Two Songs from Ecclesiastes
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For Two Songs from Ecclesiastes—Kohelet, composed in 1949, Berger selected two passages from the biblical Book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, as it is known in the Septuagint. Both settings are in the original Hebrew. Berger did not begin even elementary formal study of modern Hebrew until the age of eighty-four—and even then, as he commented in a letter to a colleague at the time, only with the expectation of “being able to carry on a fourth grader’s conversation in Hebrew.” Yet these settings suggest a degree of familiarity with biblical Hebrew, either tutored for the occasion or stemming from some youthful exposure in Germany. The vocal lines conform to appropriate accentuation, syntax, and emphases, and they reflect admirably some of the language’s nuances.
The Book of Kohelet is identified by tradition with King Solomon, although in modern biblical criticism, multiple authorship is generally accepted. It comprises twelve chapters of maxims, observations, and bits of wisdom concerning the course of human life, its purpose, its futility, and, ultimately, its reliance on faith. Kohelet is one of the five megillot (scrolls) of k’tuvim (writings, also known as the Hagiographa), the third of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is read traditionally in the synagogue on the eighth day of the Festival of Sukkot.
Kohelet may be viewed as riddled with skepticism and even tinged by aspects of the type of fatalism espoused by the Stoics. And some of its verses amount to a guide to earthly pleasures. But perhaps it may be better understood as a book filled with contradictions—between futility and purpose, between dark and bright moods, between despair and steadfastness, between higher and more mundane concerns and purposes: contradictions that, beyond the superficial glance, do not necessarily defy resolution; contradictions that may be various facets of a whole that is life; and contradictions that are ultimately not incompatible with faith. That Kohelet can be interpreted as both beginning and ending with religious teaching was cited in the Talmud (Shabbos 30a) as justification for its inclusion in the canon rather than consignment to the Apocrypha; and for the traditionally oriented biblical scholar Rabbi Victor Reichert, the sages saw in Kohelet “a rebel returning to faith.”
Berger incorporates the contradictions of mood transparently in these settings. The first, Havel havalim (All is futile!—more frequently but less appropriately translated as “All is vanity”), addresses chapter 1, verses 2–9. It opens with a bold proclamation of resignation—“Utter futility!”—but it proceeds to alternate between dramatic and lyrical moments and between agitation and acceptance, returning at its conclusion to the initial sentiment with the reprise of verse 2.
The second movement, Lekh ekhol (Go, eat . . . ), is a setting of verses 7–9 of chapter 9, which amounts to an ode to mortal and corporeal pleasures. But they are cited as divinely sanctioned pleasures, which, in the view of some commentators, constitute Kohelet’s advice on how best to enjoy life in the face of its inherent disillusionments—and the inevitability of death. The text here is set more syllabically than in the first movement, although not without melismatic gestures, and the vocal lines appear more straightforward. The angst of the beginning of chapter 1 is, understandably, absent in this musical expression—or, at the very least, tempered.
It may be a stretch to intuit analogies between the principle of contradictions contained in Kohelet and Berger’s own conflicts about Jewish national identity and Zionism. But it may be worth noting that he struggled increasingly with such conflicts with regard to his earlier universalist orientations stemming from his Weimar days. This is expressed, for example, in a letter following a visit to relatives who had settled in Israel (to which, perhaps telling, he referred as Eretz Yisrael): “I am presently working on alleviating as much of my negative view on the very existence of a denominationally defined state as I can.” And his correspondence in general reveals other aesthetic, artistic, and philosophical conflicts with which he wrestled. Whether the very idea of addressing the juxtaposing contradictions as part of a totality attracted him to Kohelet and its artistic expression remains, of course, interpretative speculation.
Two Songs is scored for tenor and symphony orchestra and was dedicated to Cantor Jacob Barkin—one of the most prominent and artistic cantors in America at that time. Another version exists for soprano, tenor, and piano.