The following is a guest post from Dr. Uri Golomb (Editor, Israel Music Institute) and Dr. Ronit Seter (Jewish Music Research Centre, Hebrew University Jerusalem), both of whom recently visited the Performing Arts Reading Room to explore Mordecai Seter materials in the Music Division’s collections.
February 26, 2016 marks the centenary of Mordecai Seter (1916-1994), one of the Israeli Five, or the founders of Israeli art music. His magnum opus, the oratorio Midnight Vigil (Tikkun Ḥatzot, 1961), for soloist, three choirs, and large orchestra, has been regarded as an Israeli masterpiece, one that established a unique national music style. Seter won the first music prize awarded in British Palestine (Eretz-Israel), the Engel Prize (1945), for his Sabbath Cantata (1940). His Midnight Vigil won for him both the first major European prize for a stereophonic-radiophonic work, Prix Italia (1962), and the prestigious Israel Prize (1965). In 1983 he was awarded the Israeli ACUM Prize for lifetime achievement.
Born as Mark Starominsky in Novorossyisk, Russia, Seter immigrated in 1926 with his parents to British-mandate Palestine, and in 1932 pursued music studies in Paris. His primary teacher at the École Normale de Musique de Paris was Nadia Boulanger. In 1937, he returned to Tel Aviv, and shortly afterwards composed his Sabbath Cantata for soloists, mixed choir and strings. This composition, praised in British Palestine as unprecedented, displayed Seter’s hallmark syntheses of Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern Jewish) liturgical and paraliturgical melodies and Renaissance polyphonic techniques. Seter’s creative output can be roughly divided into his choral period (1940-1951); music for chamber ensembles, especially strings (1950s); orchestral music, including works for choir and orchestra (1957-1966); and his late, austere, abstract yet vivid works for chamber ensembles and solo piano (1970-1987), well fitting his Hebraicized original name to Seter, meaning secret or hidden.
Seter was an intensely dramatic composer. His orchestral compositions include several dance-theater works, among them two ballets commissioned by Martha Graham, The Legend of Judith (1962) and Part Real, Part Dream (1964). These annotated scores by several conductors are held in the Martha Graham Collection in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. The correspondence between Graham and Seter reveals a profound mutual admiration. As well as composing the musical score for the two ballets, Seter provided key ideas in their dramatic-symbolic structure. In the case of Part Real, Part Dream, there was no pre-set narrative, allowing Seter even greater freedom in fashioning the ballet’s musical-dramatic structure. Both works combine commanding expressivity – powerful quasi-tonal and structural tensions and uneasy resolutions – with an equally prevailing sense of unity and cohesion. Judith is structured as a chaconne; Part Real Part Dream (entitled Fantasia Concertante in its concert version), as a series of variations. Seter also gave Graham permission to use two of his other works, Variations for orchestra (1960) and Sonata for three violins (1953), as music for one ballet, Jacob’s Dream (Tel Aviv, 1974), later renamed Point of Crossing (New York, 1977). The Martha Graham collection at the Library of Congress contains additional items related to her collaboration with Seter, including relevant photographic materials.