Toronto composer Charles Heller has breathed new life into Hebrew Melodies, updating the collection of 29 songs made from poems written by Lord Byron and set to old Jewish tunes by Isaac Nathan, the cantor at the Great Synagogue of London in the early 19th century.
Heller said Nathan “got the idea because different countries were starting to become interested in their folk tradition, like the Irish Melodies, a very famous publication of Irish traditional songs.” Nathan also persuaded Byron to write the poems, many of which are based on biblical subjects.
For music, Nathan used melodies from the contemporary synagogue service. They include European folk tunes that had become absorbed into the service over the centuries. The book with the musical settings was published in 1815 and became a bestseller, with some 10,000 copies sold. The poems, however, outlived the melodies.
On the suggestion of internationally renowned Israeli violist Rivka Golani, who commissioned Two Ravens, one of Heller’s previous works, Heller took a look at the long-neglected Hebrew Melodies. He wrote new compositions for four of the songs and rearranged two of them, changing the instrumentation from voice and piano to voice, solo viola and strings.
“Some of the settings of Byron’s poetry I’ve written completely new music for, so it sounds more modern and contemporary,” Heller said. “The end product is like a collaboration between me, Byron, Nathan and traditional Jewish music.”
Heller wrote new music for Oh! Weep for Those, a poem about Jewish homelessness. A proto-Zionist, Byron included the theme of Jewish statelessness in many of the collection’s poems. In Oh! Weep for Those, he wrote, “Oh, weep for those that wept by Babel’s stream/Whose shrines are desolate, whose land a dream.”
An interesting aspect of Oh! Weep for Those is that, in the original music, Nathan quoted a song called Ma Yafit, which every Jew in Europe who went to shul 200 years ago would know, Heller said.
At the time, non-Jewish landowners would get Jews to dance and sing for them and the song they wanted to hear was Ma Yafit. The Jews made fools of themselves, Heller said, comparing the performances to the cakewalk, a strutting dance performed by black slaves in the American south, competing for the prize of a cake. “So, for that reason, the Jews were so embarrassed by this song that they stopped singing it,” Heller added.
German composer Max Bruch incorporated Ma Yafit into his popular Kol Nidrei, a composition for cello and orchestra written in 1880. “In middle of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, there’s this tune that has this notorious history,” Heller said. Bruch slowed Ma Yafit down and used it as a second theme in his concerto.
In the new music for Oh! Weep for Those, Heller alludes to Ma Yafit. “I’ve played around with it,” he said. “It’s a great curiosity. Something to have fun with.”
Heller added that Byron’s poem On Jordan’s Banks, originally set to the music of the Chanukah song Maoz Tzur, cried out for a new composition. “There’s no way anybody today can get up at a concert and sing (it) … because, number one, it doesn’t fit. Number two, people will laugh their heads off. Maoz Tzur is a Chanukah song. What does it have to do with (the) Arabs and camels” mentioned in the poem’s opening line?”
Heller’s Hebrew Melodies will have its world première at the Kiever Shul in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood, performed by the internationally acclaimed violist Barry Shiffman, soprano Stacie Carmona, clarinetist Ori Carmona and a string ensemble from the Royal Conservatory of Music. The program will open with new arrangements of synagogue music. “It’s cantorial music, but arranged artistically,” Heller said. “So it’ll be something quite different.”
The concert will première at 2 p.m. on Oct. 29 at the Kiever Shul, 25 Bellevue Ave. Tickets are $15 and donations of $36 or more will include a ticket and a tax receipt. For more information, visit