Mordecai Seter, Midnight Vigil

By Yuval Sheked, Hebrew University

Written for the concert Composing A Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, performed on May 31, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Midnight Vigil (in Hebrew tikun hatzot) refers to an ancient custom. While living in the land of Israel, leaders of the people used to gather in the middle of the night to study the Bible and engage in good deeds. Later on in the Diaspora, following the destruction of the second Temple, the tikun had been practiced by persons of all social strata. It had become a service held at midnight (according to the Zohar Book of Kabbalah – a moment of good will, when God enters Paradise to play with the Righteous), including prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems) reflecting the exile and expressing the yearning for redemption. It had been believed that the tikun might help to bring about the “acceleration of Messiah’s steps”.

The first version of Seter’s Midnight Vigil was completed in 1957, written for oboe, trumpet, harp, percussion and unison singing of Jewish Yemenite traditional songs. It had been commissioned by director and choreographer Sarah Levi-Tanai for her Inbal Dance Theater. In 1959 Seter set the music for symphony orchestra and entitled the piece Yemenite Rhapsody. The work’s third version incorporated an orchestra and a monophonic choir. It had further been developed to a radio oratorio with libretto by Mordecai Tabib (including traditional Jewish Yemenite song texts and piyyutim by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1573, called ha-Ari, Rabbi Haim Vital, 1543-1620, and Rabbi Haim David Yosef Azulai, 1724-1806, called Chida). This fourth version won Seter the Prix Italia in 1962. The final version, a full-fledged oratorio for baritone, narrator, three choirs and symphony orchestra completed in 1961, is in fact the work’s fifth incarnation. It had been premiered in the framework of the 3rd Israel Festival in July of that year. For this version Seter was awarded the Israel State Prize in 1965. The composer revised the score for the last time in 1978.

The dramatic work consists of a Prologue and three scenes and concentrates on the spiritual experience of an individual worshipper who sets a Midnight Vigil alone at a synagogue. While praying he sees visions which reflect his innermost yearning for redemption. In the first scene he approaches God with legends, supplications and lamentations, and sees – and hears – the Exile. The second scene evokes visions of the High Priest serving at the Temple and voices of the dead. Finally the worshipper sees the Dream of Jacob (Genesis 28) in which the Land of Israel is being promised again to Jacob and his descendants and erupts in a ritual thankful hymn of praise. The gathering of the congregation for morning prayer at the synagogue puts an end to the visions of the praying individual. This Epilogue of the oratorio confronts the dreaming individual with reality and is cast as an uprising, then gradually vanishing wave of murmuring structured as a nine-part perpetual canon.

The participating three choirs are located at three places on the stage, as far away as possible from each other in order to support the antiphonal structure characteristic of the music. They represent symbolic figures: the Divine Voice (lyric, polyphonic, in the form of a motet), the Legend (recitative, with typical melismatic ending formulas), and the People (Yemenite Jewish traditional songs).

To a certain extent, Midnight Vigil is a summary of Seter’s compositional achievements up till the 1960s. Portraying a kabbalistic vision of redemption in Zion, it is among the first explicit manifestations of a mystic aspect characterizing Seter’s oeuvre which later gained an ever increasing significance. The work is imbued with renaissance aesthetic ideals and musical forms, which Seter considered optimal to ensure the East-West synthesis he aimed at.