In 12th-century Spain, Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures converged, collided and clashed. And in that environment of uneasy cohabitation, Spanish Jewish philosopher, scholar and doctor Judah Halevi found his voice. The poetry he penned, both sacred and secular, liturgical and romantic, is the inspiration for “A Choral Symphony: Halevi,” composed by Washington- based rabbi and cantor Arnold Saltzman.
The hour-long work, featuring six of Halevi’s poems describing his arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land and its holy city, Jerusalem, marks its North American premiere on Sunday. The location, the National Presbyterian Church in the District, feels perfect, noted Saltzman, for it replicates some of the cultural collaboration that occurred in al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. That’s where Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic poets shared and borrowed formats and stylistic elements from one another in an expansive cultural conglomeration.
“It was remarkable,” Saltzman said, “that in a 200-year period, despite religious differences, there was a rich Jewish culture that produced remarkable literary expressions of both a secular and religious nature.”
And Halevi (1071-1140) was the foremost poet of that time, often called the Golden Age. His religious poetry came late in life, and they suggest an ancient Greek odyssey — think dragons, pirates and other fearsome encounters.
Saltzman came upon the poems, translated by scholar Raymond Scheindlin, and felt they would work as a symphony. Like Halevi’s journey, Saltzman’s, too, was lengthy and rocky. The former Adas Israel Congregation cantor from 1981 to 2005, he found himself voiceless, diagnosed with dysphonia, which causes difficulty speaking and made singing impossible.
But he insists that this story is not about his illness, but about his illustrious career as a classical music composer. Saltzman’s compositions have included operas, ballets and symphonies, including “An Israel Symphony,” “Rescue in Denmark Symphony” and “An American Symphony.” He recalled as a young boy learning to play piano by ear from his mother before he could even read the musical notes.
Work on “Halevi,” his fourth symphony, took the greater part of two decades as it met with medical hardships and reinvention. “Losing my voice was a shock,” he said. “And I didn’t know how to deal with it. I had to find another voice.”
The first voice he found, the one that felt just right for him, was as a rabbi. Saltzman returned to study and was ordained as a rabbi in 2008. Since then, he has served congregations in Calvert and Charles counties in southern Maryland, including Sha’are Shalom and Congregation Beit Chaverim, as well as Hevrat Shalom in Rockville.
“I was busy doing other things, working as a rabbi, an educational director and driving 20 to 30 hours a week,” which kept him from working steadily on his symphony. But he found deep connections with his congregants, recalling one member who told him, “God took your voice so you could be our rabbi.”
The Halevi symphony has been another path to asserting a new voice through musical composition. “When I started this work, I had no idea it would be possible to hear it performed,” Saltzman said. “Every aspect of the piece is challenging: It’s long, it’s expensive, it requires a full orchestra, operatic soloists, a children’s choir …. I did it because I had to. I felt connected to it. I felt that it was my journey as well as Halevi’s.”
“I had a difficult journey, too,” he added in a near whisper.
Saltzman likened his compositional approach to that of a painter: “I learned the poems very well and I created an outline and let the poems dictate the shape of the symphonic work. They are insanely long, which makes the work a challenge. It’s like an opera libretto.”
Like Halevi, who penned some of his most compelling and ardent work later in life, Saltzman, 70, found deep satisfaction in the completion of his largest musical composition to date. He heard it performed this past summer at the Alba Music Festival in Italy and hopes it will attract further notice and productions, in the United States and Israel — a Hebrew libretto is ready for any Israeli orchestra.
“I did this because I felt deeply connected to it. Maybe Halevi’s journey was my journey and the difficulty of losing my voice was what sparked me to do this,” Saltzman said. “I was trying to express that journey in a musical voice and everything that implies — both the difficulties and the joys of life. I prefer expressing the joy.”
“A Choral Symphony: Halevi” by Arnold Saltzman, Feb. 24, 4:30 p.m., with American University Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Chamber Singers and Strathmore Children’s Chorus, National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave. NW, Washington; tickets $15, visit spainculture.us.