Shirat Miriam l'shabbat
Excerpts for Volume 7
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Shirat miriam l’shabbat (Miriam’s Song of the Sabbath), Miriam Gideon's first musical expression of the kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) and Sabbath evening liturgies as a unified artistic statement, was commissioned by Cantor David Putterman for his 1974 Sabbath Eve Service of Liturgical Music by Contemporary Composers. Without compromise to originality or sophistication, she turned to a few sources of perceived as well as genuine Jewish musical tradition as a foundational frame of reference. These sources consisted of biblical cantillation motifs for certain sections; some melodic material and tunes that were familiar, especially then, to American congregations and were regarded as “traditional”—which she then treated judiciously with her own harmonic vocabulary; and aspects of Ashkenazi prayer modes and modal formulas (nusaḥ hat’filla), which she used not as a confining limitation, but more as an underpinning in certain prayers for original melodic exploration. At the same time, she appropriately reserved some prayers for completely free invention, and she made astute and imaginative use of quartal harmony (harmonic structures built on intervals of fourths, as distinct from those built on intervals of thirds, or tertiary harmony).
The ma tovu setting exhibits refreshing directness and transparency in the vocal lines and an almost deceiving brand of expressive simplicity. There is about the piece as a whole an aura of gentle lyricism that beautifully amplifies the opening sentiment of the text, and there is a controlled delicacy in the choral writing. Gideon’s interpretation of Psalm 93 (Adonai Malakh) preserves the energy of its affirmation concerning divine sovereignty, which is established in the opening measures. The overall clarity seems designed to exploit the energy of the linguistic sonorities. Homophonic textures and careful manipulation of choral unisons exude power and strength.
“A work totally at ease with itself” is how musicologist and critic Albert Weisser described the entire service in a review following its premiere. In a 1980-81 review in the journal Musica Judaica, composer Hugo Weisgall lauded Gideon for daring to write a "contemporary" synagogue service that reflected the musical developments and innovations of the 20th century and at the same time possessed a simplicity appropriate to its functional liturgical context. Weisgall summed up his review of the service with the following obersvation: "Each piece [section of the service] is always a complete whole, never bombastic or overblown, yet never short-breathed. Simple music of this high calibre is difficult to write, and reveals a masterful hand."