El Male Rachamim (2013)

Movements:

  1. אל מלא רחמים
    (God, full of mercy)

  2. אני, שקטפתי פרחים בהר
    (I, who pluck flowers from the hilltops)

  3. אני, שהבאתי גוויות מן הגבעות
    (I, who brought corpses from the mountains)

  4. אני שמשתמש רק בחלק קטן
    מן המילים במלון
    (I, who use but a tiny portion
    of the words in the dictionary)

  5. אני, שמוכרח לפתור חידות בעל כורחי
    (I, who am forced to decipher riddles)

 

Notes:

El Male Rachamim (God, full of mercy) takes its title from both the poem by Yehuda Amichai and the litany that inspired it. The Jewish funeral prayer recited by the hazzan accompanies the ascension of the soul and is used to evoke the memory of the deceased. My response for solo piano, written to the memory of György Ligeti, takes a narrative approach to the text. It’s cast in five sections that flow continuously with little pause.

The opening lines of Amichai’s poem turn the ancient prayer on its head: “God full of mercy/If only God were not full of mercy/There would be mercy in the world and not just in him”. These lines are at once shocking, irreverent and deeply heartfelt. The tone of the music is dark and ominous. It pulsates with groans that rise out of the the depths of the piano. At once, the piercing voice of the cantor is heard. There is a terrible breathing throughout and occasional eruptions.

This is immediately followed by a more lyrical, flowing movement.“I, who pluck flowers from the hilltops”, suggests a surface sweetness that conceals an inner crying. There is an expansive quality to the music inspired by the speaker of Amichai’s poem “looking over all the valleys”.

“I, who brought corpses from the hilltops” is a full-on dance of death. The piano rages with percussive blows and Amichai’s contemporary interpretation of the prayer is punctuated with passages that evoke air-raid sirens. The first pause in the work corresponds with the first real conclusion in the poem at the end of the Amichai’s first stanza: “I can tell you that the word is void of mercy”.

The fourth section of the work, “I who use but a tiny portion of words in the dictionary” limits the musical vocabulary to a downward-moving cantorial descent. The atmosphere is at its most openly mournful with a painful, slow inevitability.

Finally we have an image of one who is “forced to decipher riddles”. The movement strives for an apotheosis but is seemingly blocked from reaching it. The simple lyricism of the movement slowly transforms to an exulted memory of the dead before giving up its spirit. The music finally returns, like Amichai’s poem, to the opening invocation and ends with an ultimate exhalation of breath.

—Mohammed Fairouz

 

Poem:

אל מלא רחמים

אל מלא רחמים
אלמלא האל מלא רחמים
היו הרחמים בעולם ולא רק בו
אני, שקטפתי פרחים בהר
והסתכלתי אל כל העמקים
אני, שהבאתי גוויות מן הגבעות
יודע לספר שהעולם ריק מרחמים

אני שהייתי מלך המלח ליד הים
שעמדתי בלי החלטה מול חלוני
שספרתי צעדי מלאכים
שלבי הרים משקלות כאב
בתחרויות הנוראות

אני שמשתמש רק בחלק קטן
מן המילים במלון

אני, שמוכרח לפתור חידות בעל כורחי
יודע כי אלמלא האל מלא רחמים

היו הרחמים בעולם
ולא רק בו

 

God, Full of Mercy

God full of mercy,
If only God were not full of mercy,
There would be mercy in the world and not just in him.
I, who plucked flowers on the mountain,
Who gazed out over all of the valleys,
I, who brought corpses from the hilltops,
I can tell you that the world is void of mercy.

I, who was the king of salt beside the sea,
Who stood against my will before my window,
Who counted the footsteps of angels,
Whose heart lifted weights of anguish
In dreadful contests.

I, who use but a tiny portion
Of the words in the dictionary.

I, who am forced to decipher riddles,
I know that if only God were not full of mercy
There would be mercy in the world
And not just in him.

—Yehuda Amichai