Yehuda Yannay

Hidden Melodies


When Yehuda Yannay (born in 1937) joined the music faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1971 he experienced a turning point in his creative career.  His family had emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1951 where his career as a composer began.  In Alexander Boscovich, a prominent Israeli composer, Yannay had a  teacher who gave him a solid technical foundation as he explored the current stylistic idioms.  Continuance of studies in the U.S. brought him two more important experiences: working with Ernst Krenek and a total immersion in the music of Edgard Varèse and György Ligeti. 


Thus, by the time Yannay arrived in Milwaukee, he had an intimate knowledge  of the prevalent compositional idioms which he considered important.  Notable in these works was a flair for the theatrical  (so important in his mature music, as well as the films he has made) and a deep interest in aleatoric possibilities.  The latter techniques, together with his doctoral studies of Varèse and Ligeti, lead him to place the sound structure of a composition on an equal footing with the question of pitch coherence.


A complete postmodern composer by the mid-1970s, Yannay did away with the opposition of the conservative versus the avant garde without jettisoning the heritage of classical 20th century composition.  He considered composition a theatrical entity demanding the right stylistic idiom(s) for the experience to be communicated.  This synergy of style and idea, or style as gesture, became as foundational as any other generative  inspiration.  Unlike other postmodern composers who often use style as if it were a tonal area to move into or away from, Yannay’s music never embodies the clever pastiche.  There are no distinct associations with a particular “-ism.”  Rather, each composition has a unique comportment that requires its own stylistic resonance with one of the many idioms brought forth in this century.

The composer also began a dialog with the intellectual and spiritual heritage of Judaism in the mid-’70s.  His reading of Martin Buber’s  Tales of the Hasidim was a crucial experience.  They are pithy evocations of the teachings of the Torah and Talmud, the central spiritual pillars of Judaic life. 


A foundational Jewish mystical premise, that Buber takes from the Kabbalah, is the infinite, indivisible radiance that is the countenance of the Lord.  It is a presence without dimension or boundary for there is no presence-at-hand empty of this inner radiance or hidden light.  The phrase “hidden melody” is a musical transformation of the mystical notion of hidden light.  For Yannay, the  notion of inner Hebraic revelation or inner radiance, became a powerful lens through which he viewed the world-at-hand and his career as a composer.  It is in this sense that the compositions on this CD were given the composite title “Hidden Melodies.”


FIVE PIECES FOR THREE PLAYERS (1994) is a prime example of Yannay’s mature style. The composition exemplifies two familiar topographical features of his music:  repetitive gestures and the continuous transformation of thematic material. The synergy of these techniques, in a context of almost continuous contrapuntal writing, weaves colorful sonic tapestries that glitter with instrumental brilliance. The work was written for the remarkable clarinetist Frankie J. Kelly who inspired the composer to create a work brimming with virtuosity.


There are five movements:  Coming Full Circle, Raindrop Variations, Hyperbreath, Duetting in Light Winds, and Short-Long-Short Dance.  These titles point the listener towards the poetic content of the music.  In Hyperbreath, Yannay quotes from himself (Nine Branches of the Olive Tree) which is on his first innova CD.  In the marvelously exuberant final movement, the Mediterranean atmospherics of Nine Branches echoes in this joyous celebration of Judaic revelation.


HIDDEN MELODY (1977) was written for a concert of music by Israeli composers.  It signifies Yehuda Yannay’s continual engagement with musical enlightenment, that is, the “hidden melody.”  The work is the composer’s response to the traditional cantillations of the Bible performed at weekly Sabbath services and other important observances.  There are no direct musical quotes from this literature.  We hear, instead, the “inner singing” or chanting of the composer via the horn and cello as he recalls this extraordinary tradition.


The music alternates quiet introspective moments with incantational passages of penetrating fervor.  Even the choice of instruments, traditionally associated with expressive music, reflects the Judaic heritage that this composition continues.


In 1982-83, a Fulbright teaching fellowship took Yannay to Stuttgart, Germany.  It had been 31 years since he had been in Europe and the trip produced many compelling experiences for him.  IM SILBERWALD (1983) is the first work of A European Trilogy which specifically relates to these experiences.


The composer has written that he owes the impetus for this work to his wife Marie Mellott who was doing a series of pastel drawings depicting aspects of the Silver Forest which surrounds Stuttgart.  Im Silberwald was commissioned by the American trombonist Michael Svoboda (who lives in Germany.)  It contains twenty segments, varying in length between thirty seconds and one minute for trombone, glass harmonica and tape.  The tape is a continuous looping of electronically generated musical motives centered around the pitch D.  Each section of the composition has a descriptive text which provides the trombonist with diverse expressive springboards for interpretation.  Examples are “Sunday morning: frosty air, thick fog muffles the sounds of a sleepy city,” or “Oh, Oh, that lovely, romantic, picture-post-card Teutonic forest with the Waldhorn sounds.”


For the composer, the German forest not only evokes the glories of Nature but also a vast sense of history, mythology, and the Nazi atrocities of World War II.  As some of the forest is  dying from the air pollution found in this area, the work is additionally a meditation on the deteriorating beauty there.


Im Silberwald is potent music.  There is an introduction of disturbing glass harmonica sonics indicating, in part, the current fate of the forest. The looping glass harmonica gestures (actually tuned water goblets which are rubbed) and the low D pedal project the hypnotic power of the large dense forest.  The subtle departures the trombone makes from its core overtone sounds brings a sense of individuality that offsets the unceasing Kabbalistic presence of the other sonorities.  The work concludes with the opening jarring sonorities of the present.


AT THE END OF THE PARADE (1974-77).  When Yannay first read William Carlos Williams he was immediately captivated by the sound and imagery of the poet’s language. The composition was the first extensive instrumental setting of this pivotal modern American poet.   It was commissioned and premiered by Joel Thome and his Orchestra of Our Time with Lawrence Weller as the soloist.  Yannay’s musical imagination linked the voice of this poetry to instrumental sonorities of striking originality. The use of metal percussion instruments in conjunction with  low bell like piano sonorities, string harmonics and an occasional harpsichord entry produce an ethereal backdrop for the nuances of Williams’s poetry.  The music ranges from gentle floating sonorities and undulating textures to an expressive use of string glissandi.  The work concludes with a lugubrious march of stark power that collapses into the sound of the harpsichord before lapsing into silence. While there is no intrinsic Judaic intent here, it is interesting that the composer later began to associate such metallic sonorities with the Kabbalistic notion of inner radiance referred to above.

   Burt Levy, October 1999


Recorded, edited, and digitally mastered by Daniel C. Gnader

Additional recording  (M. Svoboda) by  Matthias Schneider-Hollek

Mastered at DANGER! pre/post? Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Art work: Marie Mellott

Liner Notes: Burt J. Levy

Text Editor: Clark Lunberry

Executive Producer, Designer: Philip Blackburn


Five Pieces For Three Players is published by Media Press

The Hidden Melody is published by Israel Music Institute

Im Silberwald is published by Smith Publications

At The End of the Parade is published by Levana Music Publications (BMI)

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