4.44. Yehezkel Braun, cantata ‘Festive Horns’ (1977)

The music of the Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (born 1922) is highly valued by some listeners because of its directly appealing simplicity, while being criticized by other listeners because of its conservative character. In an interview from 2011, *Braun, “An Immediate Sense of Awe.” Interview with Haggai Hitron. Haaretz, April 29, 2011 Braun expressed his dislike of the “avant-garde” music of the second half of the 20th century and named as an example Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Young Men”) (1956), an electronic composition in which verses from Daniel 3 on the three men in the fiery furnace, spoken and sung by a boy’s voice, were used. To Braun, this classic of electronic music is forced and distasteful.

In a composition from 1977, by his own accessible treatment of a traditional text, Braun demonstrates how the Present of concert music can be directed by the Past of a Mishnah tractate, which is again directed by the Past of Bible verses. Braun’s work is titled Halakhot Tekiʿat Shofar (“Laws regarding the shofar blowing”) and published under the misleading title Festive Horns*First, “festive” can be secular as well; second, the subject of the piece is the laws and it is based on Chapter 3:2-7 from the Mishnah tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah. *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 164-70. Cf. Chapter 3.1. The Hebrew text is sung by a mixed choir, accompanied by a brass ensemble consisting of three horns, two trumpets in B♭, two trombones and a tuba. Festive Horns lasts 20 minutes and has six movements, each on a different mishnah.

I. Largamente. After a polyphonic prelude by the brass, built on stylized shofar blasts, the male voices sing a recitative-like unison on mishnah 3:2, which reads in translation: “All shofarot are kosher, except for a cow’s, for that is a horn.” The female voices respond: “Rabbi Yose said: Are not all shofarot called horns? as it is said:” and the following quote from Josh. 6:5 is sung on a vigorous octave leap by the whole choir: “And when a long blast is sounded on the horn—as soon as you hear that sound of the horn—” *Chapter 2.2. The rest of the Bible verse is not sung, but instead represented by the brass ensemble, which repeats the shofar blasts from the beginning, this time soft and muted, while the peak shortly before the end is the instrumental expression of the words “all the people shall give a mighty shout.”



Ex. 8. Yehezkel Braun, Festive Horns II, mm. 38-42. Moderato, dotted quarter note 96 BPM. French horn in F, trumpets in B♭. Reproduced by permission of the Israeli Music Institute, Tel Aviv.

II. Moderato. This movement is a responsory for alto solo and choir, enhanced by the brass, which repeat the last words of each half-verse. In the second half of this movement, the melody of the alto with its many long notes is played by the 1st horn, while the counterparts with their short notes are played by two trumpets, one above and one below the horn part (Ex. 8). In this way, the music follows the text of mishnah 3:3: “The shofar of Rosh HaShana was that of an ibex – straight, and plated with gold at the mouth, and to its sides there were two trumpets. *The trumpets refer to ḥaẓoẓrot. In his composition Shofar Service, Herman Berlinski presents an individual interpretation of the words “plated with gold”: “I wrote a piece for a shofar overlaid with—that is, surrounded by—brass! [two trumpets]” Cf. Chapter 4.38. A long note sounded from the shofar, and short notes from the trumpets[.]” Choir and brass conclude together with the last words of the mishnah: “for the commandment of the day was the shofar.”

III. Largo, mesto. “On fast days they would blow the shofarot of rams – curved, and plated with silver at the mouth, and in between the shofarot were two trumpets. Short notes sounded from the shofarot, and long notes from the trumpets, for the commandment of the day was the trumpets.” Braun does not repeat his illustrative approach of the shofarot and ḥaẓoẓrot/trumpets from movement II; instead of trumpets, he uses the horns because of their “curved” shape. The general character of the fast days is expressed in slow, austere music, and just like the preceding one, movement III ends on a chord with a 4th instead of a 3rd.

IV. Allegretto energico. This movement has an instrumental prelude featuring the stylized shofar blasts of movement I and an instrumental postlude featuring the octave leap from that movement. In the middle section, the choir sings the text of mishnah 3:5 twice: “The Jubilee is like Rosh HaShana with respect to the shofar and to the blessings. Rabbi Yehuda says, ‘On Rosh HaShana one blows the shofar of a ram, and for the Jubilee, that of an ibex.’” *Lev. 25:8-12 and Chapter 2.1. The similarities between the ram’s horn and the ibex horn are expressed in music by the identical metric and dynamic structure of the two repetitions, whereas the differences between the horns are reflected in the wide variety of polyphonic settings of the same melodic material.

V. Recitativo – Scherzando. Mishnah 3:6 is a vocal responsory of 19 measures for tenor solo and choir, accompanied by the brass ensemble and followed by an instrumental scherzo of no less than 270 measures. The tenor sings: “A shofar which was cracked and glued together . . .” and the choir concludes: “. . . is unfit for the commandment.” The damage followed by the repair is represented by muted flutter tones of the trumpets and the strong dissonance B/D♭, resolving into a C. The dialogue between the tenor and the choir continues: “Shards of a shofar stuck together . . .” “. . . are unfit”; “If it had a hole in it and was mended, if the hole had interfered with the sound . . .” “. . . it is unfit for the commandment.” The “interference” is expressed by the dissonant diminished octave B4/B♭5 of the trumpets and a very appropriate cantabile run of the tuba. The conclusion “If not – then it is fit” is followed by the scherzo, a cheerful little waltz in three-eight time with many shofar motifs, such as upward 4th leaps on two sixteenths and an eighth note. The unusual elements in this scherzo: a doloroso passage in the trio, a few five-part measures, whole-tone scales and glissandi, are probably meant to represent non-kosher shofarot. Movement V is the only one which is concluded in a powerful manner, with the aforementioned shofar motif, played in unison by the brass.

VI. Largo. The first half of this movement is a simple recitative, largely on one pitch. The sopranos sing the first line of mishnah 3:7: “If one blows the shofar into a pit or a cellar or a barrel, one who hears the sound of the shofar – has fulfilled his obligation; one who hears the echo – has not.” A muted trumpet blows a falling minor 3rd and the resonating depth of the pit is suggested by the following entrances of the muted horns. Such tone paintings are reminiscent of Renaissance madrigalisms and the use of the obsolete mezzo-soprano key also refers to that period—Yehezkel Braun is known for his criticism of 19th and 20th-century music and his affinity with early music. The basses continue the recitative: “So, too, one who walks behind a synagogue, or whose house adjoins the synagogue, and who hears the sound of the shofar or the sound of the megillah, *the scroll with the Bible book of Esther, read in the Purim service if he attunes his heart to it – he has fulfilled his obligation, and if he does not – he has not.” There is no real word painting but only a sforzato-piano on the key word shamaʿ: “heard” (in this translation: “hears”). The choir judges: “Even though both heard it, one attuned his heart, and the other did not” and this final line is spun out in the second half of the movement, which displays a rich texture and an intensive use of both the falling minor 3rds from the beginning and the rising 4th of the shofar blast. The movement is concluded quietly in a major key.

The six movements of Festive Horns show a recurrent pattern, according to which a soloist (an alto in movement II, a tenor in movement V), a voice group (basses followed by tenors in movement III, sopranos followed by basses in movement VI), or a combination of voice groups in unison (tenors and basses in the movements I and IV) sings the mishnah in whole or in part. The brass ensemble suggests the chronotope (the synagogue during various holy days in the movements I to IV; the repair shop for the shofarot in movement V; and the pit, cellar and barrel in movement VI). Thereafter, the whole choir repeats the mishnah or part of it (in movement V, the brass ensemble performs this function). In the repetition, the wording of the text does not change, but instead, its character: the rich harmony turns the authoritative discourse of the halakhah into the internally persuasive discourse of emotionally charged music. The movements V and VI are the clearest examples of this metamorphosis: after the disapproval of the non-kosher shofarot and the approval of the kosher shofarot in movement V, the latter are celebrated in a waltz by the ensemble; the halakhah concerning shofar hearing in movement VI is followed by a rich choral passage on the “attunement of the heart,” showing that the halakhah has been internalized by the congregation.

In this study, Braun’s composition is the only one from the period of 1970-1988. It lacks the new compositional and technical features of the music of the younger generations with Alvin Curran and Bob Gluck as their foremost “shofar” composers; at the same time, it is conservative, even to the standards of the older generations of Ernest Bloch and even Edward Elgar. Festive Horns is a strictly tonal composition, in which a real, “out-of-tune” ram’s horn would be out of place and in which isolated dissonances are used as special effects to suggest non-halakhic horns or practices. Braun’s overall approach is the clear and understandable presentation of a halakhic text, accompanied by illustrative and anecdotal instrumental music.


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