Vessels of Courage and Hope

Shulamit Ran

Performing Ensemble: Orchestra
Duration: 12:30
Publisher: Theodore Presser Company
Print Status: Rental

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Vessels of Courage and Hope

Quick Overview

[Historical note: The S.S. President Warfield was a battle-scarred, Baltimore-based luxury-steamer-turned-naval-vessel during World War II when it was secretly bought by the Jewish underground movement Haganah, with funding by the American Jewish community. Under a mostly American volunteer crew it sailed in 1947 to the Mediterranean, loading at the French port of Sète 4,515 Jewish Holocaust refugees (a number ten times the ship’s intended capacity) on to her decks, heading to the port city of Haifa. The British, who had then occupied the land of Israel, (Palestine, as it was then called), attacked the ship upon its arrival in Haifa; and, following a hopeless struggle where the ship’s unarmed crew and passengers fought using potatoes, canned goods and pieces of railing, the Warfield surrendered, suffering major casualties. The ship’s weeping passengers were loaded on to prison ships and forcibly returned to Germany. It was this final stroke of cruelty, though, which caused enormous international outcry, and was one of various factors which led to the U.N. declaration of November 1947 calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, resulting in the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Moments before the Warfield surrendered, she raised the Star of David flag in bold defiance, revealing EXODUS 1947 as her new name. It was under that name that the ship’s tale of heroism captured the world’s imagination in the fifties and sixties, having been further popularized by Leon Uris’ famous book and subsequent motion picture of the same name.]

Composing Vessels of Courage and Hope was, from its very inception, a most unusual and thought-provoking challenge for me. In my purely instrumental, “abstract” music, I have tended to avoid what might be called overtly programmatic writing. Here, however, I was confronted by a specific historical moment, one that for me – as an Israeli and a Jew – holds special emotional meaning. What made the challenge all the more daunting was the complexity of the story, the many points of view through which the story needed to be told, the broad range of human situations and emotions it brought into focus, and the significance – historical and symbolic – of its outcome.

Rather than narrating the events literally through music, I decided to focus my attention on two or three key points in this story, using them as points of entry into the emotional world this event evoked in my own mind. The word “vessel” in the title is for me a very special word. It, of course, refers to a boat, but I am also using it in its broader meaning of “a container”, or “receiver” – in this case of the participants’ complex emotions and of things of the spirit.

The work starts with a fanfare-like opening, rather removed from the actual events and more concerned with a sense of occasion, or ceremony, of writing a commemorative musical statement. Quickly, though, a menacing, nervous little figure takes over and crescendos through the entire orchestra, leading one into the beginning proper of Vessels’ stormy voyage.

My imaginary subtitles for the two main sections that follow would be “fleeing” and “yearning”. The first of these touches on the sheer terror the Warfield’s human cargo must have experienced. Having barely escaped death in concentration camps, these Holocaust survivors have been dispossessed of all that was theirs: family, home, belongings; their past, present, sense of the future. There was only the here and now – uncertain, perilous, terrifying. Sailing the Warfield were their saviors: a handful of heroic men and women whose vision of fighting a cruel and indifferent world’s wrongs must have filled them with death-defying courage and determination. The mingling of different states of being and emotions as the ship made its fateful voyage, and the expression of tragedy and heroism – generalized as well as personalized – together define the musical landscape of much of the work’s center part.

When Dr. Barry Lever [the Baltimore dentist who spearheaded this commissioning project] first talked to me, he said something that left an indelible impression: “The one thing all these people must have had in common was a desire for peace, seeking a place on this earth that would be a home, a haven.” This idea is at the core of the latter part of Vessels of Courage and Hope – a long, continuous melody expressive of great yearning, longing, seeking.

Quite unexpectedly, in composing the final stretch of music I found myself quoting in a modified form a melody which some audience members might recognize. It is “Ha-tikva”, the Israeli national anthem, a word which in Hebrew means ‘the Hope’.

—Shulamit Ran

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by the Albert Shapiro Fund for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the State of Israel and the voyage of the S.S. President Warfield/"Exodus 1947."
Composition Date 1998
Orchestration 3(Picc.) 3(E.H.) 3(E-flat Cl. B.Cl.) 3(Cbsn.) - 4 3 3 1; Timp. 5Perc. Pno. Str.
Premiere May 21, 22, 24, 1998. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Sanderling, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD.

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