Five Hebrew Love Songs

Carolynn Everett writes this week’s blog about a close encounter with the Five Hebrew Love Songs.

As I write this, we are less than two weeks away from our next concert, and a feature of this program will be Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs”.

Way back in July 2014 we performed this suite, and I must admit that I found the rehearsals hard going. Hebrew is not an easy language to ‘learn’, and the music is quite unusual, so I suspect I was not the only one who struggled!

The week before that concert I contracted a throat infection, and it was impossible for me to sing. I booked a seat at the back of the chapel for the concert, so that I could leave easily leave if/when I started to cough. And so, as a member of the audience, I heard the choir singing “Five Hebrew Love Songs” – and it was simply beautiful.

After this experience I was delighted to learn that we would be repeating this piece for this year’s August concert. Of course, it is still difficult, and I still struggle with the Hebrew text, but …

Earlier this year we were on holidays in Germany, and we spent a few days in a little town called Speyer – population around 55,000. We were looking for somewhere roughly half-way between Frankfurt and Baden-Baden, and Speyer fitted the bill! We learned that this town has a remarkable (and simply enormous) Romanesque cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other attractions include a very fine Jewish museum: during the 11th century Speyer was home to one of the most important Jewish communities north of the Alps. We thoroughly enjoyed our several days there.

After our holiday it was back to Sydney, and back to Thursday night rehearsals. I am always interested in ‘the story behind the song’, and so one evening I looked at the programme notes on the inside cover of “Five Hebrew Love Songs” … and there it was! A mention of Speyer – the town we had visited just a few weeks previously, almost by accident!

To my surprise, I discovered that this suite was first performed in Speyer, in 1996. Whitacre’s notes don’t tell us exactly where in Speyer this first performance took place, but I was intrigued to discover that he was only 26 when he composed this extraordinary music, which was originally scored for soprano, piano, and violin.

You may remember that the text was written by Whitacre’s then-girlfriend, the soprano Hila Plitmann, and his program notes conclude with these lovely words…

“These songs are profoundly personal for me, born entirely out of my new love for this soprano, poet, and now my beautiful wife, Hila Plitmann.”

Eric Whitacre and Hila Plitmann were married in 1998. How very lovely!