Menorah – Christos Hatzis

Menorah for violin and piano (2019)

Duration: 11 minutes
Video performance premiere: December 13, 2020

Marc Djokic violin
Christina Quilico piano

Bravo Niagara! | video
Photography (“Last Folio”) by Yuri Dojc
Adrian Thiessen & Fourgrounds Media Inc. | producers
Jeff Herd | production manager

Commissioned by Bravo Niagara! (Christine Mori, Artistic Director) with financial support from the Ontario Arts Council and the Azrieli Foundation.

“Commissioned by Bravo Niagara! for the pre-eminent Israeli violinist Shlomo Mintz with the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council, “Menorah” is a technically demanding composition for violin and piano. The premiere took place on December 13, 2020 as a music video with violinist Marc Djokic and pianist Christina Quilico. It was presented as part of the Voices of Hope online festival commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. It is cast in two contrasting movements, “Shabbat Blessing” and “Kaddish Yatom”depicting two opposite psychic patterns manifesting at times of personal and collective crisis, one of tightly holding on to something old and trusted and another of questioning it and, with it, our shared understanding of humanity and its shuttered assurances. Not being a Jew myself, it is this larger canvas that has allowed me to enter the subject of the Holocaust and document my own psychic reactions to it, particularly at a time in our collective existence when dark clouds are again assembling in the horizon and, if we do not study and learn from history, we will be condemned to repeat it.

“Shabbat Blessing” begins with superimposed right- and left-hand pizzicatos on the violin giving way to a devotional Jewish-sounding melody. For a while, the piano accompaniment sounds like flickering stars: a cycle of ‘threes’ and ‘fours’ in the high register of the instrument undisturbed by the earthbound violin melody. The cosmic number ‘seven’ is present and hidden everywhere: in the audibly rotating ‘threes’ against ‘fours’ present in the violin pizzicatos and in the right and left hands of the piano, in the hidden “digit sums” of the tempo markings (52, 43) and in the ‘three-to-four’ metric modulations appearing downstream and disturbing the original peacefulness of the music. Soon, this prayerful calmness of “sevenness” gives way to impassioned and unsettled music which still looks at melodic and harmonic tradition for answers to the impasse of the moment. Finally, tradition is suppressed, and the principal tonal motifs of the violin become transformed and incorporated into atonal (twelve-tone) statements which, to me at least, represent a systemic embrace of reductionist logic at the pivotal moment when faith fails. I was thinking here of Arnold Schoenberg, the father of 20th Century musical modernism, who retorted with such rationalist means to the intolerant “classicism” of his time in order to exorcise the rampant and uncontrolled antisemitism and the ascendancy of Nazism in his home country. The soulful four-note “Jewish” motifs of the previous violin melody now become mere tetrachords: a set of non-functional cogs in the mechanical “communism” of the twelve-tone system.

“Kaddish Yatom”begins with a sudden and devastating shuddering inside the low strings of the piano. From within this shuddering, the growing moans of the violin become increasingly audible. After a brief silence, spasmodic and dehumanized gestures by the two instruments break out unexpectedly, separated by silences or quiet moments. Even these quiet moments, however, (distorted tonal memories, often in tatters) serve only to highlight the disconnectedness and trauma of the victimized psyche. The concluding statement may sound musically more agreeable to the listener, but it is no less tragic. It represents a fictional and anachronistic musical conversation between Richard Wagner, a documented anti-Semite and Adolph Hitler’s favorite composer, and the Jewish musical pioneer Arnold Schoenberg who had been demonized by the Nazis as the face of musical decadence. Here, the music of the opening of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”is constantly interrupted by strict iterations of twelve-tone rows in unsettling tempo and register displacements. (The longest such iteration is borrowed from “Through A Glass Darkly”, an earlier composition of mine, in which this row serves the same purpose as in “Menorah”.) After a couple of arguments and counterarguments, the two musics rise ever higher in frequency towards the starry sky of the first movement: a D-major chord in which the ratios of the musical intervals and their projection in the realm of rhythm are identical. The composition could have reached a peaceful ending here, but that would have been construed as wishful thinking by a gentile composer. Many years ago, when I was a graduate composition student working on my Ph.D. with American composer Morton Feldman, Feldman had mentioned something to the effect that “there can be no honest music after the Holocaust.” That statement had a profound impact in me. While I don’t entirely agree with it, I did pay heed to it in “Kaddish Yatom”. Suffice to say that “Menorah”does not end in the starry sky.”

Christos Hatzis