Like the selections here by Druckman and Wyner, Miriam Gideon’s Ma tovu and Psalm 93 are also excerpted from a full Sabbath eve service—in this case her Shirat Miriam L’shabbat (Miriam’s Song of the Sabbath). The work was her first musical expression of the kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) and Sabbath evening liturgies as a unified artistic statement. Without compromise to originality or sophistication, she turned to a few sources of perceived as well as genuine Jewish musical tradition as a foundational frame of reference. These sources consisted of biblical cantillation motifs for certain sections; some melodic material and tunes that were familiar, especially then, to American congregations and were regarded as “traditional”—which she then treated judiciously with her own harmonic vocabulary; and aspects of Ashkenazi prayer modes and modal formulas (nusaḥ hat’filla), which she used not as a confining limitation, but more as an underpinning in certain prayers for original melodic exploration. At the same time, she appropriately reserved some prayers for completely free invention, and she made astute and imaginative use of quartal harmony in several passages.
The ma tovu setting exhibits refreshing directness and transparency in the vocal lines and an almost deceiving brand of expressive simplicity. There is about the piece as a whole an aura of gentle lyricism that beautifully amplifies the opening sentiment of the text, and there is a controlled delicacy in the choral writing.
Gideon’s interpretation of Psalm 93 preserves the energy of its affirmation concerning divine sovereignty, which is established in the opening measures. The overall clarity seems designed to exploit the energy of the linguistic sonorities. Homophonic textures and careful manipulation of choral unisons exude power and strength.
“A work totally at ease with itself” is how musicologist and critic Albert Weisser described the entire service in a review following its premiere. That assessment applies equally to these two excerpts on their own merits.
Publisher: C. F. Peters Corp
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