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Baal HaSulam

Melodies of Upper Worlds

World premiere recordings

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The Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (1885–1954) became known as Baal HaSulam (‘Owner of the Ladder’) for his Sulam (‘ladder’) commentary on the Kabbalist Book of Zohar. He dedicated his life to the interpretation and dissemination of ideas found in the Kabbalah, the Jewish teachings intended to explain the relationship between God the infinite, and the mortal and finite universe: in other words, the roots and purpose of existence.


Born in Warsaw in 1885, Baal HaSulam was ordained as a rabbi at 19 years old, and served for 16 years as a Dayan (Jewish orthodox judge) and a teacher in Warsaw. In 1921, he immigrated to Israel and settled in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he rapidly became known as an authority and teacher in Kabbalah, particularly amongst fellow Polish Jews. He moved in due course to Givat Shaul, which was then a new neighborhood in western Jerusalem, where for several years he served as the neighborhood rabbi. The 1920s and 1930s saw the publication of Baal HaSulam’s first books, and he was to publish extensively over the course of his lifetime. His most important contributions to Kabbalist literature are generally agreed to be the Perush HaSulam (‘Commentary of the Ladder on the Zohar’), published in 18 volumes in the 1940s and 1950s; and his six-volume Talmud Eser Sefirot (‘Study of the Ten Sefirot’) began to appear in 1937.


In the midst of this period of intensive writing and study, he also spent three years in London, during 1926-28; and whilst in London, in 1926, he composed the cycle Melodies of the Upper Worlds. Kabbalistic music expresses two conditions of Kabbalists: an aspiration to sense the spiritual worlds, and an aspiration to merge with the source of life in the joyful sensation of total perfection. Many of Baal HaSulam’s melodies are composed to text fragments from text such as the Zohar; but since they are wordless, their impact is intended to be direct and communicate with the soul of the listener: thus, the text does not need to be known or studied in advance. Indeed, since Kabbalist writings focus on the emotional and the ineffable, music seems the perfect complimentary medium: a means of depicting (and inducing) changing emotional states over time, without the interference of language. The more familiar a listener is with the idiom, the more subtleties become apparent, as for a student of the Kabbalah. The purpose of creating these new Kabbalistic melodies was partly to encourage students to take them up and sing them frequently.


Baal HaSulam was conscious of being part of a learned tradition and drew upon melodies by his teacher, Rav Admor of Pursov, as well as composing many himself. They were designed for vocal performance and the long-breathed lines are clearly modelled on those of the Jewish chant tradition, with small ornaments included to decorate the line.


The piano arrangements heard on this disc were made by Mikael Ayrapetyan from Baal HaSulam’s manuscripts. In many cases the pieces bear titles which relate to the textual fragments used as the inspiration for the melody: for example, Ki Chilattzta Nafshi (‘You Saved My Soul’), words often attributed to King David; and Bnei Heichala (‘The Sons of the King’s Palace), from a text by the 16th-century Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, usually known as Ha’Ari (‘The Lion’). Several are more generic: the Nigun (‘Melody’) and March – whilst the text, or at least context, of the Kaddish may be familiar from other concert works by Bernstein and Ravel. The cantor-like vocal line of each piece usually sits either high above the pianistic texture in Ayrapetyan’s arrangements, or in the middle of the keyboard as if performed by a tenor voice. The accompaniments are often simple and transparent, spread chords and arpeggios leaving the melodies clearly audible, and often hinting at the harmonies of Russian and Eastern European contemporaries of Baal HaSulam. The pieces are also not structurally complex, with ‘verse’ material repeated, and the gentle sense of waves of music swelling and receding as each piece progresses. This lends the Melodies of the Upper Worlds an improvisatory feel—whilst the repetition of material makes it clear that such melodies could be easily memorised for singing and sharing with others.


Baal HaSulam continued to publish through the 1940s and 1950s. He explained that he named his commentary to the Book of Zohar ‘The Ladder’ ‘to show that the purpose of it is, as with every ladder, that if you have an attic full of goods, then all you need is a ladder to reach it, and then all the bounty of the world is in your hands.’ However, there were major obstacles in getting his works into print—something he believed crucial to spreading the message of Kabbalah—due to political suspicion of the project and the fear that he was pushing a socialist agenda. He was forced to operate the printing press himself to get his books published. He also met with many of the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Israel (including David Ben-Gurion, Zalman Shazar, Moshe Sadeh, Chaim Arlozorov, Moshe Aram, Me’ir Yaari, Yaakov Hazan, Dov Sadan and the great poet Haim Nahman Bialik), and took a particular interest in the Hebrew Labour Movement. He died on the day of Yom Kippur in 1954, having lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and the decimation of the Jewish population of his home country of Poland. He is buried in Givat Shaul, in Jerusalem; and his son, Baruch Shalom HaLevi Ashlag (Rabash) became his esteemed successor, continuing to write on the mysteries of the Kabbalah until his own death in 1991.


Mikael Ayrapetyan

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