Commissioned by Cheltenham International Festival of Music

  • 1+pic.0.1(bcl)+bcl.0/2110/perc/hp/str(min
  • Bass Baritone
  • 20 min
  • Hebrew

Programme Note

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

A Talisman - text

2 Avartiel Shamriel Yefiel Shathniel
3 Sussiel Azriel Tseva’ot Metatron
4 Amhiel SHADAI yohach calach yohach
5 "lo tira mipachad laila mechets ya’uf"
6 Bethuel Yehemiel "yipol mitsidechah elef u’revavah
7 miminechah" Atriel Tsadiel Shalkiel
8 Thariel Unha’el Uriel Refa’el Gavriel
9 Micha’el Nuriel elem sit l’afor
10 malki zan shatur azifo tinina
11 ufira yotash

13 ADONAI ADONAI hoveh echah Sumiel g’hADONAI
14 Hiphkadiel eheyeh Busthariel Huvushel
15 Yeho’el kaphkaphokli oosafterin ADONAI
16 Tseva’ot Chai v’kayam ya’ADONAI
17 Hai Hai Hai sai’yada ADONAI hopha ADONAI
18 atah hai yiheye noomiyah ADONAI ADONAI selah
19 Hasih vehalav Meha’el kiel ADONAI ba’el
20 Yekutiel Uriel Hayah’el
21 lishmirat neko Amen Netzach Selah Va’ed Ken Yehi Ratson

A Talisman - translation

1 Lord God Almighty
2 Avartiel Shamriel Yefiel Shathniel
3 Sussiel Azriel - Lord of Hosts - Metatron
4 Amhiel God Almighty - You may go
5 "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth"
6 Bethuel Yehemiel - "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand
7 at thy right hand" - Atriel Tzadiel Shalkiel
8 Thariel Unha’el Uriel Repha’el Gavriel
9 Micha’el Nuriel elem sit l’afor
10 malki zan shatur azifo tinina
11 ufira yotash

12 Lord!
13 Lord! Lord! Ever present - HOW - Sumiel Lord!
14 Hiphkadiel - I AM - Busthariel Huvushel
15 Yeho’el kaphkaphokli oosafterin Lord
16 Lord of Hosts - Lives and Is - Oh Lord!
17 Quickly! Soon! Immediately! Help me! Lord! Appear [to me]! Lord!
18 You were and will be - His words - Lord - Lord - Selah
19 Yasih vehalav Meha’el kiel Lord - In God
20 Yekutiel Uriel Haya’el
21 For protection neko - Amen Eternal Selah Evermore - May Such Be His Will

NB: It has not been possible (as yet) to translate or decipher certain words. Their meaning remains obscure, and they may be obscure ‘names’, acrostics of one kind or another (as in line 4), numbers of Kabbalistic significance whose meanings have been lost, or quite simply, mistakes made by the engraver of the amulet. Hyphens are used in the translation simply to clarify and separate quotations of words from different sources.

Some notes on the text

Angel names were constructed by using a word to represent the character or qualities of the Angel and by the addition of the suffix ‘el’, meaning ‘God’; for example, Gavr = strength, Gavriel (Gabriel) = "God is my Strength". There were believed to be innumerable angels existing in a complex hierarchy, with Metatron at their head as the most powerful angel of all. Where possible, I have attempted to translate or give some indication of the function of the angel names.

The numbers below refer to the appropriate line of the text:

2. Avartiel - an angel whose name is associated with pleas to assist women in childbirth and the prevention of miscarriages.
Shamriel - "My guardian is God"
Yefiel - "My beauty is God"
Shathniel - An angel of silence

3. Sussiel - "My steed is God"
Azriel - "My helper is God". One of the leaders of the Angels of Destruction and an angel who watches over the earth.
Metatron - The greatest angel in Heaven, once the biblical prophet Enoch, who is said to be the link between the human and the divine. He is the chief of the ministering angels and is also the Master of Heavenly Song.

4. yohach calach yohach The four Hebrew letters of the word ‘yohach’ and the three Hebrew letters of ‘calach’ are a seven letter ‘name’ made of the final letters of Psalm 91:11, in other words, a terminal acrostic. Psalm 91:11 reads "For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways". These three words also mean "You may go/He shall go" in Aramaic.

5. Another quotation from Psalm 91 that was considered especially powerful and was quoted frequently to drive off demons. "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth [by day]" Psalm 91:5

6. Bethuel, Yehemiel - Angels who ward off evil spirits
A further quotation (continuing on line 7) - Psalm 91:7 "A thousand shall fall at thy side , and ten thousand at thy right hand; [but it shall not come nigh thee]"

7/8. Atriel, Tsadiel, Shalkiel, Thariel, Unha’el - Angel names found on amulets

8/9. Uriel, Refa’el, Gavriel, Micha’el, Nuriel - These five angel names (including three archangels) put together formed an especially potent and strong ‘spellbinding’ name. In Hebrew the acronym/mnemonic of this group is ARGAMON and it was common to see these names together.
Uriel - "Fire of God". One of the seven archangels, Uriel holds the keys to Hell and watches over thunder and terror. He is an angel of Poetry, Prophecy, Repentance, Light, Music amongst many other attributes and duties.
Refa’el - (Raphael) "Shining One Who Heals", one of the seven archangels. He is sometimes listed as an amulet angel summoned at childbirth. He is charged with healing mankind and the earth and is the Angel of Love, Heat, Science and Knowledge amongst many other attributes.
Gavriel - (Gabriel) "God is my Strength". One of the seven archangels and one of the two highest ranking, he is best known for bringing important announcements to mankind. He is symbolized by the trumpet and is the angel of Annunciation, Resurrection, Mercy, Death and Revelation amongst other attributes.
Micha’el - (Michael) "Who is as God?/Who is like the Lord?" One of the archangels, he is said to be God’s warrior and ruler of the Seventh Heaven. He battled with Satan and his angels and cast them out of Heaven. He prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, appeared to Moses with the Burning Bush and rescued Daniel from the lions’ den. He is the Prince of God, Leader of the Archangels, Viceroy of Heaven.
Nuriel - "My fire is God" His name is often found on charms worn by pregnant women. He is the angel of hailstorms and sometimes manifests as an eagle. He is a ‘spellbinding power’ and is grouped with other powerful angels.

9/11. elem.. ..yotash - meaning unknown.

13. ADONAI - In this and subsequent lines, much is made of the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, YHWH. Palindromes, anagrams and other variants of this name are used freely in the rest of the text.
Echah - "How" The first word of the Book of Lamentations. "HOW doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! HOW is she become as a widow!" (Lam.1:1)
Sumiel - An angel name found on amulets

14. Hiphkadiel, Busthariel, Huvushel - Angel names found on amulets
EHEYEH - "I AM [THAT I AM]" (Exodus 3:14) (God answers Moses at the Burning Bush.)

15. Meaning obscure

16.chai v’kayam - "[The] Lord of Hosts Lives and Is" (Daniel 6:27 - "..for he IS the living God, and steadfast forever..")

18. selah - Let His Name Be Praised

19. yasih vehalav - meaning unknown

19/20. Meha’el, Yekutiel, Haya’el - Angel names; meaning unclear.

21. neko - meaning unknown

21. Amen Netzach Selah Va’ed - written as a four letter acronym/mnemonic on the amulet (equivalent to ANSV), as is customary, meaning Amen Eternal Selah Evermore; similarly KYR, Ken Yehi Ratson, May Such Be His Will


A Talisman