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In 1984 the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore asked Richard Wernick to write a new work for the specific combination of soprano, oboe, and piano. He chose to set the words of a plea attributed to the 19th-century Hassidic master and leader known as the Rebbe of Kotsk (in Poland), or the Kotsker Rebbe. He had come across these words quoted and translated from their original Yiddish in Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise. The plea encapsulates a familiar theme in Hassidic lore: the readiness of certain rebbes to “argue” and remonstrate with God on behalf of the people—to stand up to God by reminding Him of the biblical covenant and its as yet unfulfilled promise of redemption; to remind God that the Jewish people are part of that covenant by choice, as God’s “chosen people,” and that its terms call not only for Jews to obey and observe the Divine commandments as contained in the Torah, but equally for God, in return, to fulfill His promise and bring a messianic end to Jewish suffering through the assured ultimate redemption.
Wernick mentioned his idea of using this text to his friend and colleague Ralph Shapey, who was equally impressed by its possibilities for a musical setting as a concert work. The two agreed to compose independent works on the same words, using the same instruments, because they were intrigued by the historical basis for multiple composers using the same text—or, in the case of opera, the same story. (To anyone who knew Shapey and his feisty temperament, his fascination with the notion of arguing with God would have come as no surprise.) Shapey’s piece became Psalm One, which was premiered as planned at the April 1985 concert of the Baltimore society. Wernick’s setting was to have appeared in the same concert, but owing to illness in his family, his piece was not completed until the following September. It was premiered in 1987 under the title Oracle II.
Earlier, Wernick had written a piece titled The Oracle of Shimon bar Yoḥai, in which God’s admonition to the Jewish people was that He would refuse to be “their God” if they would not be “His witnesses.” Wernick viewed the Kotsker Rebbe’s words as the reverse and therefore decided to link the two compositions with the common word oracle, and he titled the present work Oracle II. He considers the two works complementary, since one is God’s warning and the other is His people’s protest.
As with The Oracle of Shimon Bar Yoḥai, Wernick drew in Oracle II partially on musical material from his cello sonata Portraits of Antiquity. The opening passages have an almost menacing character, soon tempered with an air of regret. There are also fragments reminiscent of synagogue chant; and as a suggestion of messianic hope, the oboe imitates the traditional calls of the shofar (ram’s horn) heard during Rosh Hashana services. At the conclusion of the piece the oboe’s plaintive line is doubled by the soprano singing in Hebrew the cautionary words “Take heed!” These words are drawn from the Rosh Hashana liturgy in connection with the shofar service: “Take heed of the sound of the shofar.” But there is a double meaning here, since the Kotsker Rebbe is cautioning God to “take heed” as well. The shofar calls represent the heralding of the messiah’s coming—the fulfillment of the promise. But the Kotsker Rebbe has proclaimed that unless that promise is fulfilled now, or at least “soon,” the people will cease waiting.
Writing in the Baltimore Sun following the premiere, Stephen Wigler observed, “With the drama and passion of its utterance, the architecture of its textures and the wide stretches of its melodies through different registers, it [Oracle II] sounded immediately characteristic of everything Wernick has written recently".