Navigate by "Last Year In Jerusalem" only

Back in the 1980s, when I was living in Israel, I conceived the ridiculous idea of writing a rock opera, which I called "Last Year In Jerusalem". The intention was to tell the story of the founding of modern Israel, from the rise of Nazism through the Holocaust to the War of Independence, and on until the catastrophic transformation of 1982, when for the first time Israel embarked on a war of aggression and occupation, rather than fighting defensive wars as it had been forced to do until that time. I wrote more than a dozen songs, of which several ended up in the garbage later on. The opera required extensive film footage, mostly documentary, though some would have been tailor-made; none of this was achievable of course, or not by me anyway, and so the project never came to fruition. The recordings on this blog are solo guitar, which is fine in one or two cases, but the rest need full orchestration, whether by rock band or chamber orchestra. Who knows, maybe one day - a fuller outline for the rock-opera is presented at the foot of this page.

Click on any of these titles to open the page:

The Covenant
It Won't Happen To Me
The Partisans
The Ragman
Thou Shalt Survive
Child of the Land
The Ballad of Yad Mordechai
Song for Eli
All The Men Are Gone

   The collection entitled “Last Year In Jerusalem” belongs to the novel “A Little Oil & Root”. The idea was that Ari Ben Aaron had produced a series of libretti through which the history of the founding of the State of Israel could be told, starting in pre-Nazi Europe, through the Holocaust, and ending with the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In the novel the next phase never happened, but it still could: the creation of a “rock-opera” that sets the songs to music, has no actors but only singers and musicians, and is performed publicly in front of a large screen which tells the same story visually using the imagery of the songs, and other imagery from “The Argaman Quintet”. This was the project. The only part in existence is the libretto, and my digital recordings to show (very roughly) how the songs should sound. In the following order, though as the notes indicate some of the songs are broken up and spread throughout, where others are sung as whole songs. The links between the songs need to be established musically, using themes from all the songs as in an Overture, and dropping in themes from other key music along the way as indicated (the “Moldau”, some Wagner, the Funeral March from Mahler 1 and the choral part of the scherzo from Mahler 2, hints of the Bruch Kol Nidre and Violin Concerto, hints of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, parts of Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar”, strains of Yerushalyim Shel Zahav etc).

1. THE COVENANT. The opera opens with film footage of the stetls of Eastern Europe and a tapestry of images of Jewish western Europe, all pre-Holocaust. The music playing over this is the opening of Smetana’s ‘Moldau’, all the fragmentary bits before the main theme starts. Credits can go over this as well. The first transition comes when the main theme starts – it is the source for the Israeli National Anthem but the imagery should now be Hitler, to make an oxymoron. The full orchestra rendition of the “Moldau” should fade away and a solitary violin should now pick up the main theme (yes, a deliberate hint at “Fiddler On The Roof” and lots of Chagall imagery available, especially his Fiddler and the White Crucifixion). [In my recording I have played the theme on the guitar.] Zoom in to find the Fiddler, looking like Tevya, on the roof of the Reichstag (or something similar that makes the same point) and down below the burning of the books etc. The song should be sung by a woman, and the imagery on the film needs to pick up the imagery in the lyric. Musically the song wants to be as kletzmer as possible at the start, and as Israeli as possible by the end, but darkly, using kletzmer/Israeli instruments and tones. Each verse should stand alone, so we can feel the transitions from phase to phase (the coming of the Nazis, the Holocaust, the defiance, the revival). The first verse wants to stay as close to the reciting of a poem as possible, with limited music; the music kicks in as the piece picks up speed in the second verse. Where the first phase was focused on the “Moldau”, the second needs to find appropriate pieces of Wagner that can echo around it, even just a familiar phrase dropped in here or there. The song is not intended to be played all in one go, but in four places in the opera. After the second verse, and again after the remainder, there is a strong guitar break that wants to be retained, but with more music added to strengthen it; it can go on as long as needed.

2. IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME. This is listed in the Amethyst collection and not in this collection, because it was written years later; but it needs to be added.

3. THE PARTISANS. We should still be hearing kletzmer in this, but it is not a kletzmer song. My recording lacks the anger and fury that it needs; slowing it down would enable this. The music likewise needs to generate the power of hatred that drives the song. Drums are permissible but don’t make them mechanical; they could take a strongly driving lead between verses. Violin crucial, echoing the melody in the background, but not all the time. The film imagery should come from “The Waters Of Shiloh” in “The Flaming Sword” – this is the song of those who fought back in Europe. The ending should be extended musically after the last words are sung. Something in the beat should hint at explosions, gunfire, the mayhem of war.

4. THE RAGMAN. Pure gloom, and this is where the serious Holocaust imagery should be used. Break the song up, so that Death with his scythe can keep on reappearing like an Ingmar Bergman character at every murderous stage of the journey. First appearance could be as hint of melody at the end of the first part of “The Covenant”. Last appearance should be among the dead of the 1982 war and images of Palestinian refugee camps (not Sabra and Shatila, because that is beyond the date of Argaman’s death). I have a strong feeling of Pink Floyd in the atmosphere of the music for this song, as also for “Child Of The Land”.

5. THOU SHALT SURVIVE. The language of the verses should indicate the film imagery, and where to break up the poem throughout the opera. I like the simplicity of just guitar and voice, but there are ways of adding other voices, other instruments, as minimally and as subtly as can be done.

6. CHILD OF THE LAND. This song plays literary (but not musical) echo-games with “The Covenant” and “The Ragman” – all three tell individual stories that are first the negative impact of the Nazis and the Holocaust, then the positives of going up to Israel. Where “The Covenant” is sung by a woman, “The Ragman” must be a male voice and “Child of the Land” a choir of young voices, male and female; primary school at the beginning, secondary school by the middle, twenties by the end, all providing backing to the single solo voice of the male narrator. Like the other two, we should hear parts of the song at different stages of the opera, with clear musical differences, so that we have the sense of multiple stories being told, interwoven with each other.

7. THE BALLAD OF YAD MORDECHAI. Visual imagery in several of the above includes Israel, but it needs to have been kept to the minimum until now. Yad Mordechai takes us out of Europe and into Israel. In the visual links before it starts we should see imagery of the refugee ships arriving, the early kibbutzim, the pre-Independence leaders, the Arab revolt. Musically the link should pick up the “Moldau” again. The song is a folk-ballad and should be sung complete.

8. SONG FOR ELI. The rhythm and tempo is identical to “Child Of The Land” but it is otherwise musically totally different. The chord progression echoes Dylan’s “Knocking On Heavens Door” and Neil Young’s “Helpless”, so beware of making that too obvious.

9. JERUSALEM. Again, the rhythm and tempo are as above (though the opening C-Em has an echo of Bowie’s “Ground Control To Major Tom” which needs to be avoided; again the music must be totally different. The singer on this occasion is technically God!

10. ALL THE MEN ARE GONE. The theme of this may have been heard already, but now it should take over, including a reshaping of the National Anthem into the tempo of the song.

You can find David Prashker at:

If you would like to include any of the songs on this blogsite in your repertoire, either for paid public performance or to record for commercial purposes, or if you would like to re-use the recordings attached to this blogsite for commercial purposes, contact 

Use of these songs, and/or these recordings, for non-commercial purposes, is not simply permitted but invited.

Words and music by David Prashker

Copyright © 2014 David Prashker

All rights reserved

The Argaman Press

No comments:

Post a Comment