Eric Sirota's musical setting
Unetaneh Tokef is probably the most powerful and dramatic piece of Jewish Liturgy. It is recited on Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The setting I composed is accompanied by orchestra (or in this recording by a synthesized orchestra) and is not intended for liturgical use in synagogue on the holidays, but rather for concert use (or for a program on a Selichot evening, for instance).
I will not even begin to touch here the issues surrounding its significance and interpretations of its meaning. The text on the face is frightening and often troubling. I find it better to consider the purpose of the prayer in the liturgy. It should not be considered as an accurate description of the process of judgment and punishment and it certainly cannot be considered an explanation of why given individuals die when they do. Its purpose is simple: If all the other more sedate prayers and poems do not get you to repent and change your ways, then the Unetaneh Tokef will scare you into doing so. This musical setting attempts to be consistent with that.
The Unetane Tokef is divided into 4 sections which I like to call:
1) Awe and Truth
2) Shofars, Soldiers and Sheep
3) Who Shall Live
4) The Three T's (Tishuva, Tifila & Tzedakah)
The piece opens with a shofar call and then strains of the familiar festive melody "Lishana Tovah Tikatevu", cut-off by a very powerful "Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom" The music then moves into a calmer 3/4 time "Emet" which then builds with lots of brass punctuation to end the first section.
Then next section begins with a crescendo from the brass made up of the three types of shofar calls. This leads to the powerful and frightful "Shofars" ending with "Behold the Day of Judgment/ He-nay Yom Ha-din". Then comes "Soldiers", which is a march, where the analogy to the inspection of soldiers is made. This transitions into the much calmer "Sheep" where the analogy to a shepherd counting and looking over his flock is made and a shepherd's pipe is heard. The music then builds in intensity reaching a climax at "vitichtov et gzar dinam".
A fast tense motive is introduced here along with a few notes of "Kol Nidrei" in an instrumental section with the vocal phases "Umalachim Yichafezun" recapitulated. This motive continues through the frightful "Who Shall Live" section, with the refrain of "Brosh Hashana . ." being intoned to the recognizable first 8 notes of the "Kol Nidrei" melody. This section is unrelenting until culminating in "Mi Yaroom / Who shall be exhalted".
The final section "The Three T's" (Tishuva, Tifila & Tzedakah)
brings calm, building to a final crescendo, with the festive strains of "Lishana Tovah Tikateivu" returning in the final bars.
An interesting question surrounds the origin of Unetaneh Tokef and its similarity to the Dies Irae from the Reqium Mass. They have not only similar imagery, but similar texts. While in most cases things flowed from older Jewish sources to Christian ones, if there is a connection here the legends suggest possibly the opposite. If indeed the author, Rabbi Amnon was an advisor to the court of a bishop, and if the Dies Irae had existed then, he would have undoubtedly have become familiar with it, and perhaps included some of that textual imagery in his dying prayer. This "theory" really only gives the vector of transfer, and is based itself on legend. I would be interested to find out if anyone had researched these prayers' origins and have any comment on their connection if any. I find this question interesting because from this I derived the original title for my musical based on Frankenstein: "Day of Wrath" (but now called simply “Frankenstein”) (check it out at https://TheFrankensteinMusical.com)
Translation of Unetaneh Tokef (derived from Silverman and Artscroll)
(Section 1: Awe and Truth)
We relate the mighty holiness of this day, for it is awesome and frightening. Thereon your dominion will be exalted. Thou art established upon thy throne of mercy, sitting thereon in truth. In truth you alone are the one who judges, proves, knows and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates; Who remembers all the things forgotten; Who opens the book of remembrance and the deeds therein inscribed reveal themselves; For the seal of every person's hand is in it.
(Section 2: Shofars, Soldiers and Sheep)
The great Shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard. The angels in heaven are dismayed, and are seized with terror and trembling as they proclaim, "Behold, the Day of Judgment!"
The heavenly armies are to be arraigned in judgment, for in thine eyes, even they are not free from guilt. And all mankind will pass before you as soldiers, inspected one by one.
As a shepherd musters his sheep, and causes them to pass under his staff, so dost Thou pass and record, count and consider every living soul; appointing the measure of every creature's life and inscribing their destiny.
(Section 3: Shofars, Soldiers and Sheep)
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed;
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who in his time and who before his time;
Who by fire and who by water; Who by sword and who by beast;
Who by hunger and who by thirst; who by storm and who by plague;
Who by strangulation and who by stoning;
Who shall have rest and who will be harried;
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be afflicted.
Who shall be impoverished and who shall wax rich;
Who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted.
4) The Three T's (Tishuva, Tifila & Tzedakah)
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.