Updated: May 24
Mary Root, the conductor of the DeKalb Choral Guild (Decatur, GA), just informed me that she has decided to program my “Three Miniatures” for unaccompanied chorus on an upcoming concert. (May 14, 2016, 7:30 pm, Mystic and Music-Settings of Rumi and Hafez and other mystics of many cultures, St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, LaVista Rd., Atlanta, GA.)
The original setting of “Three Miniatures” for SSAA chorus was completed in 1999, and the arrangement for SATB chorus followed in 2004. I found the three poems I used for “Three Miniatures” in The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Edited and Translated by T. Carmi. However, I translated the texts myself from the original Hebrew for the purpose of setting the poems to music for publication by ECS Publishing, where I have been Chief Editor since 1998. Shortly after my arrival at the company, the owner of the company at the time, the late Robert Schuneman, invited me to add new choral music to the company’s catalog. I was very excited to do so as I had never had any of my music published before. Many sacred and secular compositions and arrangements followed, including “Three Miniatures.” The SSAA version was published in 2000 (Catalog No. 5678), followed by the SATB version in 2004 (Catalog No. 6435). The women of The Philovox Ensemble conducted by Jennifer Lester recorded the SSAA version in 2000, and Matthew Curtis of Choral Tracks recorded the SATB version in 2015.
The Poet, the Poems, and the Composer’s Interpretation of Them
Judah Al-Harizi was a rabbi, translator, poet and traveler active in Spain in the Middle Ages. Understanding the analogies and their references in these poems are key to comprehending them.
Behold: the lute sings at the breast of the young girl,
and attracts the heart with its beautiful voice and form.
Like an infant crying at the breast of his mother
while she sings and laughs as he weeps.
The poet is drawn to a young girl singing and accompanying herself on the lute. Both the sounds she is creating, and her appearance as she holds the instrument close to her breast, captivates him. He makes the analogy that experience is not unlike a baby boy “crying at the breast of his mother.” The description that follows next is one of the most interesting constructs I have ever discovered in any poem, “…while she sings and laughs as he weeps.” People have asked me, “Why would a mother sing and laugh while a baby cries?” My answer: “The simple joy at his existence.”
And the thunderbolt mocks the clouds
like a soldier who runs and is neither tired nor fatigued.
Or like a night watchman who falls asleep,
then opens one eye a little for a moment, and closes it.
Al-Harizi creates an anthropomorphism, saying that a thunderbolt can make mock clouds. I take this to mean at least a couple of things: a thunderbolt is very quick whereas clouds are, by comparison, very slow. (Yet clouds are the mother of thunderbolts, so they are inextricably linked. Notice the “link” to the preceding poem.) The next two analogies are very Jewish in their references, both directly and indirectly. The thunder bolt is “like a soldier who runs and is neither tired nor fatigued. Or like a night watchman who falls asleep, then opens one eye a little for a moment, and closes it.” These references bring to mind the indefatigable Jewish soldiers that protected Jewish lives in ancient Canaan (and now in modern-day Israel), and the all-to-human night watchman who did the same thing but who, like anyone, was prone to dozing-off when things were quiet (the flash of lightning being like the flash of an eye). These analogies also strongly hint at God himself as being that soldier and that watchman, as a thunderbolt is a celestial phenomenon.
Behold: the sun stretches out its pinions
over the earth to drive away the evening.
Like a vigorous tree sprouting in the sky,
reaching to the earth with its branches.
(Notice the link to the previous poem that includes a strong reference to evening, here driven away by morning.) In The Sun, the poet analogizes our local star to be a couple of things. First, a bird whose wings “stretch out over the earth to drive away the evening.” Life (light, sunrise) drives away darkness (death, evening). Finally, the poet analogizes the sun to be like a tree. The bird’s “pinions” of the first sentence are here transformed into the tree branches. Again, these two analogies are very Jewish in their references, both directly and indirectly. Think of Psalm 63, where God is analogized to be bird (or at least angel)-like “…and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” Also, Torah (Jewish ethical law) represents the light that one should use to “drive away the evening” of unethical behavior. The other analogy, that the Torah is “The Tree of Life” to all who grasp it, is inescapable here, especially since this “vigorous tree” is sprouting in the sky,” and “reaching to the earth with its branches.” This tree is not of the earth; it is of the heavens.