Haam Haholchim Bachoshech (The People Walking in Darkness), for SATB chorus and chamber orchestra (2021) | 5′

Commissioned by the Aspen Choral Society under the direction of Paul Dankers, in loving memory of Joan “Jo” Simon.

Program Note

Haam Haholchim Bachoshech (The people walking in darkness) was commissioned in 2021 by the Aspen Choral Society under the direction of Paul Dankers, in loving memory of Joan “Jo” Simon. The chorus wanted, as part of their annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, to have three of the movements of the Handel composition replaced in performance by newly composed movements; in each case, these new pieces were to be choral movements replacing solo or instrumental movements of the Handel. I was intrigued, honored, and a little bit daunted in taking on this task, but then began studying the Handel and grew fascinated with the idea of writing new pieces that would fit smoothly into the flow of the Messiah, and yet be true to my own musical voice. And since I am Jewish and write many compositions in Hebrew, I decided to compose pieces that would use Hebrew texts that are composed in English in the Messiah.

This piece is composed to replace the bass solo aria “The people that walked in darkness” movement of the Handel, using the same text—but in the original Hebrew—from the Book of Isaiah, and is written so as to follow smoothly from the preceding bass recitative “For behold! Darkness shall cover the earth.” The orchestral introduction, over a pulsing bass, is related to the slithering chromatic motives of the Handel aria, but with rhythmic shifts that would not normally be part of a baroque aria. The piece plays throughout, by harmonic and textural shifts, with different shades of darkness and light as in the text; the ending, with its move to a bright D major, shows the light as prevailing, and leads directly to the next movement of the Handel, “For unto us a child is born.”

The premiere of this and its companion movements will be in December 2021, as part of the Aspen Choral Society’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. While they are written to fit into the context of the Handel, they can of course also be performed separately as independent pieces. With their themes of light emerging from darkness, the new pieces are also suitable for Chanukah performance.

—Gerald Cohen

Transliterated text, and translation

(Isaiah 9:1)

Haam haholchim bachoshech rau or gadol,
Yoshvei b’eretz tzalmavet or naga aleihem.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,
Those dwelling in a land of gloom—light has shone on them.

To purchase scores and parts, contact Gerald Cohen.