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Julis Chajes’s Hebrew Suite is exclusively an instrumental piece. Its title, which might suggest only a language, refers to what was then often called “Hebrew culture”—the folkloric, literary, and artistic expressions that sprang from modern Zionist-oriented sensibilities and represented the new, youthful, and optimistic guise of Jewish identity. The first movement, Prayer: Tranquilo, is a continuous unfolding and development of the opening clarinet statement, giving the impression of a soulful longing for the ancient Jewish homeland and all it has represented for more than two millennia in terms of a spiritual gravitational center, and as the focus of much of the liturgy. The overall character of this movement is more eastern European than Near Eastern in its cantorial-like lines and ornaments—in the clarinet and violin solo passages, and especially in the cadenza that concludes the movement.
The second movement, Walls of Zion, in reference to the walled ancient part of Jerusalem (ir ha’atika, or “the old city”), begins with a mystical contemplation that serves as an introduction to an echo of a lively Hassidic tune. This could be interpreted as a depiction of Hassidim dancing at the walls of or within the old city, since some Hassidic groups inhabited Jerusalem long before statehood and even before the modern Zionist movement. But it could also represent one of the many Hassidic or Hassidic-type tunes that were brought from Europe to Palestine by some of the early secular-oriented settlers and adapted to Zionist lyrics to become ḥalutz (pioneer) songs. Hora, the third movement, which refers to the best-known Israeli folk dance, is a clever canonic treatment of a folksong that was at one time familiar in America as an “Israel-related” song.
Hebrew Suite was originally composed in 1939 as a chamber work for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, and was revised for orchestra in 1965. The chamber ensemble version, in which Walls of Zion is the final movement, contains an additional movement that Chajes removed for the orchestral piece: Galil. That movement was based on a popular Palestinian-Israeli folksong, El yivne hagalil (God Will Rebuild the Galil [Galilee]), which probably dates from the Second Aliya period and may be part of a series of songs from that time that were deliberately fashioned by Jewish settlers in imitation of Arabic songs. Chajes turned it into a four–part round and published it separately as a choral version. It was probably one of the most widely performed Hebrew choral pieces in America during the mid-20th century, not only among high school and college choruses throughout the country but also by such esteemed conductors as Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis. Said to have generated more in royalties for Chajes than all his other works combined, the arrangement was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at one of its conferences and was used in the sound track of the film Ben Hur in 1959.