Three Short Songs on Poems of Judah al-Ha'rizzi
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Yehuda [Judah] ben Sh’lomo [Solomon] al-Harizi (1170–1235) was an important medieval Spanish-Hebrew poet and translator who wrote in Hebrew in an era when Arabic was often the language of Jewish scholarly, philosophical, and artistic literature. His extensive travels through France and much of the Jewish Orient—including Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, and Jerusalem, as well as other parts of the Land of Israel—are reflected in much of his work. He is credited with acquainting Jewish communities in those cities with the nature and contributions of Hebrew culture on the Iberian Peninsula. Many scholars now consider his major work to be his Sefer taḥkemoni, which has been cited as elucidating the overall state of Jewish culture of the time. It contains valuable descriptions of the communities he visited and important personalities there, including reports on the contemporaneous conditions in Jerusalem. Among his other important works is a collection of more than 250 poems about moral, ethical, and religious values and precepts. In other poetry, he addressed a wide variety of subjects, including nature, military confrontations, and battle scenes.
Al-Harizi broke new ground with his Hebrew translation of Moses Maimonides’ Moreh n’vukhim (Guide for the Perplexed) from its original Arabic, although it was later superceded by that of Samuel ibn Tibbon. Al-Harizi had a special interest in music and its putative powers, especially from philosophical perspectives. He translated an important Arabic treatise partly devoted to music and its potential effects on human emotions, behavior, and even physical well-being—Hellenistic formulations that had been introduced to Arabic thought by the author of the treatise, Hunain. The Israeli musicologist Hanoch Avenary thus noted that it was al-Harizi who, through his translation, was responsible for introducing these late Hellenistic concepts into Jewish philosophical and Jewish musical-theoretical thinking.
In 1990, Roter composed Three Short Songs on Poems of Judah al-Ha'rizzi as part of his doctoral work with Noel Da Costa at Rutgers University. The piece was premiered in 1993 by Helix! New Music Ensemble of Rutgers, sung by tenor Geoffrey Friedley. All three settings make use of the English translations by T. Carmi. The work is scored for tenor, flute, clarinet, viola, and cello.
Roter, who thought of these poems as “almost haiku-like in their brevity,” was attracted to them as powerful and diverse images that offered him a vehicle for exploring various aspects of his own musical language. In the first setting, The Sun, he strove for what he has called “bright to neutral harmonies” developed from chords built upon superimposed perfect intervals. He sought to evoke the poem’s optimistic message by juxtaposing these harmonies against a disjunct melody line.
In the second song, The Lute, the poem is set more lyrically and more tonally than the other two. Here, Roter’s intention was to simulate the sound of the lute by assigning a strumming pattern to the viola and cello.
By contrast, the final song, The Lightning, is dissonant and even deliberately jarring, suggesting the image in the poem of the lightning “laughing at the clouds, like a warrior.” Here, without creating a strictly twelve-tone piece, Roter relied on some serial techniques.