfast loyalty God reserves for His "mate" Israel — with rearranged fourth chords that yield quasi-diatonic tonal areas. By contrast, the bittersweet, biting harmonies of the spring song, ‘Days of Cold Are Past'; the plaint of the injured lover, ‘Distant Dove'; and the prelude from Midrash Raba, ‘Birds Struggle in the Hand of the Slaughterer', owe more to the type of half-step intervallic units found in Esther. There seems to be an overall harmonic motion from open, optimistic, even Coplandesque chords and melodies to more craggy, dissonant structures toward the end. The final song concludes with a very dissonant seven-note chord, which is a denser version of the one heard at the opening of the cycle (‘My Lover Called…').
Two thirds of the way into the work, there is a solo piano ‘Elegy', in three intimate, spare melodic voices, subtitled "In Memoriam W[illiam] S[chuman]. February 15th, 1992" in tribute to a colleague and one of the most significant 20th century American composers. (This marked the last in a years-long series of short piano pieces that Weisgall composed upon the deaths of friends: Sessions, Randolph Rothschild, and others.) In fact, the entire cycle exhibits a concentrated, rather austere style of piano writing that avoids sumptuous pianistic sonorities and coloristic exploitation of the pedal. This, together with deliberate avoidance of the extreme registers on the piano, serves the composer's focus on the vocal line and the sternness of the message contained in the aggregate text.
[Editor's Note: The final song is excerpted from an anonymous Sephardi dirge or elegy (kina) traditionally sung on Tisha Ba'av — the ninth of the Hebrew month of av — which commemorates the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem in 566 B.C.E. and 72 C.E. and also, for Sephardi Jewry, the expulsion from Spain in 1492. In fact, this poem, borei ad ana, is one of the best known of all the Sephardi kinot. Its acrostic spells out the name Binyamin (Benjamin), presumably the anonymous unidentified poet. The poem appears to have been written with specific reference to the wave of Christian persecutions against Jews in Spain between 1391 and 1412. It contains various biblical references and quotations, and its original text also contained a reference to the Christian concept of the Trinity: "The worshippers of three gods — father, son, and spirit…" That passage was later modified, either by outside censors or by Jewish authorities, to read "Cruel aliens [strangers] weakened her…" There are various modifications of that line in extant compilations. — N.W.L.]
Four Choral Etudes
Four Choral Etudes comprises four a cappella SATB settings of well-known Hebrew texts. These pieces were written individually between 1935 and 1956 and were revised between 1950 and 1960 and then published under the present collective title.
The earliest piece is a setting of a passage from the liturgy, yihyu l'ratzon (May the words of my mouth…). [Editor's note: These words are recited at the conclusion of the silently said prayers known as the sh'mone esrei (the eighteen benedictions originally contained in the unabbreviated, i.e., weekday, version of this supplicatory core section of the service), or as the amida (lit., "standing", since these benedictions must be recited in that posture). The overall mood of the text is akin to a summary meditation — as a coda to the preceding liturgy — asking that the set of prayers just communicated to God, both as quietly verbalized utterances and as meditations "of the heart", be acceptable to Him. The tempo and spirit here correspond to the feeling of personal, private communion and communication evoked by the text. — N.W.L.]
Yihyu l'ratzon begins in F minor, but after only three beats the choral voice-leading yields surprising chord changes. Lyrical, verselike phrases are unfolded in tiny intervallic units: falling or rising seconds or Weisgall's favorite falling thirds.
Faster tempi are attached to the other three settings. All feature diatonic, folklike tunes in the soprano lines, accompanied by swiftly moving chromatic harmonies in the lower voices. Hodu ladonai (Psalm 118:1–4), is an expression of praise for God that forms part of the hallel liturgy recited on Festivals and other festive occasions. This piece derives its Stravinskian energy from the rhythms inherent in the Hebrew. This, together with the quicksilver harmonic changes, gives the pulsating semiquaver accents an almost percussive quality.
The melody of B'tzet yisrael (Psalm 114:1–8, also excerpted from the hallel liturgy) evokes a vaguely Near Eastern folksong flavor, although it is original. The jaunty tune is harmonized differently upon successive repetitions. As in the Hodu ladonai, Weisgall has built the ritardando into the piece by writing it out in the rhythmic notation. The complex harmonies are streamlined at the conclusion.
The final piece, Ki lo na'e (beautiful praise befits the Lord), addresses one of the hymns traditionally sung by Ashkenazi Jews at the conclusion of the Passover seder — the elaborate family home ritual conducted at the table before and after the festive evening meal on the first two nights of that weeklong Festival. [Editor's note: This poem is from an anonymous medieval source and is known to have been appended to the Ashkenazi seder ritual as early as the 13th century. It is based on a passage in the Midrash that offers commentary on a verse from Psalms (74:16). Like other seder hymn texts, it has acquired many distinct tunes over the centuries. — N.W.L.] The tune here was a favorite version at Weisgall family seders. While preserving its strophic repetitions, Weisgall has altered the quirky tune for this elaborate concert work, radically supercharging the underlying harmonies and infusing the choral textures with imitation and with motivic development in the three lower voices.
Although these four texts are all from the liturgy, these pieces are not intended for functional liturgical use. The sheer pace at which the moving parts fly, the chromatic nature of the harmonic language, and the registral and dynamic vocal demands place Four Choral Etudes firmly in a concert context. Their considerable if richly rewarding musical and choral challenges surely deserve the title Etudes — "studies" — for a virtuoso ensemble.
A Garden Eastward
A Garden Eastward, written between August and November 1952, is subtitled Cantata for High Voice and Orchestra. At its 1953 premiere, however, sung by Brenda Lewis with the Baltimore Symphony conducted by Massimo Freccia, the work was subtitled Three Symphonic Songs. Indeed its structure of three contrasting movements — Fantasia, Scherzo, and Free Variations — qualify it as the closest thing to a symphony for voice and orchestra among all of Weisgall's works. Certainly it is one of his most rhapsodic orchestral conceptions, and this composer of so much craggy, chromatic music remarked more than once that he thought it his "most beautiful" piece.
A Garden Eastward is a setting of Milton Feist's English versions of medieval poetry by the great Spanish Hebrew poet and philosopher Moses ben Jacob Ibn Ezra [a.k.a. Abu Harun; ca. 1055–1135]. The Fantasia opens with two spare intertwining strands of stratospherically high pianissimo counterpoint for the violins, whose tonal and rhythmic vagueness portray the poet's dreamlike reverie on how the wonders of the created universe declare the Eternal One's greatness (Ibn Ezra's poem is a visionary meditation on Psalm 8:4). Weisgall's free melodic lines are lyrical but nonrepetitive, constructed from small melodic or intervallic cells. Eventually the enigmatic chromaticism blazes out into more diatonic vocal melody, polytonally superimposed upon orchestral chords at the words "Yonder shines the sun!" The reverie slowly fades into mists of sumptuous open harmonies as the movement closes.
The scherzo became Weisgall's favorite form early on in his compositions. Its brisk exciting pace, its inherent capacity for irregular regroupings of beats and measures, and its formal adaptability made it an indispensable organizing technique for sections of operas, vocal chamber works, and orchestral pieces. Weisgall's reading of Ibn Ezra's vision of a luxurious Moorish garden in Moslem Spain (or is it the Garden of Eden or the backdrop to the Song of Songs?) is vigorous and almost brash, as if the mock anger of the opening words, "Call the man traitor", never settles into rapture.
The concluding Free Variations are based on a traditional German Ashkenazi synagogue melody Weisgall's father had known and sung at his pulpit in Moravia, which was ingrained in Central European liturgical repertoires. (In 1950, it was published in the privately issued Shirei hayyim ve'emuna; Songs of Life and Faith.) The tune is one of many that were known in western and Central Europe for the text adon olam, a majestic hymn of praise for God. The poem is most commonly sung at the conclusion of the mussaf service on Sabbaths, High Holy Days, and Festivals and at the conclusion of evening services on those occasions. (It also occurs within the weekday morning liturgy, but it would not normally be sung to a tune of this type.) Weisgall's recollection was that this particular melody was reserved in his father's tradition for the evening services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The solo trumpet hints at the tune's melodic content in a chorale-like and highly dissonant brass introduction.
The soprano then intones the theme, accompanied by flowing, nontonal lines drawn from fragments of the original melody. These ever-present fragments, which vary and combine with new material in the orchestra and in the soloist's cantillation-like lines, correspond to the poet's words of ancient wisdom that endlessly adorn and inspire him in old age as he "scales the heights" toward eternity. Characteristically for Weisgall, this ethereal work ends in a kind of cadential, "consonant" resolution. If the synagogue tune in the last movement seems to disappear as the movement progresses, that is in the long tradition of the great variations of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and others, in which the theme is a point of departure for new invention that assumes the foreground. Rarely performed but admired by cognoscenti, A Garden Eastward stands next to other great works of this genre by Berlioz, Mahler, Ravel, Weisgall's teacher Roger Sessions, and his student Dominick Argento.
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