A Talisman

Brian Elias (1948)

A Talisman 2004

2020 - 2110 - perc - harp - strings (65432 min)
Duration 
20
Solist 
Text Author 
Language 
Commissioner 
Publisher 

The amulet that provides the text for this work was intended to protect against the Evil Eye, and was made in Kurdistan in the 19th Century. It is made of silver, is inscribed in Hebrew on both sides and was given to my late mother in 1969 by her uncle, whose family emigrated from Kurdistan to Bombay in the middle of the 19th Century. In an accompanying letter, he wrote, in his inimitable English, "I decided in my heart this holy inestimable Talisman will afford you Relief and check future miseries. I hope it acted favourably for you."

I became fascinated by this strange object and found that the text was highly typical of Jewish amulets. It quotes the names of several angels, lines from Psalm 91 and single words that invoke whole chapters of the Old Testament, such as "Echah" ("How"), the first word of the Book of Lamentations, and "Eheyeh" ("I AM THAT I AM"), the seminal words spoken to Moses at the Burning Bush. Many other words and phrases consist of anagrams, acronyms, inversions, palindromes and acrostics of sacred texts and holy names. Some words remain untranslatable as their significance has long been lost, and yet others may quite simply be mistakes made by the engraver. Most importantly, it became apparent to me that rather than being an object of witchcraft and magic, the amulet was, above all, an object of devotion and a heartfelt, passionate and most moving appeal for help.

The work is divided into two continuous sections entitled RECTO and VERSO so that the outer form of the piece imitates the two sides of the amulet; the second section reflects the music of the first part, and is slightly shorter. Since the text is almost entirely made up of single words and names, the baritone often has a declamatory role although the second part of the piece does contain more lyrical and extended phrases for the voice. As the text is so dominated by angel names, I have given the trumpet, an instrument very strongly associated with Gabriel and other angels, a prominent part.

I am much indebted to Shaul Shaked, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for first transcribing the text from the amulet and for his expert guidance. Jeremy Schonfield, Mason Lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, spent an enormous amount of time with me, going through the text word by word and revealing its riches; I am so very grateful to him for vividly illuminating not only the meaning of the words but their myriad associations. My thanks also to Naomi Shepherd, who was so helpful with the translations.

A Talisman was completed in February 2004. The work is dedicated to my brother Ivan.

Brian Elias, 20th February 2004

Performances 
18.7.04 Cheltenham Music Festival 2004: National Youth Orchestra Sinfonietta/Geoffrey Paterson,
27.1.11 London: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
2
Flute
2nd piccolo
2
Clarinet
1st doubling bass clarinet, 2nd bass clarinet
2
Horn
1
Trumpet
1
Trombone
1
Percussion
6
Violin
5
Violin II
4
Viola
3
Cello
2
Double bass
1
Harp
(Esc)