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Lag ba'omer was composed in 1929 to accompany a ballet celebrating an important festive date on the Hebrew calendar. Lag ba’omer is the thirty-third day (lag is the articulation of the two Hebrew letters that form the equivalent of the number 33) of the seven-week ritual of “counting the omer (the biblical measure of barley)” that was offered daily in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from the sixteenth of the Hebrew month of Nissan (i.e., the second night of Passover) until the Pilgrimage Festival of Shavuot—like Passover, one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals. The word shavu’ot translates literally as “week,” serving to connect the anniversary of the y’tzi’at mitzrayim—the exodus from Egypt—and the liberation from bondage with the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, God’s Teaching, on Mount Sinai. That entire interim period, known as s’fira (counting), is one of obligatory national semi-mourning among traditionally observant Jews. It commemorates the Jewish people’s suffering under Roman domination and the history of massacres during this season—from the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples through the three medieval Crusades (1096–1192). Consistent with legally mandated and traditional mourning restrictions in general is the required abstention from all weddings and festivities, instrumental music, haircutting, and other activities so specified under Jewish law.
The thirty-third day of this period, however, lag ba’omer, is the one exception, a day on which these restrictions are traditionally suspended—as a respite, but also possibly in its historical evolution as a commemoration of some military victory in the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans. (The Talmud assigns the date to the the cessation of a plague that had raged among Rabbi Akiva’s disciples.) By tradition, therefore, dating to the Gaonic period (6th-11th centuries), lag ba’omer—sometimes called the “scholar’s festival”—became a day of lighthearted celebration and festivity. Customs surrounding it have ranged from picnicking, dancing, games (especially archery in some traditions), concerts, and, of course, the possibility of weddings.
Scored for two pianos, Lag ba’omer was revised by the composer in 1942. His son, the brilliant pianist and Pulitzer Prizewinning composer Yehudi Wyner, doubts that it was ever intended to be performed as a concert piece, which, as he commented, “may explain its stretches of repetition and redundancy that Weiner would have never tolerated in an absolute musical setting.” Nonetheless, the music exhibits atmosphere, color, and what Wyner has called “description: students learning in heder (elementary religious school) and then becoming unruly and suffering punishment by harsh teachers.”
“Natural phenomena of wind and rain are evoked in the musical scene painting,” Wyner has written. “Eventually, festive marches and dances prevail, and the ballet ends joyously. The two-piano scoring is expert, idiomatic and brilliant.”
The overall style is familiar, descended—as Wyner has discerned—from Rimsky-Korsakov and the Impressionists, a style adopted frequently by the composers associated with the New National School in Jewish Music, or the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik in St. Petersburg (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in the first two decades of the 20th century as they sought to create an authentic identity for Jewish art music. Their melodic material often derived from folksong—secular Yiddish songs, religious tunes, Hassidic niggunim, and biblical cantillations—but would be embedded in contemporary harmonic language and structures. Weiner continued that development, and Lag ba’omer is an example. Perceived Jewish motifs form the backbone of the basic material. The piano writing is, as Wyner has commented further, “Lisztian or Impressionist in a closely related way; full of color, rhythmic flair and instrumental virtuosity.” The themes are integrated and developed contrapuntally, so that the overall form of the piece has a convincing sense of unity.