Symphony Midrash Esther
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Symphony Midrash Esther (commentary on [The Book of] Esther) is a tone poem that emotionally depicts aspects of the story—told in the biblical Book of Esther—of the imminent genocide of the Jews in the Persian Empire and their triumphant reprieve and victory over their tormentors. But it is also a musical reflection of traditional exegeses and expansions upon that story and its characters, as found in Midrashic (exegetical) literature. Although the work carries no literal program, the composer drew his inspiration from the Talmud; the Midrash (rabbinic commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, often by way of allegory and metaphor, dating to the 5th–6th centuries C.E.); and other rabbinic commentary on this subject.
In the biblical narrative, Haman, the closest advisor and highest court officer to Ahasuerus, King of Persia and ruler of the vast Persian Empire, is besotted with envy and hatred for the Jews as a people—a hatred that arose because Mordecai, a Jewish leader and a courtier in Ahasuerus’ palace, refused to bow down to him. Mordecai’s adopted orphaned cousin, Esther, is the king’s prized and cherished wife—Queen of Persia. On Mordecai’s advice, she has never revealed her Jewish identity. Waging a personal vendetta, Haman plots against the Jews by convincing Ahasuerus that they present a collective danger to royal authority and to the state, and he persuades the naïve king (known in Jewish literature as melekh hatipesh—“the fool king”) to authorize complete annihilation of the Jewish population throughout the empire. This is to occur on a particular day, which Haman has chosen by lots (pur). Beseeched by Mordecai, Esther intercedes by revealing her Jewish identity to Ahasuerus. She pleads on behalf of her entire people, pointing out that the genocide decree would apply to her as well. When it is discovered that Mordecai once saved the king’s life by exposing a regicidal plot, Ahasuerus turns on Haman in disgust and orders him to be hanged on the gallows he has just constructed for hanging Mordecai. However, since the law prevents a royal decree from being revoked, Ahasuerus issues a new order, allowing the Jews to organize for self-defense, and then to engage their enemies on the same day that Haman chose for the Jewish mass murder (the 13th of the Hebrew month of adar)—resulting in their decisive victory.
The first of the symphony’s four movements, a solemn introduction to the story, evokes the imminent danger to the Jews amid the lurking forces of evil. The second movement, Haman, contains passages that reflect a frenzy of raw hatred and rage, personified in the story by Haman and expressed here by motoric energy. The third movement, Esther and Ahasuerus, is at once a contemplative lament and a representation of Esther’s heroic poise, perhaps suggesting the dialogue in which she beseeches the king and reveals—at considerable risk to herself—her own Judaic ancestry. The final movement is titled Purim (a Hebraic plural form of the word pur), referring to the annual joyous Jewish festival that is celebrated to commemorate the averting of the catastrophe and the triumph of the Jews over their mortal enemy—which, in universal terms, might also be interpreted as a triumph of justice over evil and of equity over tyranny.
Midrash Esther received its premiere in 1957 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Subsequent performances included one by the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of William Steinberg, a vocal advocate of Meyerowitz’s music. It is tempting to consider obvious parallels between the biblical narrative and Meyerowitz’s own experience as a near victim of—and refugee from—the German genocide, but the issue of hidden Jewishness poses yet another question. Meyerowitz’s family had concealed its—and his—Jewish identity for a type of social safety (concerns for physical safety would not have been at issue until the early 1930s). To save her people, Esther’s tactic is precisely the opposite: to reveal her identity and thus personalize for the king the impending disaster. Was the irony of that comparison present in Meyerowitz’s consciousness as he created this work? And was it part of his inspiration? One can only speculate, but he does seem to have been sufficiently fascinated with the story to create two independent musical and dramatic expressions of it, and to have probed much lesser-known ancient and medieval Judaic commentaries in order to create his own “musical midrash.” For one who had no Jewish education, and to whom that Midrashic literature must certainly have been foreign, that level of Judaic curiosity cannot fail to arouse our interest.