I. Visitations (Slow, unhurried) “Someone Blew the Shofar” 20:47
II. Manifestations (Steady tempo) “Footsteps” 25:25
III. Transcendence (Calm, unhurried) “But Who Emptied Your Shoes of Sand” 15:31

Liner Notes

The lighting of memorial candles is an important practice in Jewish life, enshrined by tradition and by Judaic legal (halakhik) provision. Following the burial of immediate family members, a special shiva candle is lighted in the home(s) of the avelim, or mourners, to commence the first (seven-day) stage (the shiva) of the mourning period. This candle is therefore designed to burn without interruption for seven days. Twenty-four-hour candles are lighted annually on the Hebrew-calendar anniversaries of the death (yortsayt) of parents, siblings, spouses, and one’s children—and in their memory on the eve of each of the Three Festivals and of Yom Kippur. Since the Shoah, it has become common to light six memorial candles at Holocaust remembrance services and other related events, to represent the six million Jews murdered by the Germans and their collaborators. Hence the subtitle of this symphony, which is an homage to those victims.

Benjamin Lees conceived of this symphony in 1983 as a Holocaust memorial intended for a premiere during the upcoming anniversary year (1945) of the Allied victory over the Third Reich that brought the Holocaust to an end and aborted the Germans’ ultimate plan for the annihilation of the Jewish people. He had long been attracted to the poetry of Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, in particular to its suitability for treatment within an orchestral framework. He now realized that this project could be an appropriate fulfillment of that vision.

A Berlin native, Nelly [Nelly Leonie / Leonie Nelly] Sachs (1891–1970) was fortunate to have been able to escape from Germany as late as 1940, reportedly just in time to avoid deportation to a concentration camp. She and her mother took refuge in Sweden, where she became fluent in Swedish and translated the work of important Swedish poets into German as she matured into a major poet in her own right. She remained there for the rest of her life. Although she had begun writing poetry in her teen years that was, for its time, conventional and tinged with German Romanticism (mostly for her personal satisfaction), she established a reputation as a major literary figure and modern poet only after she left Germany, when she was nearly fifty years old. She became in effect a poetic voice not only of the Holocaust but of human suffering, yearning, and the pain of exile—particularly (though not exclusively) as it pertained to the historical Jewish condition. Yet her message does not preclude ultimate hope. The poems of her mature period reflect many of the attributes of modernism, especially in their symbolism and rich, sometimes even surreal metaphoric allusions; but sometimes also with a turn to the tone of the Hebrew Bible and the power of its prophetic rhetoric. Sachs also wrote plays, the best known of which is Eli: Ein Mysterienspeil vom Leiden Israels (Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel; 1950).

In her honor, the city of Dortmund established the Nelly Sachs literary prize, of which she was the first recipient in 1961. In 1965 she was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Publishers (Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels); in accepting it, she said, “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you.” But her ultimate and widest recognition came in 1966, when she shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon. On that occasion she observed that Agnon represented Israel whereas she represented “the tragedy of the Jewish people.” The Nobel Prize citation referred to her “works of forgiveness, deliverance and peace.” 

Lees selected three of Sachs’s poems as his texts for his symphony: “Someone Blew the Shofar,” “Footsteps,” and “But Who Emptied Your Shoes of Sand?” His orchestral writing is aimed at animating and bringing into focus the fear, terror, pathos, revulsion, fury, doom, and resignation articulated in those poems. In addition to the arsenal of established formal techniques and devices upon which much of his music typically draws—such as fugal and canonic development, inversions of motives and intervals together with their harmonic implications, and liberal exploration of tonal possibilities — he has employed a number of specific expressive gestures that highlight the images in the poems: pungent, shrieking string sonorities; fanfarelike moments in the brass with flutter tongue; evocation of chimes on the celeste; and an extended role for solo violin, to which, he explained in his notes on the work, he assigned short solo passages and obligatos as his perceived “soul instrument of Central and Eastern Europe.”

The first of this symphony’s three large movements is, as Lees described it, “almost a symphony unto itself . . . . The character of the first subject is akin to a cry in the night. The second subject, in triplets, is somber and convoluted.”

Instead of a formal development section, the movement is marked by continual, progressing development. The movement concludes with an evocation of the second subject, in a quiet mood. 

By: Neil W. Levin



Composer: Benjamin Lees

Length: 61:43
Genre: Symphonic

Performers: James Buswell, Violin;  Theodore Kucher, Conductor;  National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine;  Kimball Wheeler, Mezzo-soprano

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes

This recording is under license from Naxos


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