Canticles for Jerusalem
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Vivian Fine composed her song cycle Canticles for Jerusalem, for mezzo-soprano and piano, in 1983. Although she had written many songs, this marked the first time she specifically designated a work as a “cycle.”
As a result of the Six Day War in 1967, Fine—along with American Jewry in general—experienced a new and heightened consciousness regarding Jerusalem, and all its historical, political, spiritual, artistic, and national ramifications. That new (or, perhaps in the case of dedicated American Zionists and American orthodox Jewry for whom Jerusalem had always been an important part of their thinking, “renewed”) level of awareness and concern was largely sustained if not reinvigorated during and following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the optimism fortified by the peace with Egypt five years later. By the early 1980s, even if the novelty of the reunited city had worn off for some, the embrace of Jerusalem still reverberated unalloyed for much of the American Jewish community on one plane or another. Canticles for Jerusalem can thus properly be considered one of the many works by American composers that owes its inspiration ultimately to the Six Day War and the pride and increased knowledge that it kindled.
“Canticle” is a circumscribed liturgical term meaning a song, a musical setting, or some lyrical passage from a part or book of the Bible (the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament) other than the Book of Psalms. (In the Latin Church liturgy, it can also refer to the Te Deum.) Fine avails herself of the poet’s license in using this otherwise technical and specific term liberally to encompass secular poetry, which conveys an aura of sacredness to the subject.Canticles for Jerusalem comprises settings of five Hebrew poems in English translation, combined with passages in the original Hebrew: two by the medieval Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi (ca. 1075–1141), framing two by the modern Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), and Psalm 137.
Fine opens the song cycle with a setting of one of the most familiar poems of Halevi's entire oeuvre Libbi b’mizraḥ (My Heart is in the East). In that poem, Halevi echoes the first three words of verse 5 of Psalm 137, “If I forget you, Jerusalem,” which—in that Psalm—represents the exiled and captive people’s resolve during the Babylonian captivity never to forget Jerusalem nor to relinquish the hope and determination to return. As he ponders his spiritual anguish and separation from the Holy Land—“My heart is in the East [the Land of Zion and Jerusalem] and [but] I am at the end of the West [Spain]”—he protests that in the Diaspora his life cannot be lived or pursued to its full meaning or even enjoyment, and he longs to see even the remaining dust of the destroyed Temple where it once stood as the center of Israel’s spiritual life. In those yearnings he also evokes the exilic spirit of Psalm 137, in whose fourth verse the ancient Babylonian Jewish captives ask “How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?”
The final song of Fine’s cycle is a setting of the Halevi poem Tziyon halo tishali l’shalom asira’yikh (Zion, will you not inquire about the welfare of your captives?), commonly known as “Ode to Zion,” from his collection Shirei tziyon. Both this text and the text of the preceding fourth song (an excerpt of Psalm 137) express yearning for a return to Zion. But while the Psalm concerns the exile of the Babylonian captivity in 586 B.C.E. after the destruction of the First Temple, Halevi is describing the experience of longing for Zion from 11th–12th century Spain, well more than a millennium after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish people. From the vantage point of worldly matters, intellectual life, and even material comforts, as well as the situation and treatment of Jews in a host culture—as indicated in his Libbi b’mizraḥ and its reference to “Spain’s goodly things”—the outward circumstances between the two experiences differ significantly. But the spiritual yearning for Zion connects them in the joint consideration of these two poems and is reinforced by their juxtaposition.
The second and third songs in the cycle are settings of two of the thirteen divisions of Amichai’s poem Y’rushalayim (Jerusalem) 1967.
Just as Bialik and Tchernikhovsky may be said to have come out of the so-called European period in the development of modern Hebrew poetry (from the early 1880s until approximately the mid-1920s), and such poets as Leah Goldberg, Natan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky, Simon Halkin, and Uri Greenberg are commonly assigned to the second, Mandatory Palestinian phase (from the early 1920s to the establishment of the State of Israel), Yehuda Amichai [Ludwig Pfeuffer] belongs to what is generally considered the third phase: commencing with the birth of the modern state in 1948. That third phase includes, of course, poets who may have been born in the Diaspora (such as Amichai) and/or those who came in their youth to the young Israel or to Mandatory Palestine during the decade or so prior to statehood. Their creative development and maturation occurred within the actuality of the new state and all that it implies. They were no longer confined to the idealized yearnings, imagined landscapes (geographical and figurative), or utopian visions in which all problems of the Jewish people would be solved by statehood, which informed much of the poetry of the first two phases. It was in that third phase that the first generation of Israeli poets became increasingly concerned with internal subjective experience—even though it might (or might not) still relate to the Jewish past—and with the sensibilities and issues of modern Israeli society and culture. Not least among those new areas of attention was the broadening and continued development of the Hebrew language and its accommodation to daily speech in a modern polity, along with fresh attitudes toward history and the past in general—all of which led ultimately for some writers to a form of universal expression.
While Amichai was still in his early forties, Hebrew literary critic and scholar Ezra Spicehandler was able to judge his role in terms of setting a tone for younger Israeli poets: “His use of daily speech,” Spicehandler wrote in the early 1960s,
his irony, his “metaphysical” metaphors and existential ennui have become hallmarks of contemporary writing. Some of his titles contain the word akhshav (“now”); the “here and now” is in fact a leitmotif in his work as well as in that of a good many other writers. Eternal values and experiences no longer have meaning for them. Only the intensity of the experienced moment, always doomed to be lost, retains a redeeming element.
Amichai was born in Würzburg, Germany, where his home, upbringing, and family life were Orthodox in orientation and commitment. He thus received a traditional Judaic education, which gave him the thorough familiarity with sacred texts and liturgy that he would later use in some of his secular poetry. At the same time, in the spirit of modern German Orthodoxy, he was exposed to surrounding Western culture, and he encountered some elements of modern Hebrew cultural developments as well. At the age of six he was sent to the Israelitische Volkschule.
Amichai emigrated with his family to Palestine in 1936. He served in the Jewish brigade of the British army in the Second World War and then in the Palmach during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. His formal studies at the Hebrew University centered around the Bible and literature, which he taught for many years in secondary schools. He began publishing poetry in the late 1940s, and his first volume of poetry, Akhshav uv’yamim ha’aÊerim (Now and in Other Days) appeared in 1955. That volume and his Shirim 1948–1962, a retrospective collection written in that time frame, are considered to have signaled a watershed moment in a new direction of modern Hebrew poetry and to have laid or at least solidified the foundations for a new school, reflecting many of the developments in the language itself that had occurred since the days of Mandatory Palestine.
Amichai introduced into his poetry contemporary terms, images, usages (including emerging slang), idioms, colloquialisms, informal expressions and allusions, newer sensibilities and values of postindependence generations, and the various technological, industrial, and administrative accoutrements of the modern state. But he has combined these with biblical and liturgical references, sometimes with religious defiance and rejection—such as a poem in which he holds God responsible for a dearth of compassion in contemporary society. His poetry is generally acknowledged for its personal as well as human qualities and orientations, although his underlying sense of Jewish national identity remains evident in his overall work. In 1982 he was awarded the Israel Prize for poetry. Among his other volumes of poetry are B’merḥak shtei tikvot (Two Hopes Away); Lo rak lizkor (Not Only to Remember); Z’man (Time); Sh’at haḥen (Hour of Grace); and Patu’aḥ sagur, patu’aḥ (Open, Closed, Open). He also wrote short stories and other prose, and theatrical works for radio as well as the stage. His play Ma’ase l’nineve, which recasts the biblical story of Jonah, was staged by Habima in 1962. And his novel Lo me’akhshav, lo mikan (Not of This Time, Not of This Place) appeared in 1968. In fact, poetic use of prose-driven lines, in combination with typically poetic images and metaphors, are found in much of his poetry—as in, for example, Jerusalem [Y’rushalyim] 1967. While he is remembered primarily as a poet, his prose fiction has also earned him a permanent place in modern Hebrew literature.
By the 1970s and 1980s Amichai seems to have become the most popular contemporary Israeli poet among American readers, and his name was probably the most familiar at that time in America—and perhaps to this day—of all modern Hebrew poets since the generation of Bialik and Tchernikhovsky. His poetry inspired a number of American composers to create settings for various media not only during those decades, but throughout the 20th century and beyond. So it was natural for Fine to turn to Amichai’s poetry for part of her song cycle. The poem from which she chose excerpts, Jerusalem 1967, not only contains direct reference to Halevi in terms of his longing for Jerusalem, but, in his own language, echoes Libbi b’mizraḥ and its most widely recognizable sentiment: “I played a game of four severe squares of Yehuda Halevi: my heart, my self, the east, the west.” By juxtaposing these two texts, Fine was thus able to tie Amichai’s poem to Halevi’s yearning and to relate the two very different stylistic, structural, and formal avenues of expression and counterparts—separated by a span of more than eight centuries. At the same time, Halevi’s poem serves as an elegant introduction to Amichai’s. Halevi longs to see, to feel, to be in Jerusalem; Amichai can experience the reality of Jerusalem—and the remains (the “dust”) of the Temple (the Western Wall) now that Jerusalem has been reunited after nineteen years of Jordan’s occupation of the eastern part of the city—whenever he wishes. Yet he, too, yearns.
The third song of the cycle, “Light Against the Tower of David,” continues Amichai’s poem as a setting of its second division. Its closing line—m’ne m’ne t’kel ufarsin—is a quotation from the Book of Daniel (5:25), from the dramatic scene during the Babylonian captivity in which Babylon’s fall is predicted. In that biblical account, Belshazzar is the last king of Babylon and the son of Nebuchadnezzar, who was king when the Babylonian captivity began with the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple. The biblical story describes the banquet given by Belshazzar for his court, where they commit further desecration by singing worshipful praises to idols and drinking wine from sacred vessels that were looted from the Temple. (More recent scientific and scholarly assessments differ with regard to, among many aspects, the identity of Belshazzar, who is no longer considered to have been Nebuchadnezzar’s son but probably the regent of Nabonidus, the last historical king.) When the image of a mysterious hand appeared and wrote those four cryptic words on a wall (Amichai’s “true and terrible X-ray in letters of white bones and lightening”), Daniel was summoned to decipher them. He translated them for the assemblage as a warning to Belshazzar of the impending fall of Babylon, which would then be divided between the Medes and the Persians. Verses 26–28 go on to give Daniel’s explanation: m’ne signifies that God has numbered [the days of] Belshazzar’s kingdom and now brought it to its end; t’kel signifies that Belshazzar and the Babylonians have been weighed [judged] and have been found wanting; and farsin refers to the word p’res, meaning that the kingdom will be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. In that biblical account, Belshazzar is indeed killed that very night and succeeded by Darius the Mede as the ruler of the known world’s largest empire (although, in later historical accounts, Babylon was conquered by Cyrus, the king of Persia).
Those mysterious words—m’ne m’ne t’kel ufarsin—make for a clever transition to Psalm 137 as the text of the succeeding song in Fine’s cycle. That Psalm describes, in dramatically poignant as well as naturally indignant terms, the human torment and national catastrophe of the Babylonian captivity and exile. It proclaims the victims’ (Israel’s) determination for eventual justice and for restoration of their homeland and sovereignty. Fine has eliminated the final three verses of the Psalm, which contain graphic and unrestrained emotional calls for retribution against the Babylonians.
Psalm 137 leads naturally into Fine’s setting of Halevi’s Ode to Zion as the concluding song, which opens with the image of Zion being questioned as to whether she is concerned about the fate and welfare of her captives. The “captives” here can be interpreted in various ways, including as a composite of the Babylonian captives (who were ultimately allowed to return as a people to Jerusalem); the entire Diaspora following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, which, in Halevi’s time, remained physically exiled and politically bereft of its sovereignty over the Holy Land; and the purely spiritual exile, which could be separated from political circumstances to await Jerusalem’s return as the spiritual center of the Jewish people.
Canticles for Jerusalem received its premiere at Harvard University in 1989.