by LEONARDO MONTEVERDI
In setting out to write music based on the story of Masada, the first question to be decided was whether the most appropriate means were to be found in opera or in oratorio. There is, naturally, a very strong theatrical element in opera and this 'theatricality' or the possibility of it seemed to be opposed to the nature of the story of Masada. The character of the story is the same as that of the mountains in which it was enacted, both are stark and monumental. For these reasons the oratorio form was chosen- the simplest, least elaborate, of the two alternatives.
The source of the story is Josephus' The Jewish War. Josephus was a man of great ability- apparently as a military leader and certainly as an historian. However, what he possessed in ability he seems to have lacked in loyalty. A Hebrew commander in the revolt of which the siege of Masada was the final episode, he was captured by the Romans, secured the protection of the future emperor Vespasian, witnessed the end of the war and then went to Rome where he wrote this and other works. One might think that scepticism is the best approach to his account of the revolt, but in Masada's case, at least, recent archeological work seems to corroborate his writing and gives no reason to doubt his words.
From Josephus' work, passages have been selected which give the salient points of the story. These passages, in English, are spoken by the narrator. Their purpose is to allow the listener to have a clear understanding of the setting and progress of the siege.
The music which follows the narrations is meant to give expression to what might be the thoughts and feelings of those involved in the struggle - both the Romans and the Hebrews. The texts serve the same purpose. These were found in the bible, in Josephus' writing and in Latin poetry. The original language is used in almost all cases.
For Silva, the Roman commander at Masada, texts from two Latin sources were used: an Elegy by Propertius and lines from Satire X by Juvenal. The Elegy is as follows:
Caesar our God plans war.
Great is the prize, men of Rome.
Furthest earth prepares triumphs
Go forth and make fair the pages of
O father Mars and ye fires of fate that
burn for holy Vesta,
I implore you, may that day come,
ere I die,
On which I shall see Caesar's
chariots laden with spoils
And his steeds oft halting at the
sound of peoples' cheers.
Venus, keep safe thine offspring.
That before thine eyes still preserves
Live through all ages.
Let the spoil be theirs whose toil
has won it.
The first four lines of the Elegy provide the words with which Silva exhorts his soldiers in the third number. The rest of the poem is used as text for number VII.
In the one instance when the chorus expresses a Roman point of view, in response to Silva's exhortation, a Roman soldier's song is used. The following is a translation by Edgar Allen Poe:
A thousand, a thousand, a thousand
we've beheaded now.
One alone, a thousand we've
He shall drink a thousand who a
So much wine is owned by no one
As the blood which he has shed.
The lines from Juvenal are used in the ninth number- at a moment during the siege when the Romans felt that success was sure to elude them. They are sung by Silva. Faced by defeat and the futility of a three year's siege, he is pictured as being extremely skeptical of worldy ambition.
One globe is all too little for the youth of Pella; he chafes uneasily within the narrow limits of the world, as though he were cooped up within the rocks of Gyara or the diminutive Seriphos; but yet when once he shall have entered the city fortified by the potter's art', a sarcophagus will suffice him! Death alone proclaims how small are our poor human bodies.
Since limitations of space prevent a complete account of the remaining texts, only three will be examined. The first number, a prologue, is taken from Psalm 116.
- I love the Lord because he hath heard my voice and my supplications.
- Because he hath inclined his ear to me, therefore will I call upon him Alexander the Great, b. at Pella, c. 356, d. at Babylon B.C. 323. Babylon as long as I live.
9. I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
10. I trusted even while I spoke: "I am greatly afflicted."
14. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all His people.
15. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.
18. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all His people.
19. In the courts of the Lord's house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the Lord.
These lines are used to create a background and setting for the rebellion. They make clear Israel’s devotion to the Lord. Verse 15 presages the outcome of the story. The payment of vows to the Lord recalls an important cause of the revolt- the payment of taxes to the Romans was especially abhorrent to the Hebrew people. It was considered sinful because taxes were supposed to be of a religious nature, which Roman taxes could not be.
The text for number XI is taken from Josephus. It is part of a speech which Josephus portrays Eliezar ben Yair, the Hebrew leader, delivering to his men when he realizes that final defeat is imminent.
Long since, my brave men, we determined neither to serve the Romans or any other save God, for He alone is man's true and righteous Lord, and now the time is come which bids us verify that resolution by our actions. At this crisis let us not disgrace ourselves.
Our fate at break of day is certain capture, but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear.
Let our wives thus die undishonoured, our children unacquainted with slavery; and when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other.
Here the male voices of the chorus interrupt with the lines from Job:
Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.
Ben Yair then continues:
Those men who fell in battle may fitly be felicitated, for they died defending, not betraying, liberty; but as to the multitudes in Roman hands, who would not pity them. Who would not rush to his death ere he shared their fate.
And where now is that great city, the mother city of the whole Jewish race, with her many fortified walls, her mighty fortresses and the glory of her majestic towers? Where is she, the city, the true one, of which we said that God chose her for His dwelling place?
Uprooted from her base, she has been swept away, and the sole memorial of her remaining is that of the slain still quartered m her ruins.
Which of us, taking these things to heart, could bear to behold the sun, even if he could live secure from peril?
Is a man to see his wife led off to violations, to hear the voice of his child crying "Father!" when his own hands are bound?
No, while these hands are free and grasp the sword, let them render an honourable service. Unenslaved by the foe let us die, as free men, with our children and wives, let us quit this life together.
Through number XI the music and texts are intended to reflect the course of the siege. After the eleventh number, as the narrator makes it clear that the defenders of Masada have chosen to follow the course urged by ben Yair, the music and text make no attempt to mirror the terrible final hours of the long siege. They turn, rather, to statements of hope and comfort.
The last of these is an epilogue, a setting of the Kaddish. This is a mourner's prayer but it contains no reference to death. The words are devoted to praise of God and prayers for peace.
The music is, thematically speaking, based upon seven motifs which recur in various guises throughout the oratorio. A variety of approaches contribute to the sonorities. The following is probably an accurate paraphrase of some of the composer's thinking: "I belong to no school. I do not believe in the essential purity or rightness of any single technique or style. I would use any musical tool that was necessary to, and consistent with my purpose.
I believe that there is within us a musical language. It lies beyond and deeper than any question of style or technique and is beyond the reach of the language of words. To express that musical language well and to be understood in that language should be the primary concern of musicians. Everything else is secondary."