Can Heaven be Void? (Ist der Himmel leer?)
Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano, Narrator and Orchestra
Based on the book by Dr. Baruch Milch "Can Heaven be void" edited by: Dr. Shosh Milch-Avigal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAKfGjLePBg)
And parts of Paul Celan poem "Engfuerung" Libretto edited by: Dr. Shosh Milch-Avigal and Ella Milch-Sheriff English Translation: Helen kay, Sally Whyte Publisher: C. F. Peters,Leipzig.
World Premiere: Israel, 2003, Symphonette Ra'anana.
2 Flutes (piccolo), 2 Oboes (English Horn), 2 Clarinets in B flat, 2 bassoons, 4 Horns, 2 Trumpets in C,
3 Tromobones, Timpani + Percussion, Strings
About the work:
My father's diary, which had revealed to me the true story of his life as well as a personality I had never really known, did not let me rest. I knew I had to write something connected to this painful and terrible text.
When I started rereading his book it felt as if some pages stood out and forced themselves into my awareness. I took the marked pages to my sister and together we edited them so that they could be a basis for my composition.
Sometimes the work was unbearably difficult for me. The thought that it was my own father who was talking about all the horrors he went through left me full of tears, unable to continue. In order to go on with the composition of the music, I had to detach myself emotionally and to imagine that I was writing about a stranger and not someone so close to me.
In Paul Celan's poem “Stretto” I found everything I could look for and integrated it into my father's text.
The composition is written in a simple and clear musical language and is not a conscious attempt to describe the text in musical notes, but rather to give it a suitable background. In the composition there are three songs on texts by Paul Celan. these is also the contract between my father and his family and the Ukrainian farmer who hid them. It is sung at first on a Jewish melody that later becomes typically Christian. I hoped to convey through the music how absurd it all seemed to me when I read the contract for the first time and tried to imagine the surrealistic situation. A family taking upon themselves a commitment by signing a contract the way one buys real estate, so that someone will save their lives.
The third song is a prayer and elegy interwoven with the text of my father's cry to God. The same cry that ends with the question: "Can Heaven be Void" which is the name of both the book and the composition.
My sister, Dr. Shosh Avigal, an important theatre critic, director of various cultural institutions, adviser, researcher, and lecturer on theatre at many universities, was also my dearest friend. When my father, may he rest in peace, wrote his memoirs of World War II, he made the two of us swear to have them published after his death.. It took nine whole years before the book was finally published.
It was Shosh who was the driving force behind the project. She traveled to Poland, and insisted on writing a Hebrew translation that would do justice to the original Polish version. I will never forget how she dragged me to the very places where the terrible things my father wrote about had happened. It was a shattering experience that will remain with me forever.
The work was first performed 5 times in Israel, in March 2003. The reaction of the audience, musicians, music lovers, audiences of all kinds left me overwhelmed.
I dedicate this composition to my sister Shosh Avigal who passed away in February 7th, 2003 from Breast cancer. Blessed be her memory.
The work was performed in Israel, Germany (Berlin, Duesseldorf, Bochum), Poland (Warsaw, Opole), USA (Chautaqua festival, Vancouver Symphony), Lithuanina (Vilnius).
Similar as in Schönberg's work "The Survivor of Warsaw", Mrs. Sheriff also immortalizes the horrors and the pain with a hand of a master, through appropriate and dramatic use of vocal and spoken parts...
The music is written with great sincerity and clarity. It conjures up spiritual sounds, and, as in Schubert's songs, it is supportive of the background, the essence and the interpretation.
Ora Binur, Ma'ariv, 30.3.2003
What an exiting revelation. The music is built upon fragments of the terrible holocaust memoirs of Dr. Baruch Milch, the father of the composer. Its impact derives from its simplicity, from its asceticism. Mrs. Sheriff does not whine nor does she scream out. Quite to the contrary. That is why it is so powerful. Jewish and Christian musical motives create a terrifying echo. The text (edited by Shosh Avigal) holds a sharp dialogue with the music.
Hanoch Ron, Yediot Acharonot, 30.3.2003