Way back in my university days, my professor suggested I write a paper on the Jewish ceremonial instrument the Shofar, since I was interested in this sort of thing. I never took up that assignment, and now I wish I had.

Years later, Bruce Hill would come home from leading choirs for High Holy Days at Holy Blossom Temple, and tell me how stirring and impressive the sound of the Shofar had been. I never attended one of those services, so regrettably never heard the thrilling ‘Tekiah’ call of the Shofar, and I wish I had.

Now I’m preparing to conduct ‘The Apostles,’ an epic oratorio by Elgar, which uses the Shofar within a large orchestral score. The effect he summons is spine-tingling, reproducing in his mind’s ear the soundscape of ancient Jewish temple worship, along with antique cymbals and gongs. I learned this week that one does not play the Shofar, one blows it. Just like someone does not paint an icon, one writes it.

Finding a Shofar player who can play a rising sixth is a little bit like finding Cinderella –where is the foot that fits the tiny glass slipper? Toronto has many virtuosic and accomplished Shofar blowers, but I’m learning that the traditionally crafted instrument, fashioned from animal horn, really does not play the pitches E flat and C.

elgar portrait

Apparently Hans Richter who conducted the premiere of Elgar’s ‘Apostles’ in 1903 also had a heck of a time finding a blower in Birmingham who could reproduce the pitches Elgar had written. Elgar answered Richter’s woes with an “isn’t it obvious what I meant” sort of reply:

“There is a part for the ‘Shofar’, (the Hebrew Ram’s horn)—of course the real instrument, which I am told is treacherous and next to impossible to use musically, cannot be used: for the sake of effect and contrast I should like the short passage which stands out, to be played on the long trumpet; in the list of trumpet players I see Mr. Morrow is included; . . . Mr. Morrow would, always with your permission, bring his l o n g e s t and S H I N I E S T   T_R_U_M_M_M_M_M_P_E_T!!!! Capable of producing the Shofar “Call”.
That is what I want.”
(from ‘Letters of a Lifetime’ ed. Jerrold Northrop Moore)

I feel like sometimes our Eddy could be a bit of a pain in the brass.

So, it remains to be seen whether a Shofar exists in Toronto with the required notes. Otherwise, we shall enjoy the Shofar ‘Tekiah’ calls on an extremely shiny trumpet.

Stay tuned to find out what happens!

Pax Christi Chorale performs Elgar’s ‘The Apostles’ April 29 and 30, Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto.

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One Response to In search of Shofar

  1. Catherine Robbin says:

    Thanks for this little saga. Now, I can’t wait to hear it, too! Hope a shofar turns up.

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