Four Choral Etudes
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Four Choral Etudes comprises four a cappella SATB settings of well-known Hebrew texts. These pieces were written individually between 1935 and 1956 and were revised between 1950 and 1960 and then published under the present collective title.
The earliest piece is a setting of a passage from the liturgy, yihyu l’ratzon (May the words of my mouth...).*
Yihyu l’ratzon begins in F minor, but after only three beats the choral voice-leading yields surprising chord changes. Lyrical, verselike phrases are unfolded in tiny intervallic units: falling or rising seconds or Weisgall’s favorite falling thirds.
Faster tempi are attached to the other three settings. All feature diatonic, folklike tunes in the soprano lines, accompanied by swiftly moving chromatic harmonies in the lower voices. Hodu ladonai (Psalm 118:1–4), is an expression of praise for God that forms part of the hallel liturgy recited on Festivals and other festive occasions. This piece derives its Stravinskian energy from the rhythms inherent in the Hebrew. This, together with the quicksilver harmonic changes, gives the pulsating semiquaver accents an almost percussive quality.
The melody of B’tzet yisrael (Psalm 114:1–8, also excerpted from the hallel liturgy) evokes a vaguely Near Eastern folksong flavor, although it is original. The jaunty tune is harmonized differently upon successive repetitions. As in the Hodu ladonai, Weisgall has built the ritardando into the piece by writing it out in the rhythmic notation. The complex harmonies are streamlined at the conclusion.
The final piece, Ki lo na’e (beautiful praise befits the Lord), addresses one of the hymns traditionally sung by Ashkenazi Jews at the conclusion of the Passover seder—the elaborate family home ritual conducted at the table before and after the festive evening meal on the first two nights of that weeklong Festival.**
The tune on Ki lo na'e was a favorite version at Weisgall family seders. While preserving its strophic repetitions, Weisgall has altered the quirky tune for this elaborate concert work, radically supercharging the underlying harmonies and infusing the choral textures with imitation and with motivic development in the three lower voices.
Although these four texts are all from the liturgy, these pieces are not intended for functional liturgical use. The sheer pace at which the moving parts fly, the chromatic nature of the harmonic language, and the registral and dynamic vocal demands place Four Choral Etudes firmly in a concert context. Their considerable if richly rewarding musical and choral challenges surely deserve the title Etudes—“studies”—for a virtuoso ensemble.
*These words are recited at the conclusion of the silently said prayers known as the sh’mone esrei (the eighteen benedictions originally contained in the unabbreviated, i.e., weekday, version of this supplicatory core section of the service), or as the amida (lit., “standing,” since these benedictions must be recited in that posture). The overall mood of the text is akin to a summary meditation—as a coda to the preceding liturgy—asking that the set of prayers just communicated to God, both as quietly verbalized utterances and as meditations “of the heart,” be acceptable to Him. The tempo and spirit here correspond to the feeling of personal, private communion and communication evoked by the text.
**This poem is from an anonymous medieval source and is known to have been appended to the Ashkenazi seder ritual as early as the 13th century. It is based on a passage in the Midrash that offers commentary on a verse from Psalms (74:16). Like other seder hymn texts, it has acquired many distinct tunes over the centuries.
—Neil W. Levin