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The title and the theological as well as humanistic core of Dave Brubeck’s choral cantata The Commandments refer principally to the Decalogue. This is the series of ten summary pronouncements or precepts in the form of Divine commands contained in Exodus 20:2–17 (and recapitulated in Deuteronomy 5:6–21 in modified form), which, according to that account in the Hebrew Bible, were revealed at Mount Sinai to the Israelites following their deliverance from Egyptian bondage.
In traditional Judaic terms, these ten pronouncements form the basis of the covenant between God and the Israelites by which the entire Torah was accepted as His obligatory teaching and law—transmitted and taught by Moses. The Hebrew designation for these verses, which have come to be known among Jews and non-Jews throughout the English-speaking world as the Ten Commandments, is aseret hadibrot—“the ten words” (or the ten articles or items). Hence their also ubiquitous citation in Western culture as the Decalogue—the literal Greek rendering of those two Hebrew words. This accepted English appellation, however, can be misleading and confusing because it inadvertently perpetuates what amounts to a mistranslation. The Hebrew equivalent of “commandments” in talmudic rubric is mitzvah (pl., mitzvot), not d’var (pl., dibrot).
There are 613 mitzvot—not ten—in the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch). Even if we must acknowledge that the phrase Ten Commandments may be too ingrained in the parlance of Western habit and culture to allow for replacement, a more elucidating and exegetic rendering—one that astutely captures both the essence and the context of these Divine pronouncements or commands—would be the Ten Articles of the Sinaitic Covenant. This is the designation proposed by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman in his contemporary translations for the Milken Archive.
Brubeck, a Roman Catholic by conversion—who, together with his wife and artistic collaborator, Iola, has engaged in lifelong study of Christianity’s Judaic roots, Judaism itself, and world religions—developed early on his unshakable faith in mankind’s God-given potential for redemption through adherence to Divine teachings with respect to justice and mutual human regard. The composer understands those teachings—for Christians as well as for Jews (and, by extension, for the world)—as both including and being based on the commandments articulated in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, this work illustrates that for him—as for numerous theologians and Bible scholars throughout the histories of both religions—the range of teaching and precepts that must guide all human interactions begins with foundations in the second five pronouncements or commandments of aseret hadibrot, which, in turn, flow from the Divine authority, exclusivity, and unity established in the first five. In fact, Brubeck’s abiding conviction that individuals and humanity as a whole can pull themselves back from the brink of ultimate calamity or self-destruction by a “return” to the guidance of the commandments resonates in much of the Hebrew liturgy—especially for the High Holy Days. (A central piyyut—an inserted liturgical poem—for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, for example, una tane tokef, which alludes in its final section [b’rosh hashana yikatevun …; On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed …] to the various misfortunes that can befall the worshippers in the coming year, concludes with the statement, “But repentance, prayer [for forgiveness, and spiritual renewal], and acts of charity and righteousness can avert the severe decree.”)
Brubeck is also keenly aware that from traditional Jewish as well as Judeo-Christian perspectives, aseret hadibrot have been viewed as an encapsulation of the moral and ethical teachings in the Bible, and this awareness penetrates and informs the cantata. It is not insignificant, therefore, that it is titled simply The Commandments, as if to underscore the importance and wider context of the human obligations and interhuman behavioral standards contained in the other related biblical commandments, or mitzvot. In this sense, the work may be construed not only as a forceful reminder of the principles and tenets of the Judeo-Christian heritage and as a liberal universal statement, but equally as a profoundly Judaic expression.
Brubeck composed The Commandments in 2005, but its genesis preceded that date by several decades; it had been taking shape in his mind for more than a half century. Its inspiration lay in the European theater of the Second World War, where he served in the infantry of General Patton’s Third Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Witnessing the carnage and brutality, and the often necessary military objectives that could override the value of individual human life—even as he also understood the evil against which the Allies were fighting—he could not reconcile the commitment of each side to destroy the other with the knowledge that each of the armies represented nations and societies that were or had been self-proclaimed followers of Judeo-Christian heritage. Their past religious life had therefore, at least in principle, included exposure to the biblical commandments that espoused justice, morality, peace, and the sanctity of human life. This was not a matter of naïve pacifist sentiments, nor denial of the necessity of defense or the requirement to eradicate evil, sometimes by force of arms. Rather, the experience of war being pursued by supposedly civilized societies ignited in him a sense of urgency for humanity as a whole to renew acquaintance with the biblical commandments and the moral and ethical values they promote. It was then that he first resolved to write a work based on those observations.
The cantata is divided into two distinct parts, which are interwoven throughout. The first addresses the commandments with direct musical statements. The second part is more narrative, describing the circumstances and depicting the powerful visual and aural images surrounding the awe-inspiring revelation of the precepts of aseret hadibrot at Mount Sinai: the thunder and lightning and the sounding of the shofar; the smoke rising from the mountain and the enveloping flames; the “Majestic Voice” pronouncing the commands; and the people’s lapse and raucous descent into idolatry.
In this work, as in much of his choral music in general, Brubeck shows himself especially adept at contrapuntal writing, employing fugal procedures to propel the relatively lean text and to enable its repetition to reinforce layers of meaning and connotation. In a 2007 Milken Archive interview, he explained how fugal devices had given him the means to flesh out a work based on minimal text. He recalled his invitation in 1987 to write a nine-minute piece for the Pope’s appearance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco:
They gave me one sentence, and I knew I could not write nine minutes of music [to it] while the Pope came into the baseball park … so I refused it [initially]. I went to bed that night, and thinking about it, I said, “Well, if Bach got this assignment, he would write a chorale and fugue and use that text over and over and make nine minutes out of one sentence….” It was the fugue that saved me!
But he alternates his contrapuntal writing with beautifully developed homophonic sections, especially where lyricism is the desiderata. “The chorale [form] can better develop lyrically,” he observed.
In effect, the work has—or appears to have—two consecutive endings. Both are settings of the same words: “Keep My commandments.” In the first, which initially gives the impression of a conclusion, the choral and instrumental forces are heard tutti, with great force and maximum volume, emphasizing the authority of those words. But then the mood, volume, and textures shift to an Acappella repetition. “You learn in life that it isn’t screaming [for] vengeance or force that will resolve a situation as much as a soft voice,” Brubeck opined. And he used that juxtaposition of the two moods and tones at earlier points in the cantata as well—for example, in his multiple artistic approaches to the prohibition against murder. “There was the concept of the ‘still small voice’ of the inner conscience that I think is part of it, too,” Iola Brubeck added during the interview-discussion. “That it’s been screamed at you with the full chorus, and then one hopes that it penetrates into the individual: a still, small voice that says ‘Keep the commandments.’ ”
Brubeck wanted to end on a positive note, referring to God’s mercy and love as it is established both throughout the Torah and, specifically, in the Decalogue: “and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:6):
I wanted … after all the “thou shalt nots,” to say “love”—“I [God] will show love to you,” meaning the people of the world, through a thousand generations of those who “keep My commandments.” I wanted the resolution to show love. This is what we need now and in our future: to know that if we do keep the commandments, or [at least] something similar ... God will show love.
Thus the piece has a hopeful resolution.
Brubeck now considers The Commandments to be part of his earlier Judaically related work, The Gates of Justice, and he views the two as inextricably linked on several levels, not least their central messages. As Iola Brubeck has elaborated, one of the principal sections of The Gates of Justice concerns the biblically derived phrase “The Lord our God is holy, the Lord our God is One.” Some of the most powerful passages in each work relate to this concept. “I think that basic message of the oneness of God, and therefore the oneness of humanity,” she expanded, “is the essential message throughout The Gates of Justice and The Commandments. The Commandments puts it very, very forcibly: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.'"
For Brubeck, the theme of freedom pervades both works as well. The Commandments gives musical emphasis to the reference in aseret hadibrot to God as He who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery. Freedom from bondage—both physical and societal—forms the bedrock of The Gates of Justice. And the theme of love triumphing over hatred is common to both works in Brubeck’s mind: “That was the idea in both works—the resolution is love and not hatred.” He has expressed the hope that the two works will be performed henceforth in tandem.