4.43. Alexander Goehr, music theater piece ‘Sonata about Jerusalem’ (1970)

In 1968-1970, the British composer Alexander Goehr (born 1932) published his Triptych, three pieces of music theater which can be performed in concert form as well. The shofar, as a concept, plays an important part in the third theater piece.

The first music theater piece is Naboth’s Vineyard, based on 1 Kings 21. In this story, king Ahab of Israel wants to buy Naboth’s vineyard; the latter, however, refuses to sell it, and then Ahab has him killed. Therefore, the prophet Elijah punishes the king by order of God.

The second piece is Shadowplay, inspired by the allegory of the cave from Book VII of Plato’s Republic. People are chained in a cave and see a shadow play on the wall, believing that this is reality; however, the man who manages to escape from the cave cannot deal with freedom.

The third piece, Sonata about Jerusalem, is based on excerpts from the autobiography of Obadiah the Proselyte and the chronicle of Samuel ben Yaḥya al Maghribi from the 12th century *Goehr does not provide any details about these sources; he states in the preface to the score that the text was arranged by Recha Freier and himself and deals with the Jews of Baghdad who are misled by a false prophet, who deludes them with the false hope that they will fly to Jerusalem.

Despite the heterogeneous chronotopes, the three compositions have a common theme: the liberation from a more or less severe restriction of movement, that seems to succeed initially, but eventually fails. King Ahab wants to expand his royal domain; a man wants to escape from a cave; and Jews want to flee oppression in Baghdad. Alexander Goehr himself formulated this general theme as follows: “a hope for a better world, something other than our apparently self-destructive situation – but also a recognition that such hopes put into action have generally led to something worse, and the terrible sadness of this.” *Goehr, Stageworks/Opera and Music Theatre. http://www.fcqv.org/Goehr.

Goehr composed Sonata about Jerusalem, the only one of the Triptych with a shofar, for the Testimonium Music Festival in Jerusalem, organized by the writer Recha Freier. The festival theme in 1971 was “The Middle Ages” and Freier provided Goehr with a libretto about Obadiah the Proselyte, an Italian monk from the 12th century, who converted to Judaism and left Europe for the East. Because Goehr found the libretto not concise and illustrative enough, he himself elaborated the subject of the Jews from medieval Baghdad and their dashed messianic hopes. He connected the episodes of the story by a refrain and with this aim, he chose verses from Joel, a visionary Bible book in which the shofar (vv. 2:1 and 2:15) plays an important role. The selected verses from Joel 3:3-4 announce the great and terrible day of the Lord, that will be accompanied by a darkened sun and a bloody moon; the immediate sequel in v. 3:5 about the escape of those who call on the Lord and their retention in Jerusalem is not quoted, but reflected in the episodes between the refrains of the Sonata. The Latin translation of Joel 3:3-4 reads: “Sol convertetur in tenebras, et luna in sanguinem, antequam veniat dies Domini magnus et manifestus.” *Goehr’s commentary “Concerning My ‘Sonata about Jerusalem’” 129 and the Vulgate, Actus Apostolorum 2:20 read “tenebras,” whereas the score reads “tenebris.” It seems that this translation was made by Obadiah, who wrote it in Hebrew script. Recha Freier approved the radically changed libretto and made ​a Hebrew version for the festival; the score offers English and German translations, and Sonata is usually performed in English.

There are two solo parts: the Narrator (bass), who represents the power of the king of Baghdad, and the “mad boy” (soprano). Furthermore, a women’s choir with one or more singers to a part, who should have “sets of little oriental or Indian bells;” a boy’s voice in a speaking part; and an ensemble consisting of two woodwind players: flute/piccolo and clarinet/bass clarinet; three brass players: French horn, trumpet, and bass trombone; three string players: violin, cello, and double bass; and a piano. The Sonata can be performed in the concert hall as well as in the opera theater, and therefore the subtitle is Cantata – Music Theater III.

The title Sonata about Jerusalem was inspired by a movement from Monteverdi’s Vespers (1610), the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, in which instrumental sections alternate with a cantus firmus. Throughout the Sonata about Jerusalem, the shofar makes its presence heard, although the boundaries between quoted traditional shofar blasts in the trumpet (Ex. 7a) and transformed shofar blasts in the horn and the narrator (Exx. 7b and 7c) are not sharply drawn. One characteristic of the shofar: tone repetition (Exx. 7b and 7c), is also a characteristic of Goehr’s music in general. In an article about his Triptych, the composer Melanie Daiken calls tone repetition “almost a Goehr thumbprint” and Sonata about Jerusalem offers numerous examples: “Repeated notes here create ostinati and build ups, invoke ecstasy, lyricism, dance, clarify cadence and speech contours, suggest stuttering and sobbing.” *Daiken, “Notes on Goehr’s Triptych” 48. The composition has a rondo-like form with twelve sections: seven dramatic scenes and five identical refrains on the Latin words quoted above.



Ex. 7a. Alexander Goehr, Sonata about Jerusalem. Section 1, mm. 15-17. Trumpet in B♭. Reproduced by permission of Schott Music & Co. Ltd.

Section 1 is the refrain, sung by the female choir. In mm. 15-16, after “dies Domini magnus et horribilis,” above the sustained 4th A4/D5 in the bass trombone and the French horn, the trumpet plays the rising 5th C5-G5 four times, supported by the clarinet with the rising 6th C5-A♭5, and the dissonance G5/A♭5 intensifies the blasts. With its authentic tekiʿah and shevarim, its archaizing Latin chant and the modern, atonal sounds, the refrain is an example of hybridization, combining traditional Jewish and non-Jewish, archaic and modern elements.

Section 3 pictures the life of the Jews, who are forced to wear discriminating marks on their bodies and garments. “And cruel warders were set over all known to be Jews, and cruel wardesses over their women, who humiliated them with curses and blows and beat them in the streets of the city,” says the Narrator, whereafter the section is concluded by nervous motifs with tone repetition and big leaps in the brass; this time, the teruʼah-like blasts are distorted and conform to the atonal context.

Section 5 begins with a powerful trumpet solo on the notes D4-G4-G♯4-E♯5, ending with an accelerando tone repetition on F♯5; the “tekiʿah” and “teruʿah” of the trumpet are repeatedly interrupted by rapid 6th and 7th leaps of the piccolo and the clarinet. Just as angular is the melodic structure of the following vocal part of the “crazed young boy,” and the parodic stylization of shofar blasts already alludes to the prophecy of the false Messiah Schlomo ben Dugi: “Heard the word the time has come, that the Lord would gather up his people Israel from all the world: bring them to Jerusa, sa, sa, sa, sa, . . . sa, sa, sa, salem, Jerusalem, salem the holy city.” *According to Goehr (score: 29), this false Messiah is described in the autobiography of Obadiah the Proselyte. These distortions of shofar blasts, their characteristic intervals, or tone repetitions, are examples of parodic stylization. Mikhail Bakhtin comments on this method as follows:

[T]he author again speaks in someone else’s discourse, but in contrast to stylization parody introduces into that discourse a semantic intention that is directly opposed to the original one. The second voice, once having made its home in the other’s discourse, clashes hostilely with its primordial host and forces him to serve directly opposing aims. Discourse becomes an arena of battle between two voices. . . . Thus in parody the deliberate palpability of the other’s discourse must be particularly sharp and clearly marked. *Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 193.

In this section, the “second voice” is the false Messiah’s, that “clashes hostilely” with the “primordial host” of the traditional shofar blasts and forces them to serve the opposing aims of deluding the Jews of Baghdad with false hopes of flying to Jerusalem. Bakhtin adds: “[O]ne can parody merely superficial verbal forms, but one can also parody the very deepest principles governing another’s discourse.” *Ibid. 194. The return to Jerusalem—in this section parodied as “Jerusa, sa, sa, sa, sa, . . . sa, sa, sa, salem”—is indeed one of the Jews’ very deepest principles. *An example in which an enemy of the Jews is the object of parodic stylization can be found in Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw with the distorted bugle call of the Nazi soldier. Chapter 4.27.



Ex. 7b. Alexander Goehr, Sonata about Jerusalem. Section 6, m. 4, French horn in F.


Ex. 7c. Ibid, section 11, m. 11, basso solo (Narrator). Reproduced by permission of Schott Music & Co. Ltd.

Section 6 of Sonata about Jerusalem depicts the joy of the Jews; the teruʿah-like blast with the accelerando and crescendo tone repetition and the accelerando laughter of the Jews, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha . . .” are an echo of the tone repetition of the trumpet and the parodic stylization “sa, sa” from section 5.

In section 8, the Narrator reports that the Jews of Baghdad, who are known for their wisdom, believe the false prophet; that they put on green cloaks—the color of paradise—and make their way to the roofs of their houses to wait for the wonder. *Cf. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Satan in Goray 173-4 with similar expectations of (17th-century Polish) Jews: “and three days before Rosh Hashana a cloud would descend and the pious would climb aboard and be off to the land of Israel.”

Section 9, “The Flight to Jerusalem,” depicts with musical means how their expectation of salvation is transporting the Jews; many short, feathery motifs with tone repetition, tremolos, grace notes and upward leaps pass by and give the impression of birdsong.

In section 11, the disenchanted Jews descend from the roofs. The Narrator sings his comments, and at each caesura, the bass clarinet blows soft, accelerando and diminuendo tone repetitions, taken over by the humming Narrator in a sarcastic inversion of the teruʿah motif from section 6. “When nothing seem’d to have happened [caesura] they felt a great sadness, and their hearts broke [caesura]. They felt stupid and were ashamed before their neighbours.” The Narrator hums: “M, m, m, m, m” (Ex. 7c) and continues: “Everyone in the city had heard the tale [caesura], now they came to the Jews in their shame and they mocked them and they laughed at them saying: Ha! the Jews wanted to fly to Jerusalem. But they have no wings.” This concluding sentence is spoken by a children’s voice. The Narrator’s humming can be considered a parody on the murmuring in 1 Kings 19:12: “And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound. 13 . . . Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, . . . I alone am left, and they are out to take my life. 15 The LORD said to him, ‘Go back by the way you came.’”

The refrain after section 11 of Goehr’s music theater piece puts an end to all expectations of salvation.

With regard to a scenic performance, Goehr insists on avoiding “all graphic representations customarily associated with Jewry, and its persecution,” because “In art, persecution, self- or inflicted, and psychological symbols may be misunderstood when made to stick to a particular section of the community or to particular historical events.” *Goehr, Sonata about Jerusalem, Note to the score. Italics original. This generalization of the theme leads to an interesting dialogue with the other two compositions of Triptych: Naboth’s Vineyard and Shadowplay with chronotopes in Jewish and Greek antiquity respectively. The three works have not only the themes of the human condition and the failed deliverance in common, but also a musical characteristic, namely the tone repetition, already mentioned by Daiken. This tone repetition is a kind of authoritative discourse, always appearing at the turning point in the action, when the characters have a vision of freedom, whereas the audience realize that this freedom will not last.

As a conclusion, it can be said that in the Sonata about Jerusalem, the Present is directed by the Past through the use and transformation of traditional shofar blasts from the Rosh Ha-Shanah service and Joel 3 on the great and terrible day of the Lord; at the same time, the Present is indirectly directed by the Past through the use of 12th-century texts and the inspiration from Monteverdi’s Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. Finally, as a result of Goehr’s point of departure, his “own question” of “hope for a better world, something other than our apparently self-destructive situation,” *Goehr, Stageworks/Opera and Music Theatre. http://www.fcqv.org/Goehr the Jewish Past is altered by the Present.

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