Four Psalms, Many Critics

John Harbison Writes a Not-So-Occasional Piece

by Mic Holwin

Composer John HarbisonIn 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.

Heavily 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.

Harbison 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.)

Inspired by 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.

One “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.

Inclusion 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.

“There 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.”

At first 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.”

A more 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.

To quell 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.

Ultimately, 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.

Audience 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 country’s founding.)

“Some 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.'”

The 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).

In 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.”

What 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.

“Liberal 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.”

Perhaps a 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.”

Mic Holwin has written on new music for ACO, the American Symphony Orchestra Leagues New Music Now website, the American Music Centers New Music Box on-line magazine, CRI, Chamber Music magazine and other new musicpublications.