Niggun of the Seven Circles by Ofer Ben-Amots was composed originally as part of his chamber opera The Dybbuk, which is based on the famous Yiddish play of the same title. One of the most immortal classic Yiddish plays of all time, The Dybbuk (der dibek) was written by the celebrated author, playwright, and folklorist S[emyon Akimovitch] An-Ski [Solomon Zangwill Rappaport] (1863–1920).
Curator's Note: The following notes on S. An-ski’s Der Dibek have been adapted from the previously published program notes to David Tamkin’s opera, The Dybbuk, excerpts of which appear in Volume 16 of the Milken Archive.
Born in Vitesbk, in Belarus, which was then part of the Czarist Empire, An-Ski separated himself from his traditionally religious background and surroundings to join the Haskala (the Jewish enlightenment movement) in Russia, and he wrote mostly in Russian until about 1904, after which he returned to the Yiddish language. He became attracted to social revolutionary circles, as well as to the populist Narodniki movement, which embraced Russian peasant roots and values. After a thirteen-year exile in Western Europe (mostly in Paris), he returned to Russia in the year of the 1905 revolution and joined the Social Revolutionary Party. His involvement in the Jewish Labor Bund was internationally echoed in his Bund anthem, Di shvu’e (The Oath). After the 1905 revolution, An-Ski also developed an intense interest in Jewish folklore, and he headed the watershed Jewish Ethnographic Expedition from 1911 to1914 (later informally referenced as the An-Ski Expedition) throughout significant regions of the Russian Empire—notably Podolia and Volhynia. The expedition, which was financed by Baron Horace Guinzbourg, collected folklore, artifacts, music, and other documentation of Jewish life in the small towns, villages, and hamlets of those regions. The fruits of the expedition were brought back to St. Petersburg, where they were made available for scientific and scholarly study and artistic use.
An-Ski’s play The Dybbuk provided a new window on a world of superstitions among Jews in areas of eastern Europe that had yet to be subdued by westernization and the Haskala. He used the particular story or folktale (many in the area in which he heard it believed it to have been an actual incident) as a framework for depicting the mysterious world of Hassidic Jewry. He wrote the play originally in Russian, but translated it himself into Yiddish for its production in Vilna (Vilnius) in 1920 by the famous Yiddish theatrical troupe the Vilner Truppe. For its production in Berlin during the 1925–26 season by the Habima troupe from Moscow, it was translated into Hebrew by ayyim NaÊman Bialik—the leading figure of the modern Hebrew cultural renaissance, avatar of modern Hebrew poetry, and Israel’s de facto poet laureate. That production marked Habima’s entry into the European theatre world, and it was received as a cultural revelation. A non-Jewish critic for a Berlin newspaper, mesmerized, wrote: “Of course, I could not understand one word of it, but I could hear that this elegant Hebrew must have been the language in which God spoke to the ancient Israelites when He was in His best mood!”
In that interwar period, An-Ski’s drama about demonic possession evoked a very real way of life that was still being played out—not so far geographically from Berlin, but light-years away culturally. It bespoke a world in which daily life was still governed by centuries-old folk beliefs, archaic rituals, medieval magic and mysteries, and outdated perceptions of good and evil. That immediacy appealed to Berlin critics and contributed to the play’s general success—lifting a veil on an utterly foreign world, so near and yet so far. Chemjo Vinaver, the distinguished Jewish musician, critic, and scholar of Hassidic music who had come from a Hassidic environment but was living in Berlin, reacted to the play less as a conventional drama than as “a loosely woven dramatic legend based on Hassidic lore and Jewish folkways.”
Incidental music for the 1922 Moscow production of The Dybbuk (also used for the Berlin Hebrew production) was composed by Joel [Yuli Dimitrovitch] Engel (1868–1927), one of the seminal figures of the Jewish national art music movement (the New National School in Jewish music). Engel had also headed the music division of An-Ski’s ethnographic expedition, and both he and An-Ski are said to have been inspired to artistic expression of this folktale when they heard it together from an inkeeper’s wife in 1912. Since An-Ski’s construction of the play relied on a question posed as the principal motif in a Hassidic song (perhaps also learned during that expedition), Mipnei ma? (Why/For what reason [did the soul descend from the Supreme height to the deep pit]?), the tune of that song was used in the Vilna premiere, and Engel incorporated it into his incidental music along with other authentic folk and Hassidic melodies. In 1926 he published the score as an independent concert piece, Dybbuk Suite (Suite hadibbuk, Op. 35).
In the 20th century there were many artistic treatments of the dibbuk theme, and the play itself has inspired many works. An opera by the Italian composer Lodovico Rocca, titled Il Dybuk, was premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1934, and an orchestral prelude by Bernhard Sekles, Der Dybuk, was published in 1929. There is a dybbuk ballet score by Max Ettinger (1947), and there are several operas—among them one by David Tamkin to a libretto by his brother, Alexander Tamkin, which had its American premiere in New York by New York City Opera; Shulamit Ran’s Between Two Worlds, which was premiered in Chicago in 1997; and Ben-Amots’s, which is the most recent. A well-known Yiddish film version of the play was made in Poland in 1937, starring Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, and a Hebrew film was produced in Israel in 1968.
The story concerns an archetypal demon in Jewish folklore, the dibbuk, an evil spirit that enters the body of a living person and cleaves to his soul—speaking through that person’s mouth as an independent and foreign personality and driving the inhabited victim to madness. A similar phenomenon is found in the talmudic as well as kabbalistic literature, where the reference is simply to an “evil spirit.” But the term dibbuk is not found in literature until the 17th century, in the Yiddish of that period, and it is actually an abbreviated form of the Hebrew, dibbuk m’ru’aÊ ra’a (cleavage of an evil spirit), or dibbuk min haÊitzonim (dibbuk from the outside). Initially, a dibbuk was perceived as a type of devil or demon that entered an ill person. A later dimension concerned a dibbuk as the spirit of a dead person whose body had not been laid to rest properly, which thus became a demon—a belief also found in other folk cultures.
In the 16th century this dibbuk concept became intertwined with the mystical idea of transmigration of souls (gilgul). In that belief, a dibbuk could be perceived as an exposed soul that, because of its serious sins, was not permitted to transmigrate and therefore sought refuge within the body of a living person. At the same time, the living host was considered to have committed some secret sin that invited a dibbuk to enter. Such notions were composites of folk beliefs from surrounding non-Jewish cultures and from kabbalistically oriented mysteries. In still other versions, the dibbuk could be simply the soul of one who dies unfulfilled and then wanders in search of a new vessel. From the latter half of the 16th century until as late as the early 20th century, there are many accounts and types of dibbuk incidents, descriptions, and instructional literature on exorcisms.
In An-Ski’s play, the spirit of a dead young man—his marriage to his beloved having been thwarted—enters her body as a dibbuk. Ḥanan [Chanon], a poor but brilliant talmudic student in the town of Brainitz, and Leah, a wealthy man’s daughter, were in love. But her father, Sender, arranged a “more appropriate” match for her, with a yet-to-be-identified wealthy man’s son. In a desperate effort to gain the riches that would make him acceptable to Leah’s father, Ḥanan turned from Talmud to the study of the Kabbala and mysticism in order to learn the dangerous secret of how to invoke the “evil spirit” in the service of his wish. That pursuit caused his death.
Following local custom, on Leah’s wedding day a separate feast is given for the town’s beggars, who dance with the bride. Also following a prenuptial tradition, Leah visits her mother’s grave to invite her presence under the marriage canopy. While at the cemetery she also sees Ḥanan’s grave, and she mourns for him, shrinking at the thought of the loveless marriage that lies ahead. Later, as the bridegroom places the veil over her face prior to the ceremony, Ḥanan’s spirit takes possession of her body.
In the third and final act Sender takes his daughter to a reputed “wonder-working” rabbi, Azrael, for exorcism. Azrael summons the spirit of Ḥanan’s long-dead father, Nissan ben Rifke, who accuses Sender of having broken the agreement that their two children would marry when they reached the appropriate age. In a climactic scene, Ḥanan’s dead father’s claim is adjudicated by a rabbinical court, which finds in his favor. Sender is required to acknowledge his betrayal and to accept the court’s judgment: he must give half his fortune to the poor and for the rest of his days pray for the souls of Ḥanan and Nissan. Azrael proceeds to exorcise the dibbuk from Leah, pronouncing it “excommunicated from all Israel.” That accomplished, Azrael calls for the wedding to proceed. Now emptied of Ḥanan’s spirit, Leah is unable to sustain life. She calls to Ḥanan—to his soul—and his soul calls to her in response, paraphrasing the expressions of love in the biblical Song of Songs. She expires, following him into death, to be united with him eternally. As the curtain falls, the mysterious words of the old Hassidic song Mipnei ma? are repeated by the same messenger.
Ben-Amots wrote Niggun of the Seven Circles for the last scene of Act II of his chamber opera. It portrays a marriage ceremony and focuses on the custom of sheva hakafot—seven circles, viz., the bride circling the bridegroom seven times under the Ḥuppa, or marriage canopy. It is in this scene that Leah is haunted unexpectedly by the spirit of her deceased love, Ḥanan, and she becomes possessed by the demon. In its original version, the piece was scored for clarinet, piano trio, and percussion. The current, subsequently adapted version is for viola and piano.
Performers: Debra Ayers, Piano; Karen Bentley Pollick, ViolaAdditional Credits:
Publisher: The Composer's Own Press
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