The Shofar in Music: A New Calling for an Ancient Instrument

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A classical piece written in 2011 for trombone, shofar and orchestra, Tekeeyah brings audiences "to tears."

The advent of the High Holidays brings with it one of the most spiritually symbolic and powerfully evocative rituals in Judaism — the blowing of the shofar.

While the repurposed ram’s horn has traditionally been used to announce the day of God’s impending judgment — and as the formidable war cry of the Israelites — its soulful, piercing bark has made a number of appearances in music, ranging from classical to jazz and pop.

Madonna, trumpeter Lester Bowie and composer Herman Berlinski are just a few of the musicians who have been attracted to the wild and untamed sound of the shofar. Recently, composer Meira Warshauer brought the shofar into a concert setting with her piece, Tekeeyah.

Written in 2011 for trombone, shofar, and orchestra, Tekeeyah is the result of a collaborative effort between Warshauer and Israeli-born trombone soloist Haim Avitsur.

After meeting as guest artists with the Western Piedmont Orchestra of North Carolina, Warshauer came to Avitsur with the idea of writing a piece for him featuring the shofar, which quickly led to a joint exploration into the technical capabilities of the instrument. Essentially a crude trumpet lacking finger holes, valves or any other method of regulating the flow of air to change pitch, the shofar’s range is severely limited.

Upon hearing the shofar’s first keening passages in Tekeeyah, it is immediately clear that Avitsur manipulates the instrument through special techniques to create the effect of notes sliding from one to another, similar to the trombone. According to Avitsur, Warshauer’s pioneering use of the shofar is “getting people to recognize its potential as a serious musical instrument.”

Commenting on the irony of the shofar’s sluggish development in music despite its longevity, Avitsur notes that “at 3,300 years old, the shofar has had the longest career of any instrument, but it is still only a baby. The more often pieces like Tekeeyah are played, the more familiar people will become with the sound and capabilities of the shofar.”

This period of stagnancy in the shofar’s development is not the first time in music history that an instrument has endured underuse. The late 18th-century invention of the keyed trumpet contributed significantly to the practical use of the trumpet as a solo instrument. However, the trumpet’s inextricable connection to the military, in addition to the technical limitations of the instrument’s previous incarnations, condemned it to a secondary role in orchestral performance for the next hundred years.

Captivated by the shofar’s striking sound and appearance, Avitsur said that audiences are “brought to tears after every concert; Jewish or not, people are speechless” by a tone that “tears through your insides.”

With the High Holidays on the horizon, Avitsur said, “We will soon have our yearly reminder of the shofar’s potential.” For those who can’t wait, Tekeeyah is available on YouTube here and on iTunes as part of the album Warshauer: Living Breathing Earth, featuring Haim Avitsur with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra.
 

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