Two Songs for Baritone and Orchestra (excerpt)
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Thirty-five years after composing A Garden Eastward, which is also included in this volume, Hugo Weisgall wrote his second major work based on medieval Spanish-Hebrew poetry in translation: Love’s Wounded: Two Songs for Baritone and Orchestra. This piece is in two parts, or movements, Woman’s Victim and God’s Victim, the first of which was recorded by the Milken Archive. Both movements comprise settings of poetry by Yehuda Halevi, the most widely familiar name today among the great Jewish poets of the so-called Golden Age of Spanish or Iberian Jewry. Together, the poems address the theme of love from two different perspectives and on two separate levels. In both, Halevi invokes military language and imagery.
In Woman’s Victim a spurned lover, who is eventually killed, allows rejection to affect her self-regard, which descends to self-deprecation, self-loathing, and even disgust. Weisgall has treated this episode and these sentiments in the form of a highly energetic, motoric scherzo. His most prominent student and protégé, composer Bruce Saylor, has described the movement as perhaps Weisgall’s most brilliant orchestral conception. He has commented further for the Milken Archive:
The orchestra screeches mockingly with the dotted rhythms of woodwind solos, brassy chords for muted horns, and xylophone trills. Trumpet shrieks pierce the victim’s flesh. Slow, contrasting music in muted strings accompanies aching pleas, imploring the beloved to return to the lover’s sickbed. But an abbreviated recapitulation of the violent opening music signals bitter self-pity at the loss of erotic pleasure.
Weisgall’s interest in medieval Hebrew poetry began in his teen years, when he perused a volume of Halevi’s poetry that his father had acquired. As he remarked many years later, he was immediately drawn to the poems. Even before the age of seventeen he composed a setting of one of the shorter love poems. “I gradually came to feel a responsibility,” he recalled in his program notes for the premiere of the work, “not only to these medieval poets, but to the entire corpus of Hebrew poetry.”
As the son of an erudite hazzan and the beneficiary of a solid Jewish education, Weisgall was no stranger to Hebrew; yet he knew that he did not possess sufficient command of the language to be able to explore its subtleties for sophisticated artistic purposes or to set them in the original. Still, he was dissatisfied with all of the “poetic” translations he had examined. As a result, he collaborated with others who had the requisite expertise and attuned Hebraic sensibilities. For Love’s Wounded he turned to his colleague at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Raymond P. Scheindlin, a leading authority on medieval Spanish-Hebrew poetry, who suggested these particular poems and provided his own translations.
Weisgall intended Love’s Wounded as a companion piece to A Garden Eastward. Commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it was completed in 1986 and dedicated to the composer’s longtime supporter in Baltimore, Randolph S. Rothschild. The world premiere was presented that same year by the Baltimore Symphony under the baton of its music director, David Zinman, with baritone David Hamilton.