Mark Laubach’s recital at Pine Street Presbyterian Church included the commissioned work by Jeremy Gill, 8 Variations and Toccata on “Betzet Yisrael” in all its onomatopoeic splendor with trembling earth, mountains skipping like rams, and rocks turned into a fountain of waters! The 83-rank Skinner/Möller was more than equal to this challenge, as was Canon Laubach.
– The American Organist, October 2011
8 Variations and Toccata on “Betzet Yisrael” is a set of fantasies on the Jewish chant “Betzet Yisrael,” which is the source of the Christian psalm tone known as “Tonus Peregrinus.” At the same time, it is a reflection on the history of ancient psalmody and the much more recent toccata forms of the late Renaissance and early Baroque (the first tochata appearing in 1536).
Precursors to the toccata include intonazione, which might have used any of the nine psalm tones as their tonal and/or motivic source. In this spirit, my 8 Variations and Toccata uses the “Betzet Yisrael” chant as its source, though it is never heard without embellishment (note that the piece begins, not with a theme, but with the first variation) and it is often completely hidden. Throughout the eight variations of my work and the toccata proper, stylistic attributes of mature toccati abound: running passages, broken chords, improvisatory flourishes, as well as textures typical of more recent organ works (by, for example, Widor and Messiaen).
In preparing to write this piece, I read extensively about Jewish chant and psalmody in particular. In Eric Werner’s The Sacred Bridge, second volume, he cites the following as the basic elements of psalmody: syllabism (note-to-syllable as 1-to-1 correspondence), the presence of a tenor (or reciting tone), melismata (often to punctuate endings of phrases), as well as, and perhaps most importantly, the parallel structure of the psalm texts. This parallel structure, a unique feature of ancient Hebrew poetry, has been preserved by most Biblical translators, and can be observed in Psalm 114 (the text of the “Betzet Yisrael” chant):
a) When Israel went out of Egypt,
b) the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;
a) Judah was his sanctuary,
b) and Israel his dominion.
Each of my eight variations uses a parallel musical structure (basic binary forms), and further references Psalm 114 in that each variation is a fantasy on a verse from the psalm (these are excerpted in the score). This psalm, associated with Passover, is replete with rich imagery, including fleeing seas, skipping mountains, earthquakes, and the metamorphosis of rock into water. My toccata reflects on the following psalm, Psalm 115, which is a more straightforward expression of religious zeal, though it includes at least one compelling image (“the dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence”) that I reference on the work’s penultimate page, before a final, exuberant statement of the “Betzet Yisrael” chant (“but we will bless the Lord”).
8 Variations and Toccata begins with an improvisatory passage that, if sung, could only be understood as a highly melismatic flight of fancy declaimed by a solo voice (and alternates, in Variation II, with a rhythmically regular group chant). It was important for me to begin this way, because in melismata we have the birth of abstract instrumental music: in them, music is temporarily freed from the strictures of the word and may seek its own structure, its own reason. This opening improvisation is answered, at the end of the work, by the tremendous din of the wordless shofar, certainly one of our earliest wind instruments, and 8 Variations and Toccata, taken as a whole, becomes a meditation on the birth of instrumental music.
This work, completed on 30 September 2010, is dedicated to my dear friend Lois Lehrman Grass who has blessed me with countless opportunities to explore what music can be.