4.48. Ofer Ben-Amots, cantata ‘Psalm 81’ (1989)

Ofer Ben-Amots is an Israeli composer, who was born in 1955 and lives in the United States. He has written many compositions with a Jewish, religious character on Hebrew words, including three Psalms: Al Naharot Bavel (“By the Rivers of Babylon,” Ps. 137) (1988) for chorus, piano, and percussion, Psalm 81 for chorus and percussion (1989), and Psalm 23 for soprano, clarinet, and percussion (1990). These compositions were written after he left his country in 1979, because, as he stated in an interview from 2004, it was only outside Israel that he became really interested in the Jewish religion:

For an Israeli-born composer like myself, these two concepts [the Bible and liturgy] are genuinely different, and have very little to do with each other. In Israel, we grew up on the Bible, speaking the biblical language, knowing the stories and being thoroughly familiar with the biblical landscape and geography. But being Jewish was something that was understood all by itself. Nobody made an effort to be Jewish. Thus, Jewish liturgy—unless you belonged to the Orthodox sec [sic]—was rather far from you. Jewish liturgy is something I learned once I left Israel in 1979, and moved, first to Europe, and then to the United States. It was only outside Israel that I discovered my Jewishness from a religious perspective, and the richness and beauty of Jewish liturgical music. *Milken Archive, A Dialogue with Ofer Ben-Amots. The biblical scholar Uriel Simon goes so far as to say: “The Bible, once at the center of the cultural scene in Israel, has become marginalized; its magic has faded.” “The Bible in Israeli Life.” The Jewish Study Bible 2071.

In his Psalm 81, the “two concepts” of the Bible and liturgy were united. For this composition, Ben-Amots chose vv. 2-6 from the original Hebrew version of the Psalm. In the Tanakh translation, they read as follows:

2 Sing joyously to God, our strength

raise a shout for the God of Jacob.

3 Take up the song,

sound the timbrel,

the melodious lyre and harp.

4 Blow the horn on the new moon,

on the full moon for our feast day.

5 For it is a law for Israel,

a ruling of the God of Jacob;

6 He imposed it as a decree upon Joseph

when he went forth from the land of Egypt;

I heard a language that I knew not.

Psalm 81 is about the dialogue between God and Israel and about “listening” in two senses: first, as hearing music or spoken words, and second, as obeying. In vv. 2-4, God listens to the music of the people of Israel, who in turn respond to God’s commandment to celebrate the new moon. Vv. 4-6 may relate to various festivals in autumn, including Rosh Ha-Shanah, that was established in Lev. 23:23-25. *According to The Jewish Study Bible 1360, Note, Rabbinic interpretation takes the verse with “new moon” as referring to Rosh Ha-Shanah, but according to Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary 583, Ps. 81 was probably intended to be sung at Sukkoth. The foreign language in v. 6 is the language of Egypt, the “strange speech” also mentioned in Ps. 114:1. Vv. 7-17 are not used, but as we shall see, they play an important role in the background. V. 8 is about Israel’s call for God, about God’s great shofar on Mount Sinai, and about the Ten Commandments, to which Israel responds (Exod. 19:16-19); it deals with Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, when it no longer listens to Him. Vv. 9-17 are a reminder of God: if Israel listened to Him and worshiped no other gods, He would defeat Israel’s enemies and saturate the people. As for liturgy, Ps. 81:4-5 is quoted in the Maʿariv section from the Rosh Ha-Shanah maḥzor: “Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the appointed time for our festive day. Because it is a decree for Israel, a judgment day for the God of Jacob.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 64.

Ben-Amots arranged Psalm 81 for four-part mixed chorus or women’s chorus, accompanied by percussion (timpani, tubular bells, xylophone, glockenspiel or crotales, finger cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, claves and tambourine). His 13-minute composition has an A-B-C-B’-A’ form, while the organization of tempo in the five sections is symmetrical as well: A. Allegro non troppo; B. Andante moderato; C. Poco adagio molto espressivo; B’. Andante moderato; A’. Allegro non troppo. Section A (mm. 1-114) uses vv. 2-5 on the blowing and singing for God to celebrate the new year; section B (mm. 115-169) v. 6a on shofar blowing as a commandment to commemorate the exodus from Egypt; section C (mm. 170-200) v. 6b with the reference to God’s commandment; section B’ (mm. 201-258) vv. 6a and 2; and section A’ (mm. 259-351) vv. 2-5.

Each of the combinations A-A’ and B-C-B’ is centered around a motif which is both textually and musically dominant. The A-A’ motif is connected to the word tikʿu, “blow” (the shofar) from v. 4 of the Psalm, which is sung no fewer than 138 times, whereas the B-C’-B’ motif is connected to the word ʿedut, “a law,” from v. 6, sung 78 times. The tikʿu motif with its upward 4th seems inspired by the tekiʿah and shevarim of the shofar, whereas one variant of the ʿedut motif reveals the tone repetition of the teruʿah. Mm. 76-79 iEx. 9a are made up completely of the tikʿu motif. The ʿedut motif has two variants: a fast one with falling sixteenth notes and a slow one on the same pitch; the latter is shown in Ex. 9b, mm. 208-209.

Ex. 9a. Ofer Ben-Amots, Psalm 81, mm. 76-79. Choral parts. “Blow, blow, . . . [the horn] on the new moon . . .” Dotted quarter note 108 BPM. Reproduced by permission of the composer.



Ex. 9b. Ofer Ben-Amots, Psalm 81, mm. 206-209. Choral parts. “He imposed it as a decree upon Joseph when he went forth from [the land of Egypt].” Eighth note 136 BPM. Reproduced by permission of the composer.

These two key motifs contrast not only melodically but also harmonically; tikʿu is sung in parallel consonances (E/G and A/C in Ex. 9a), whereas the slow variant of ʿedut is sung in dissonances (B/C/D/D♯ and, thereafter, B♭/B/E♭/F). In this way, both the festive shofar blowing and the strict commandment of shofar blowing are represented musically. Perhaps inspired by the parallelisms in the psalm, in the tikʿu passages Ben-Amots uses an antiphonal style with dialogues between the two halves of the chorus (Ex. 9a), and in the ʿedut passages a responsorial style with dialogues between a soloist and the full chorus (Ex. 9b).

The contrast between tikʿu and ʿedut is also manifest in meter and dynamics; the extrovert A and A’ sections have a fast tempo with many capricious changes of meter and propulsive crescendos, whereas the introvert B-C’-B’ sections are much quieter in all respects. In the CD booklet, Ben-Amots comments on the fast sections: “My plan was to create a blend of excitement and mystery,” *Ben-Amots, CD Booklet 11 and this applies to the whole composition, in particular to the key motifs tikʿu and ʿedut. In the former, man addresses God in an internally persuasive discourse, which is half God’s word and half the word of man: “2 Sing joyously to God, our strength / raise a shout for the God of Jacob.” In the latter, God addresses man in an authoritative discourse with the commandment to celebrate the new year with shofar blasts and to live by the Covenant: “6 He imposed it as a decree upon Joseph[.]”

There are similarities between Ofer Ben-Amots’s Psalm 81 and Ernest Bloch’s Psalm 114, *Chapter 4.7 as the subject of both Psalms is the exodus from Egypt and the entrance into Ereẓ Yisrael. Though the superaddressee, the God of Israel, is the same, the addressees are different: in Ps. 114 they are the Jordan, the sea, the mountains and the earth, whereas the addressees of Ps. 81:2-7 are the Israelites themselves. Ps. 81 is about shofar blowing, whereas Ps. 114 only mentions the ram as a metaphor. And whereas Bloch’s Psalm 114 about the exodus is a march in a steady tempo, symbolizing the entrance into the land of Israel, the land is reached in Ben-Amots’s Psalm 81, which resembles a dance with changes of tempo and meter. Both Bloch and Ben-Amots wrote these cheerful Psalms in their early thirties, after their rediscovery of Jewish religious tradition. But whereas the Swiss-born Bloch was familiar with Jewish liturgy and looked for the “Jewish spirit” in the Bible, the Israeli-born Ben-Amots was familiar with the Bible and learned Jewish liturgy only outside Israel.

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