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The Eternal Stranger, for narrator and orchestra

Ella Milch-Sheriff's The Eternal Stranger piece was inspired by a dream Beethoven had in which he imagined himself transplanted to Jerusalem.

Ella Milch-Sheriff was born in Haifa, Israel, on September 1, 1954, and lives in Tel Aviv. She composed The Eternal Stranger to mark the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, working on commission from the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Teatro Massimo Palermo in Sicily, and London’s BBC Radio 3. The narration is based on a text by the Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol. The score is dedicated to conductor Omer Meir Wellber, who led the premiere (with German narration) with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in February 2020; Eli Danker was the speaker. These are the American premiere performances, and the first performances of the piece in its English-language version.

The score of The Eternal Stranger calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (1 player: glockenspiel, triangle, cymbal, guiro, whip, temple blocks, darbuka [Egyptian drum], bass drum), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 18 minutes.

“I have discovered that it ought not to be,” Adrian Leverkühn, Thomas Mann’s tragic composer in Doctor Faustus, said entering the final stage of his mental breakdown. “The good and the noble, what people call human…. It will be taken back. I shall take it back.” Leverkühn meant Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, especially the jubilant final chorus celebrating universal human brotherhood, enlightenment, and humanity as a positive force in the world. Mann published his pessimistic novel on the heels of World War II when the horrendous scenes of the death camps were displayed for all to see, their hideousness exceeding anything the human imagination could conceive. “How can ‘Germany,’” Mann asked, “whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind’s concerns?” One of Germany’s most important 20th-century philosophers and social critics, Theodor W. Adorno, mourned the loss of poetry after Auschwitz; lovers of Beethoven shuddered at the Nazis’ appropriation of his music and attempted to reclaim it for the better part of humanity. Beethoven anniversaries wake the beast—they force musicians and concert organizers to rethink Beethoven’s legacy and find ways to reconnect him with today’s audiences who are less ready to accept claims of his universality.

Nobody knows this better than the Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff, daughter of Holocaust survivors and an artist with a penchant for difficult topics. A graduate of the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, Milch-Sheriff is one of Israel’s most performed composers. She is a recipient of a lifetime achievement award from ACUM, the Israeli organization of composers and authors, the Israeli Prime-Minister Prize, and the Rosenblum Prize for outstanding achievement. Three of her major works concern the Holocaust: Can Heaven Be Void (2003), a cantata for mezzo-soprano, narrator, and orchestra, uses fragments from her father’s Holocaust diary in Poland; Baruch’s Silence (2010), a chamber opera for eight singers and fourteen instrumentalists, addresses the same topic; The Rat Laughs (2005), Milch-Sheriff’s first opera, based on Israeli writer Nava Semel’s novel of the same title, tells of a 5-year-old Jewish girl given to Polish farmers to be saved. Her 2018 opera, The Banality of Love, concerns the relationship between the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Arendt's philosophy professor at Freiburg and later a member of the Nazi Party.

The Eternal Stranger, a monodrama for actor and orchestra, is similarly personal in tone. Commissioned jointly by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Teatro Massimo Palermo, and BBC Radio 3 for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, The Eternal Stranger engages with Beethoven’s legacy in a contemporary setting. The work premiered in Leipzig in February 2020, with Omer Meir Wellber, the work’s dedicatee, conducting and the Israeli actor Eli Danker reciting the text in German. Wellber and Danker also presented subsequent performances in Palermo (July 2020) and Manchester (February 2022), and will be featured in the present performances.

With The Eternal Stranger Milch-Sheriff offers a brilliant, original twist on traditional treatments of Beethoven. The inspiration comes from a letter Beethoven wrote to his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, from Baden in 1821. Overcome by sleep in a carriage on his way back to Vienna, Beethoven had a strange dream in which he took a very long journey, “as far even as Syria, as far even as India, back again, as far even as Arabia,” coming finally to Jerusalem. “The Holy City prompted thoughts of Holy Scripture,” and the dream inspired a funny little canon Beethoven notated in his letter, using his publisher’s name as text.

In The Eternal Stranger, Beethoven, the symbol of universal brotherhood, finds himself a stranger in a foreign land. Instead of bringing Beethoven’s music to the Middle East, the composer takes the awkward, lonely musical genius out of his cultural milieu and makes him confront a foreign soundscape in which he is forced to experience the limits of human universality. In the dream world Milch-Sheriff creates, Beethoven’s loneliness, exacerbated by the physical handicap of his deafness, becomes a deep-seated cultural alienation, an inability to speak the language of the land and understand the gestures of its people. The mention of Syria in Beethoven’s letter and the occasional use of Arabic with Syrian dialect in the text connect The Eternal Stranger with the contemporary refugee crisis.

The text’s author, Joshua Sobol, is well known for working with controversial subject matter. Sobol’s Hebrew poem “The Wandering of the Eternal Refugee and the Fight Against Despair,” translated into German and English for Milch-Sheriff’s monodrama, describes the multilayered sensation of being a stranger in a foreign land. Milch-Sheriff sets one-sixth of Sobol’s original text, her narrator recounting experiences of despair that range from complete incomprehension to passionate love of the world, his longing for a common life, the loss of his mother tongue, and his attempt to use his body as a tool of expression. The narration ends with a final address to an unnamed entity that provided the last hope for the protagonist. There is no direct reference to Beethoven or his letter in Sobol’s text. But the overarching topic—the loss of communication—is related to the composer who, by becoming deaf, suffered the most devastating loss for a musician. The accusation of misanthropy also identifies the protagonist as Beethoven, whom contemporaries often described as ill-natured and quarrelsome.

Milch-Sheriff’s music evokes Beethoven more explicitly than Sobol’s text. She builds the first part of the work on Beethoven’s “O Tobias” canon, fragments of which are audible in the low strings and bassoon even before the narrator enters. Various fragments from the canon permeate the orchestral texture in the section in which the protagonist’s longing for even the most banal everyday exchange with fellow human beings is the most pronounced. Milch-Sheriff illustrates the whispering of insects in the grass with the flutes and piccolo playing the canon in three parts, pianissimo and speeded up. Toward the end of this section almost every instrument plays a different rhythmic variation of the canon, the flute, clarinet, viola, and first violin entering closely in a four-part canon. The narration stops so that the narrator can listen to the melody of the canon that rises to the surface out of the chaotic musical tapestry.

Unlike her narrator, Milch-Sheriff uses a multilingual musical palette. The music begins with ethereally high strings on A, ruffled by B-flats. Against this high register, double basses open the space downward to the dark crevices of the night. The extreme range carves out a musical space for dreams, hallucinations, and nightmares, the latter communicated in anxiety-ridden modernist language like that of Arnold Schoenberg’s Holocaust cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). From this dreamscape a Middle Eastern contour emerges, drawn by a lone oboe that gradually invites other woodwinds to come and help shatter the fear building up repeatedly in the orchestra. Fear is eventually dispersed by the narrator’s confession of love for men, animals, plants, and nature, which he delivers in the lilting triple meter of a Viennese waltz. The Viennese waltz does not communicate in this strange land, however, and the section closes with a bitter acknowledgment that such love does not cancel hatred against the foreigner.

In the section of greatest emotional intensity, the personified mother tongue calls to her lost son. Milch-Sheriff builds the music around a narrow-ranged eight-note ostinato. The mother tongue evoked in the text emerges from the music as Jewish-Arabic accented solo violin playing, answered by the solo bass clarinet. The instrumentation is significant: Milch-Sheriff assigns the generically Eastern Mediterranean sound at the beginning of the work to the oboe and the English horn; violins and clarinets, typical instruments in klezmer music, lend this section a Jewish color, despite the melodies’ Arabic tone. In her Can Heaven Be Void, Milch-Sheriff puts Jewish and Christian music into conversation. Here she makes Arabic and Jewish music interact with each other as well as with Western modernist tropes and Beethoven’s music.

The loss of the mother tongue spurs the narrator to try to speak in the wordless language of his own body. Neither German, the language of the narration at the premiere, nor English, the language of the Boston performance, is the mother tongue of Sobol, Milch-Sheriff, or Danker, who utters both languages with a slight accent, appropriate in a work about being a foreigner. In the section following the address of the mother tongue, the protagonist takes the Arabic drum, the darbuka, and, first hesitantly then with growing confidence, tries out rhythmic patterns until he engages the orchestra in conversation. The language of the body finally breaks through the barriers to communication; what words could not achieve, the rousing rhythm does. It wakes the orchestra, and, as the narrator says, resurrects the dead in a dream and gives them back their voices. Yet Milch-Sheriff’s “voice of exploding joy,” which breaks out in a unison brass fanfare at the end of the section, lacks the positive energy of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” its impermanence casting doubt on its potency.

In the final section, the world of dreams reappears with its Middle Eastern colors and the ostinato from the section about the mother tongue returns with dotted rhythms and with an additional low-range second voice. The broadening of the range reopens the musical landscape to dreams. Sobol does not specify whom the narrator addresses in this part, who or what used to be the only source of light in the dark and godless world. The music that began on A shadowed by B-flat fades out on the shadow note, B-flat. As he had in previous performances, Wellber follows The Eternal Stranger seamlessly with works of Beethoven, in this case the Funeral March from the Eroica Symphony No. 3 followed by the Leonora Overture No. 3. The pairing suggests that in Milch-Sheriff’s vision, Beethoven has to experience becoming a stranger, a refugee in a foreign land, before his message of universal humanity can once again be heard with sincerity.

Klára Móricz

Klára Móricz is professor of music at Amherst College. She is author of Jewish Identities: Nationalism, Racism, and Utopianism in Twentieth-Century Music (2008), In Stravinsky’s Orbit: Responses to Modernism in Russian Paris (2020), co-editor of Funeral Games in Honor of Artur Vincent Lourié (2013), and editor of Béla Bartók Complete Critical Edition, vol. 24, Concerto for Orchestra (2017).

Composer Ella Milch-Sheriff on her piece The Eternal Stranger

The work was commissioned for the occasion of 250 years of Beethoven, initiated by Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber, to whom this work is dedicated. It all started with Beethoven’s surprising and relatively unknown dream about which he wrote to his friend and publisher Tobias Haslinger on September 10, 1821. This dream deals with a very long journey that he undertook, “as far even as Syria, as far even as India, as far even as Arabia” and finally he arrives in Jerusalem. There, he experiences some kind of religious experience and his friend Tobias appears. Beethoven describes a musical canon he heard in this dream and includes the canon in his letter to Tobias, even using his friend’s name as lyrics to the music (Canon “O Tobias!”, WoO 182).

This dream inspired the Israeli playwright and author Joshua Sobol to write the text that inspired me to compose The Eternal Stranger.

This work is about a stranger, a refugee or any other person who finds himself in a hostile environment with no legitimate reason to be rejected but the fact that he or she is different, looks different, moves different, speaks differently.

But the stranger is a human being who has the same desires as every other human being. Beethoven’s dream enabled me to use vast musical connotations from my home country of Israel, and the sounds of my childhood—a mixture of Arabic music, Jewish music of all kinds (Eastern and Western) as well as the old European world.

Beethoven’s canon makes an appearance in the piece, especially in the first part, modified in various ways. It is mixed by Middle Eastern sounds into two completely different worlds that meet but perhaps fail to connect at all.

Ella Milch-Sheriff, October 2019

There are two verses in Arabic within the English text of The Eternal Stranger. They are translated as:

Ibni! (My son!)
Wen inti? (Where are you?)
Wen inti ya ibni? (Where are you my son?)
Ibni alkhabib. (My beloved son.)

Bilurh’at bidun kalimat (In a wordless language)
karwi shauwq alqalb (he recounts the hearts)
lil aswat alati akhabuha. (for the voices he loved.)