A Garden Eastward
Cantata for High Voice and Orchestra
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A Garden Eastward, written between August and November 1952, is subtitled Cantata for High Voice and Orchestra. At its 1953 premiere, however, sung by Brenda Lewis with the Baltimore Symphony conducted by Massimo Freccia, the work was subtitled Three Symphonic Songs. Indeed its structure of three contrasting movements—Fantasia, Scherzo, and Free Variations—qualify it as the closest thing to a symphony for voice and orchestra among all of Weisgall’s works. Certainly it is one of his most rhapsodic orchestral conceptions, and this composer of so much craggy, chromatic music remarked more than once that he thought it his “most beautiful” piece.
A Garden Eastward is a setting of Milton Feist’s English versions of medieval poetry by the great Spanish Hebrew poet and philosopher Moses ben Jacob Ibn Ezra [a.k.a. Abu Harun; ca. 1055–1135]. The fantasia opens with two spare intertwining strands of stratospherically high pianissimo counterpoint for the violins, whose tonal and rhythmic vagueness portray the poet’s dreamlike reverie on how the wonders of the created universe declare the Eternal One’s greatness (Ibn Ezra’s poem is a visionary meditation on Psalm 8:4). Weisgall’s free melodic lines are lyrical but nonrepetitive, constructed from small melodic or intervallic cells. Eventually the enigmatic chromaticism blazes out into more diatonic vocal melody, polytonally superimposed upon orchestral chords at the words “Yonder shines the sun!” The reverie slowly fades into mists of sumptuous open harmonies as the movement closes.
The scherzo became Weisgall’s favorite form early on in his compositions. Its brisk exciting pace, its inherent capacity for irregular regroupings of beats and measures, and its formal adaptability made it an indispensable organizing technique for sections of operas, vocal chamber works, and orchestral pieces. Weisgall’s reading of Ibn Ezra’s vision of a luxurious Moorish garden in Moslem Spain (or is it the Garden of Eden or the backdrop to the Song of Songs?) is vigorous and almost brash, as if the mock anger of the opening words, “Call the man traitor,” never settles into rapture.
The concluding free variations are based on a traditional German Ashkenazi synagogue melody Weisgall’s father had known and sung at his pulpit in Moravia, which was ingrained in central European liturgical repertoires. (In 1950 it was published in the privately issued Shirei hayyim ve’emuna; Songs of Life and Faith.) The tune is one of many that were known in western and central Europe for the text adon olam, a majestic hymn of praise for God. The poem is most commonly sung at the conclusion of the mussaf service on Sabbaths, High Holy Days, and Festivals and at the conclusion of evening services on those occasions. (It also occurs within the weekday morning liturgy, but it would not normally be sung to a tune of this type.) Weisgall’s recollection was that this particular melody was reserved in his father’s tradition for the evening services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The solo trumpet hints at the tune’s melodic content in a chorale-like and highly dissonant brass introduction.
The soprano then intones the theme, accompanied by flowing, nontonal lines drawn from fragments of the original melody. These ever-present fragments, which vary and combine with new material in the orchestra and in the soloist’s cantillation-like lines, correspond to the poet’s words of ancient wisdom that endlessly adorn and inspire him in old age as he “scales the heights” toward eternity. Characteristically for Weisgall, this ethereal work ends in a kind of cadential, “consonant” resolution.
If the synagogue tune in the last movement seems to disappear as the movement progresses, that is in the long tradition of the great variations of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and others, in which the theme is a point of departure for new invention that assumes the foreground. Rarely performed but admired by cognoscenti, A Garden Eastward stands next to other great works of this genre by Berlioz, Mahler, Ravel, Weisgall’s teacher Roger Sessions, and his student Dominick Argento.