Psalm of the Distant Dove
Canticle in Homage to Sephardi Culture
Choose a track to play
00:00 / 00:00
No Work Selected
In Weisgall’s last years, his work dealt increasingly with Jewish life and Jewish subjects and issues. His last opera, Esther, concerned a biblical subject; his last choral work was a large-scale sacred service; and his last long song cycle was Psalm of the Distant Dove: Canticle in Homage to Sephardi Culture. This was commissioned by the Friends of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where it was premiered in 1992. Raymond P. Scheindlin, a professor there of medieval Hebrew literature and one of the foremost authorities on the subject (as well as on Arabic poetry), selected and translated the poetry; and his wife, mezzo-soprano Janice Meyerson, sang in that performance, with Brian Zeger at the piano.
The literary and religious issue of Psalm of the Distant Dove is the complicated, age-old relationship between God and His loving but suffering people Israel, poetically represented here by the image of the dove. Throughout Mediterranean literature—and especially Arabic poetry—doves are associated with lovers. They do not abandon their life partners. Weisgall’s cycle alternates three short selections—which he calls preludes—from the biblical Song of Songs and from Midrash Raba (rabbinic commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, often by way of allegory and metaphor, dating to the 5th–6th centuries C.E.) with poetry from the so-called Golden Age of Spanish Jewry in the era of Moslem rule on the Iberian Peninsula. That poetry is drawn from verse by three poets: Shmuel Ha’Naggid [Ismail ibn Nagrela, ca. 993–1055], statesman and leader of Spanish Jewry, military commander, vizier of Granada, and poet and Hebraic scholar; Yehuda [Judah] Halevi, probably the most widely recognized and familiar Hebrew poet and philosopher from that era; and an anonymous poet.
Specific literary connections lead the listener from one section of the cycle to the next, and it concludes with aching cries for the redemption of Israel, as the poet painfully recalls the more joyful passing of seasons from the first prelude from Song of Songs. In the prelude and its pendant excerpt from Midrash Raba 1:15, for example, Weisgall symbolizes the joy of friends or lovers—or the steadfast loyalty God reserves for His “mate” Israel—with rearranged fourth chords that yield quasi-diatonic tonal areas. By contrast, the bittersweet, biting harmonies of the spring song, “Days of Cold Are Past”; the plaint of the injured lover, “Distant Dove”; and the prelude from Midrash Raba, “Birds Struggle in the Hand of the Slaughterer,” owe more to the type of half-step intervallic units found in Esther. There seems to be an overall harmonic motion from open, optimistic, even Coplandesque chords and melodies to more craggy, dissonant structures toward the end. The final song concludes with a very dissonant seven-note chord, which is a denser version of the one heard at the opening of the cycle (“My Lover Called...”).
Two thirds of the way into the work, there is a solo piano “Elegy,” in three intimate, spare melodic voices, subtitled “In Memoriam W S (William Schuman). February 15th, 1992” in tribute to a colleague and one of the most significant 20th-century American composers. (This marked the last in a years-long series of short piano pieces that Weisgall composed upon the deaths of friends: Sessions, Randolph Rothschild, and others.) In fact, the entire cycle exhibits a concentrated, rather austere style of piano writing that avoids sumptuous pianistic sonorities and coloristic exploitation of the pedal. This, together with deliberate avoidance of the extreme registers on the piano, serves the composer’s focus on the vocal line and the sternness of the message contained in the aggregate text.
Editor’s Note by Neil W. Levin
The final song is excerpted from an anonymous Sephardi dirge or elegy (kina) traditionally sung on Tisha Ba’av—the ninth of the Hebrew month of av—which commemorates the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem in 566 B.C.E. and 72 C.E. and also, for Sephardi Jewry, the expulsion from Spain in 1492. In fact, this poem, borei ad ana, is one of the best known of all the Sephardi kinot. Its acrostic spells out the name Binyamin (Benjamin), presumably the anonymous unidentified poet. The poem appears to have been written with specific reference to the wave of Christian persecutions against Jews in Spain between 1391 and 1412. It contains various biblical references and quotations, and its original text also contained a reference to the Christian concept of the Trinity: “The worshippers of three gods—father, son, and spirit ...” That passage was later modified, either by outside censors or by Jewish authorities, to read “Cruel aliens [strangers] weakened her...” There are various modifications of that line in extant compilations.