Four Psalms, Many Critics
Writes a Not-So-Occasional Piece
by Mic Holwin
1997, the Israeli Consulate of Chicago, together with a committee of
Jewish philanthropists, arts professionals and business people,
decided to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the State of Israel by
commissioning an American composer to write a celebratory occasional
piece for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to be performed in its 1999
season. They chose John Harbison, a prominent composer who won a
Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his cantata The Flight Into Egypt.
scheduled at the time and feeling that perhaps a Jewish composer
would be a better recipient for an award of such "tremendous
responsibility," Harbison, who also had never been to Israel,
initially turned down the commission. However, the opportunity to
learn more about the Middle East-a longstanding interest of the
composer's-and a realization that "the advantages of being
non-Jewish outweighed the disadvantages" in writing the piece
caused Harbison to reconsider. He called the consul general a week
later, who told him the commission had not yet been awarded to
someone else and was still his.
planned to set texts of modern Israeli poets. But during his early
research on and conversations with others about Israel, he began to
read through the Book of Psalms and found them more appropriate to
the occasion than the poems. Says Harbison, "They summed up the
themes I wanted to touch on." Those themes include "the
mission of Israel" through history ("When the Lord restores
the fortunes of Zion / . . . / our mouths shall be filled with
laughter"), the "disenfranchisement" of Jews with no
homeland ("By the rivers of Babylon, / there we sat, / sat and
wept, / as we thought of Zion"), and a "utopian vision"
of brotherhood ("How good and how pleasant it is / that
brothers dwell together").
His plan to
write a choral setting of psalms evolved again into a more complex
idea after Harbison visited Israel-a trip both the composer and the
committee felt was necessary-for a two-and-a-half week stay in
December of 1997. During that time, the composer studied the cadences
of the Hebrew language and met with people from a wide economic and
social cross section of Israel-poets, politicians, clergy, guides.
(Harbison had compiled a list of names for the Chicago committee, who
helped arrange the meetings.)
the conversations he was having, Harbison wrote down from memory
"things that stuck in my head at the end of the day."
Reading these informal interviews over at the end of his stay in
Israel, Harbison was hit with an idea that changed the scope of the
piece: insert the conversations, in English, between the four Hebrew
psalms settings, to provide modern commentary to the ancient texts.
"Citizen" questions the plight of Israelis, Palestinians
and Bedouin together: "Israel, the chosen people! / Were we all
three / chosen to struggle here / among these ruins . . .?" A
Guide expresses her ambivalence: " Home, to this beautiful
country / where car bombs wait for our children / at the market."
A Visitor says, "I thought I was immune / to the Western Wall.
/ But when I found myself there, / I cried, / I stuffed my message,
my prayer / into the crevice." The voices form a tapestry that
is a poem of its own.
of modern voices made the work "a much more complicated
experience." This complication, however, takes away from a
purely celebratory aspect -something Harbison didn't think would be
make the stir it did when he excitedly sent a draft of his new
approach to the committee. He received "quite a few reservations
about it" in response.
was an objection of some sort to just about every one of the modern
voices, even the ones that seem fairly non-inflammatory," says
Harbison, "like the young woman who says '[In Israel] for the
first time I was made to feel pretty.' Somebody said it was kind of demeaning."
Harbison was "daunted" by this response, but as comments
began to come in, from friends and family as well as the committee,
Harbison realized that, save for eliminating the modern voices
entirely, he could never please everyone and decided to go forward.
"If it's only one occasion," he said he came to think about
what an "occasional piece" entails, "I'd like to do it
the way it should be done."
serious objection was raised by performers or literary people that
Harbison knew, who pointed out that the journalistic aspect of the
piece would limit it to the particular occasion. "If you just
write some psalms, they could be done anywhere, anytime,"
explains Harbison, "but this will be a piece that chronicles the
moment"-which would almost guarantee limited performances.
"And that seemed a more problematical objection," says
Harbison, than critiques of specific voices.
any confusion about the overall essence of the piece, Harbison wrote
a Prelude to the beginning of the work to give it an interpretive
center, something that "gives people a way of going at it."
That way is pointed to through a prayer of a 5th-century Babylonian
rabbi and mystic, Amemar, who asks God for dreams of Israel that are
true and enduring visions: "If they are good, strengthen them, .
. . / But if they require healing, heal them." Each section of Four
Psalms, ancient psalms and modern comments together, thus marks
a point in Israel's journey through adversity and triumph,
achievement and loss, toward the Israel of Amenar's dream.
Harbison wrote the piece he felt reflected what he learned-historic,
sociological, symbolic-about Israel and accepted the mixed reviews
from the committee, as well as audiences and performers.
response to the 40-minute work for vocal soloists, chorus and
orchestra has proven to be "non-denominational." Objections
have come from Jews who feel the contemporary voices can be taken out
of context. Objections have also come from people who are sympathetic
to the Palestinian cause, who feel that Four Psalms is clearly
pro-Israel. (Harbison hopes that the piece is "at least
marginally pro-Israel," since it was written to commemorate the
Jewish listeners say 'You shouldn't have put that horrible guy in
there who is so incredible narrow-minded about the
Palestinians,'" says Harbison as an example. But, he points out,
"He's not in there as an example of good thinking. I think a lot
of people get confused about that-from any side."
At both the
Chicago premiere and a subsequent performance in Boston by the
Cantata Singers last season, some choral singers withdrew, saying
they wouldn't perform the piece because of specific things sung by
the soloists. "One of the percussionists of the Boston Symphony,
a close friend of mine, said, 'I could never play in a performance of
that piece-you've got that guy in there who says "Kill the
Jews." But, I said, he's presented as a complete idiot with
terribly unevolved views. 'I don't care,' he said, 'I don't want to
be in a piece where anybody says that.'"
reaction to Harbison's Four Psalms is not a modern dilemma or
an isolated case: performances of Bach's St. John Passion are
frequently marked by the withdrawal of choral singers because of the
negative characterization of Jews in the gospel of John. A recent
example is the Boston Symphony Orchestra's canceling of a
season-opening performance of choruses from John Adams's1991 opera
The Death of Klinghofer in November, 2001 because of inflammatory
subject matter (the Palestinian hijacking of the Italian cruise ship
Achille Lauro in 1985).
retrospect, could Harbison have modified Four Psalms so to
guarantee more performances? "Oh yeah," replies Harbison,
"I've had propositions made to me, like 'We could do this piece
if you take out this character or rewrite these eight lines.'"
If Harbison took out the Driver character, for example-"That
would solve one set of problems," he says. "But then other
people would say 'You have to take out the Palestinian woman.' That
would solve another set of problems. Eventually it's a house of
cards. You wind up where my friends told me I should wind up: don't
do anything with these characters, just write the psalms and you'll
have a piece that people can do."
strikes Harbison and audiences who hear Four Psalms now, in
2002, is how more relevant it is now than when it was written. (The
year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in America on September 11
gives Four Psalms more emotional impact than even Harbison could
imagine.) Consider the recent events prior to Harbison's visit:
Palestinian self-government in Gaza Strip and Jericho area, begun in
1994, was followed by the signing of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty
and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon
Peres and Yasir Arafat. In spite of setbacks in the next year to a
peaceful resolution between Israeli and Palestinian state-Prime
Minister Rabin assassinated at peace rally and the escalation of
fundamentalist Arab terrorism against Israel-there was
"definitely more hope in the area" during his 1997 stay
than now, says Harbison.
Israeli intellectuals were associating with Palestinian
intellectuals," Harbison- who even toured Palestinian territory
while there- says of the atmosphere then. There was a big vogue for
indigenous folk material which wasn't strictly Jewish at all,"
he says of fraternization in the music scene. "I really wonder
if that can be at all possible right now."
line from Amemar's opening prayer sums up the uncertain
interpretation of Israel's future as well as John Harbison's complex
creation: "I have dreamed a dream, but I do not know what it indicates."
Holwin has written on new music for ACO, the American Symphony
New Music Now website, the American Music Center's
New Music Box on-line
magazine, CRI, Chamber Music magazine and other new musicpublications.