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Hagiographa was written in 1938 on a commission from the legendary patroness of American music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, to whom the piece is dedicated. It received its premiere that same year at the Pittsfield Festival by the Kolisch String Quartet with the composer’s wife, pianist Irene Jacobi, who was highly regarded as a champion of new music. It was performed subsequently by the Budapest String Quartet (also with Irene Jacobi) as well as other ensembles, and it became Jacobi’s best-known work in his chamber music catalogue.
The Hebrew Bible, or Jewish Scriptures, comprises three sections: the Torah, or Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses); n’vi’im (Prophets); and k’tuvim (sacred writings). Hence the Hebrew word for the Bible—tanakh, an acronym formed by the first letters of the names of each of those three sections. Hagiographa is the Greek term designating the k’tuvim, which includes Psalms; Proverbs; Job; the five m’gillot (scrolls)—Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; Daniel; Ezra-Nehemiah; and I and II Chronicles. The origin of the word hagiographa lies in the Greek translation of the Hebrew kitvei hakodesh—lit., sacred writings, or writings of holiness. Despite his title, however, Jacobi chose only two of the books of the Hagiographa (k’tuvim) as subjects for this three-movement work: Job and Ruth. The third, Joshua, is from the Prophets.
Whether one considers it a piano quintet or a work for string quartet and piano, Hagiographa is a rhapsodic instrumental depiction of aspects, episodes, and moods of those three biblical books, with sonic portraits of their three principal characters. Jacobi’s own comments on the piece and what he intended to convey are enlightening:
In the first movement I endeavored to reproduce the dramatic intensity of the Book of Job: the sorrows piled high upon the head of the patient Job; his resignation to them; the advent of his friends; his stormy argument with God and their final reconciliation. “So the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends...So Job died, being old and full of days.”
Ruth is a mood-picture, idyllic and pastoral. What drama there is occurs in the middle section, the climax of which found its inspiration in the famous words, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest I shall lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.”
The story is, therefore, told somewhat in reverse: Both the beginning and the end of this piece mirror the calm and the tenderness, with sacrifice requited and sorrow seen as from afar.
Joshua is the siege of Jericho: the battle, the trumpets, the city’s fall, the hymn of thanksgiving, and the suggestion of a ritualistic dance.
Despite the programmatic content, each of the movements is written in a form which would be convincing from the purely musical point of view. The first is a sort of sonata, with two principal themes. The last movement is in a modified A-B-A form in which the principal subject, rather fully developed in the beginning, is barely suggested on its return; it gives way rather speedily to the coda: the ritualistic dance.
“[There is] undoubtedly a quality of eclecticism in this music,” wrote Florestan Croche in the Baltimore Sun, “but also a feeling of stylistic freedom and individuality....It merits inclusion among the important chamber works for string quartet and piano.”