BEN-AMOTS: Celestial Dialogues / Hashkivenu / Shtetl Songs

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A ShortChoral Cycle

(Note bythe composer)

In 1979 Ileft Israel to continue mystudies at the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva. At a Sabbath evening service at alocal synagogue there, I heard a tune I had never heard before, which was sungfor the liturgical text hashkivenu - aprayer recited at every evening service, although this particular melody was reservedin that synagogue for the Sabbath. I was immediately inspired by its beauty andits mixture of dignity and melancholy. Although the synagogue was a traditionalAshkenazi one, I recognized from the tune's character that it could not be ofAshkenazi origin. Indeed, it turned out to be a traditional Sephardi version,known in Near Eastern Sephardi as well as Moroccan synagogues. But the Geneva rendition is adistorted variant of the tune, probably because those worshipers were removedfrom the mainstream of Sephardi liturgical practice. In any case, I memorizedthe tune as I heard it there and I resolved to use it in one of my next works.

About ayear later I wrote Hashkivenu Variations

for string quartet, employing this melody as the principal theme, but in theensuing years I still felt that I had not explored sufficiently the fullpotential hidden in the inspiring tune. So in 1993 I returned to it for aseries of short choral movements within my opera Fool's Paradise. In this comic opera, there is a role for somesingers who pretend to be angels and who sing hashkivenu in celestial harmony. That new piece - for four-partmixed choir, percussion, and organ - offered a fresh perception by combiningthe essence of the hashkivenu prayertext with other Sabbath-related mystical images: (1) the Sabbath Queen - the sh'khina, traditionally understood asthe feminine manifestation of the Divine Presence, who is welcomed into themidst of the congregants as the Sabbath approaches; (2) the kabbalistic imageof the "Sabbath bride," who enters during the preliminary kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service, which precedesthe section of the evening service proper (arvit)during which hashkivenu is recited orsung; and (3) allegorical images of the angels who are perceived poetically asushering in the peace of the Sabbath and even accompanying worshipers home forthe evening meal following the service to ensure the blessing and presence ofSabbath peace. (According to a legend in an allegorical passage of the Talmud[Shabbat 119B], two angels, one good and one evil, escort each Jew or familyhome. When, upon seeing the home specially prepared for the Sabbath, the goodangel expresses the wish that it may be the same on the following Sabbath, eventhe evil one is compelled to give his assent. Hence the words in the well-knownSabbath hymn shalom aleikhem, sung priorto commencing the meal: "May your departure also be with peace, angels of peace!"- viz., peace for the following Sabbath as well.)

In thisnewer choral version, I complemented the elements and fragments of thetraditional tune as I heard it in Geneva

with new, original material for the words in the hashkivenu text - v'taknenu b'etza

tova milfanekha (Direct us in theright path through Your good counsel). The cycle endswith the angels' departure, recalling the dual image in the shalom aleikhem text, "Come with peace[also in the final strophe of I'kha dodi

in the kabbalat shabbat

service) and go with peace." The ending is a musical echo of the angels'entrance, but this time the wordless canon is accompanied by dark, distantcluster sounds in the organ.

-O. B.


Thecomposer views this work as a "stylistic confrontation" between a klezmerclarinet solo - deriving from the haunting virtuoso sounds typical oftraditional eastern European Jewish bands - and cantorial vocal passages thatemanate from age-old Ashkenazi liturgical ritual. The piece also constitutes whathe calls "a dichotomy between song and dance, which atthe conclusion become one and the same expression: a prayer." The strings - whichfunction simultaneously as collective participant, audience, and echo - for themost part represent a worshiping congregation experiencing what a congregation engagedin true prayer would: a process of spiritual purification.

I. AM KADOSH (HolyFolk)

This is anintroductory cadenza in which the two soloists make their initial entrances andmusical statements. The movement's title, Amkadosh (Holy Folk), refers to a traditional call to Jews to arise formorning prayers - "to serve the Creator." It echoes an old common practiceamong Jews, especially in small towns and villages, or in certain religiousneighborhoods in Israel (and previously in Palestine), particularly during the periodof the yamim nora'im (Days of Awe) -during the days immediately preceding Rosh Hashana and the "ten days ofrepentance" between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - when the s'lihot liturgy (penitential prayers) is recited at the dailymorning services (shaharit). The local shammash

(beadle) would go from house to house at dawn, knocking on each door to awakenthe inhabitants and calling on them to hasten to the synagogue to join thecongregation for morning prayers. Thus did observant Jews begin each day inthose traditional surroundings, as they still do.

II. UV'YOM HASHABBAT (The Sabbath Day)

The focushere is on the cantor's song. Its nusah hat'filla (the prescribed traditionalmusical formulas and modes for specific prayers, sections of services, andspecific days or holydays in Ashkenazi ritual) here is centered around a single principal focal pitch (the reciting tone ofthe chant), which is given a continuous rumbling sound in the cellos andbasses.

III. A GASN NIGN (A Street Song)

In thismovement the clarinet takes the lead in a purely instrumental tune reminiscentof Jewish bands in eastern European towns and villages - klezmorim - who typically played these type of melodies in the street,particularly when welcoming the guests as they arrived to participate in awedding ceremony.

IV. ADONOI MELEKH (God, the King)

This i
Disc: 1
Psalm 81
1 Entrance of the Sabbath Bride
2 Peace upon you, Angels of Peace
3 Come in peace, Angels of Peace
4 Bless me for peace, ye Angels of Peace (V'taknenu)
5 Go in peace, Angels of Peace (echo)
6 Am kadosh (Holy People)
7 Uv'yom hashabbat (On the Sabbath Day)
8 A gasn nign (A Street Tune)
9 Adonoi melekh (The Lord is King)
10 Celestial freylekh
11 Dinen (Serve)
12 Bay dem shtetl (Near the Town)
13 Bistu mit mir broyges (Are You Upset with Me?)
14 Klip klap (Knock, Knock)
15 Royz, royz (Rose, Rose)
16 Di dray neytorins (The Three Seamstresses)
17 Der rebbe tantst (The Rebbe is Dancing)
18 Psalm 81
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