Zohar: Sephardic Concerto for Mandolin and Small Orchestra Larry Sitsky (1934 –

Larry Sitsky was born in Tianjin (Tientsin), China, to Russian Jewish parents. He began learning the piano and composition at an early age. Sitsky immigrated to Australia in 1951, by which time the mystical influences of Jewish, Russian and East Asian cultures had made a strong impression on his style.
For Sitsky, the whole process of composition is a mystical one. In an article by Sitsky on his approach to composition he writes:
“Music is to me a mystic experience, in the broadest understanding of that word; the mystic state can be achieved, even within music, in a number of ways. Taken in such a light, my compositions can then be regarded as biographical milestones on the road to self-awareness.”
For Sitsky, compositional process is inextricably linked to his mystical world-view. Nearly all his compositions are inspired by some type of mystical belief.
Sitsky is an exponent of the pianist-composer tradition. He sees himself as part of a lineage through Egon Petri, Winifred Burtson, Busoni and Anton Rubinstein to Franz Liszt. In particular, the composer cites Scriabin, Obukhov and Vyshnedgradsky as possessing a mystical outlook similar to his own. Sitsky’s unique voice is further enriched by the expressionism of Arnold Schönberg and Anton Berg.
There is a strong Romantic influence in a great many of Sitsky’s works. He criticises the twentieth century for its love of: “maths, technology, systems – the cerebral aspect of music-making – at the cot of humanity and – dare one say it? – emotion”. He is strongly influenced by the Romantic aesthetic of “painting with a broad brush”.
In the preface to her interview with Sitsky, Patricia Shaw reflects upon his Romantic influences:
“his Romantic belief in the importance of passion and expressivity in music, in the rhapsodic nature of his most characteristic works, and in his insistence on the importance of sound over process, of emotion over intellectualism, of reality over abstraction”.
This is not to say that Sitsky is anti-intellectual. Rather, his emphasises the value of intellectualism accompanied by passion and emotion. The mystical beliefs expressed in the kabbalistic text, the Zohar, are characterized by passionate and emotional intellectualism.
The antiquity of the texts of the Zohar is the subject of significant debate. Two main schools of thought prevail. One group believes that the texts were written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yokhai. Bar Yokhai was one of the greatest kabbalists in all history. In the first century CE, he was sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. To escape punishment, Bar Yokhai is believed to have hidden in a cave at Piquin, Israel, for thirteen years. During this time he and his disciples are said to have written a series of texts collectively known as The Zohar. These texts were supposedly hidden from the public until the death of Nahmanides in the second half of the thirteenth century. After this time, a Spanish kabbalist named Moses de Leon (1205 – 1305) allegedly distributed the texts. The alternate school believes that the texts were written by de Leon in approximately 1280. The earliest extant reference to The Zohar is from the Sefer Meshal ha-Kadmoni by Rabbi Isaac ibn Avi Sahulah, which he wrote in 1281. Several other documents dating from 1291 exist, all written by authors living in Spain and contemporaneous with de Leon.
The most important evidence for a mediaeval date for the texts comes from an analysis of the language used. The greater part of The Zohar is written in Aramaic, with the Midrash ha-Ne’elam written in both Aramaic and Hebrew. On the implication of this language for the purposes of dating, the scholar Isaiah Tishby writes:
Several scholars, especially Rabbi Judah Leon Modena, regarded the Aramaic Language as an important indication of the late date of the book and of its pseudepigraphic character [being written in the form of a revelation from God communicated through ben Yokhai to his disciples]. It is quite clear that the Zohar was written for very limited scholarly circles, and that the Aramaic garb was intended to conceal the secrets of the Torah from the ordinary people. But in the tannaitic period it was Hebrew that was the language of the scholars, while Aramaic was the common vernacular, and so a book dealing with mystical doctrines could not possibly have been written at that time in Aramaic. Hence we may conclude that the Zohar was written at a later date, when Aramaic was known only as the language of literary source material, which none but the rabbis could understand, and that the author, knowing exactly the reverse situation obtained in the time of Rabbi Simeon Ben Yohai, thought to give his book an impression of antiquity by writing it in Aramaic”.
Tishby continues with specific reference to the passages in Hebrew:
“The Hebrew of the Midrash ha-Ne’elam is similar in its overall form to the language of the early midrashim, but its specific vocabulary, idioms, and stylistic characteristics bear the imprint of medieval [sic] Hebrew, and its midrashic manner is clearly that of imitation.
With reference to the Aramaic Tishby writes:
[When considering the Aramaic text] the indications of a later date are not so obvious, but linguistic analysis and a comparison of language of the Zohar with known Aramaic sources show that this Aramaic is an artificial language drawn from specific literary source material, and it contains a mixture of dialectical linguistic expressions that never existed side by side in the living language. It [The Zohar] contains words and idioms that originated in medieval [sic] Hebrew and they can be seen through the Aramaic veneer. The poverty of the vocabulary [attested to by Gershom G. Scholem], which contains no more than a few thousand words, and the many errors in word formation and syntax, also show that we are dealing with a late artificial language.
Therefore, it seems likely that the component texts which form The Zohar were written, or at least translated and compiled, by de Leon in the thirteenth century. Despite contention over origins of the text, the concepts inherent in The Zohar certainly date from much earlier than mediaeval times.
Zohar literally means ‘radiance’. The image of radiance and light are found throughout Jewish mysticism. In one mystical interpretation of the Torah, when God said “let there be light”, he was referring to, as the author of Midrash ha-Ne’elam states, “the mystery that shines in the Torah”. Also, it is believed that “in every word [in the Torah] shines many lights”. According to Hayim Vital (d.1620), the radiance of the Torah’s divine light is reflected in the mysteries of the book. When these mysteries are shrouded in their literal meaning, their light is obsfucated. However, when the kabbalistic meaning is considered, the mystery: “is the zohar that shines in every line of Scripture”. Abraham bar Hiyya writes: “every letter and every word in every section of the Torah have a deep root in wisdom and contain a mystery from among the mysteries of [divine] understanding, the depths of which we cannot penetrate”. In other words, the meaning of the Torah cannot be exhausted by a finite number of interpretations. Thus, through a multitude of interpretations the zohar may be best understood.
When asked by Shaw what his music communicates, Sitsky responds:
“Music interests me as a primal force, owing its origins to ritual, magic and mysticism. It is this hidden (‘occult’) power of music that is MY chief concern”.
A similar idea is present in kabbala. In The Zohar, several dyads are inherent in the text: the hidden and the manifest; the esoteric and the exoteric; the inward (penimi) and the outward (hitson); the allegorical and the literal. Such dyads are applied not only to the Torah, but to every sphere of existence, beginning with God, and embracing every aspect of creation.
For Sitsky, the expression of mysticism in music resonates with the value of multiple interpretations:
“For me, music is the correct vehicle for depicting that interest [in mysticism…]. I see the composition of music as a religious act, taken in its widest meaning. It’s the putting down of a belief, in order. I’m putting down the sequence of sounds that I believe will mean something to someone.”
For the music to be meaningful to whomever is the recipient, it is necessary to invest multiple meanings in the composition. The passionate intellectualism which characterizes kabbalistic interpretation is appealing to Sitsky’s aesthetic. As one of the central texts of kabbala, The Zohar embodies these concepts. For the performer of this work, it is necessary to endeavour to interpret the music in as many way as possible, so as not to ‘darken possible lights’. Jan Sedivka’s performance of Sitsky’s music sheds light on the issue of freedom of interpretation. In an interview with Shaw, entitled ‘Larry Sitsky’s music for violin and Jan Sedivka’, Sitsky gives insight into negotiations between the performer and himself on the issue of interpretive freedom: “either consult [me] and I will alter, or alter the damn thing yourself”. Further, paraphrasing the words of Sitsky, Shaw writes that “he preferred Sedivka to fake and/or change notes in order to preserve the spirit and gestures of the piece”. This relates to the influence of Rubinstein’s ideas on Sitsky regarding performance:
“…it’s very clear that certain pieces were rapturously received by the public because of what he injected into them. The same pieces played today by our text-conscious performers appear to be ‘dead’ and uninteresting. So it’s the performing tradition that comes from Rubinstein that interested me and whether the tradition could be re-used”.
For example, in Zohar: Sephardic Concerto for Mandolin and Small Orchestra, Sitsky does not specify which notes are to be played with tremolo. Rather, he notes that it should be added “as appropriate”.
One of Sitsky’s most well known operas of recent times, The Golem, is based on a story from kabbalistic legend The Hebrew word golem appears only once in the Bible (Psalm 139:16). It means unformed, amorphous, and refers to the state of Adam’s body before God breathed life into it. The Zohar has been referred to “not a single unified work, but a great literary anthology consisting of sections from various sources”. The rhapsodic nature of the concerto is perhaps a result of the composer’s Romantic outlook, as well as reflecting the structure of The Zohar and, indeed, the idea of a golem
The concerto is based on three thematic units; the first is staid, passionate, and full of bravado. It is presented at the very beginning of the concerto by the mandolin. Drones played by low strings are featured with this melody, along with occasional piano interjections by percussion. The melody progresses mostly by step, ornamented with turns, octave doubling, and tremolo. The melody remains dissonant against the drones until the final downward flourish resolves the melody upon a low G natural.
Following this, the mandolin presents the second thematic unit. This melody is in many ways the opposite of the first – it is “dance-like”, fast and irreverent. Bongo drums provide accompaniment to the mandolin’s theme. After several bars the bongos are joined by a clarinet playing a soft, held note in its low register. Following this, the flute and clarinet play a slow descending fragment taken from the previous melody’s closing flourish. The second thematic unit also finishes with a downward flourish. This time it is augmented, taking longer to reach a point of rest on the tonic pitch.
A brief cadenza follows taking its material from the previous two melodies. This cadenza is constructed around a quickly rising figure which slowly descends, reminiscent of the closing flourishes of the previous two thematic units. The third thematic unit is stated after the cadenza, its tempo placed somewhere between that of the first and second themes. However, unlike the first two melodies, the third is heavily syncopated, and dotted rhythms predominate. Furthermore, the drone accompaniment in this thematic unit is more densely textured than in the case of the previous melodies. Closure is achieved once again by virtue of a descending flourish, but this time resolution to the tonic is delayed. A variation on the third melody is then presented, with accompaniment provided by the electric piano. Only after this variation is resolution to the tonic finally achieved.
The following sections use variations on the material presented thus far. Once again, the structural spans are defined by long downward flourishes terminating on a low G natural. One such flourish ushers the return of the second melody. As earlier, a dance-like character is aided by bongo accompaniment. Low strings are added with punctuating pizzicati. Unlike the earlier statement of the second thematic unit, the wind instruments do not reiterate pitches of the previous flourish, but instead provide simple harmonic support. Throughout this section, the mandolin plays double-stop chords.
The third iteration of the second dance-like thematic unit is presented at this point, accompanied by bongos and electric piano. Tension is heightened by the increased tempo, together with the introduction of mandolin double stopping and increasingly dense accompaniment. The tempo continues to increase at the beginning of the next section. Tension is finally resolved with the entry of a variation on the second melody. The mandolin’s silence towards the end of this variation allows the audience to focus its undivided attention on the orchestra.
Like the first short cadenza, the material used in the final cadenza is drawn from all three thematic units. The central part of the cadenza is constructed around a “quasi banjo” series of strummed chords followed by a descending triplet flourish. This marks the entry of a lone tenor trombone holding a single pitch, followed soon after by the electric piano and strings. The work draws to a conclusion with a fragmentary re-presentation of first thematic unit.

© Michael Hooper 2001