Life & Culture

The Jewish composer whose music draws on his Sephardi roots

Thomas Adès explains why his latest piece for the Royal Opera House speaks to his heritage


It is no coincidence that Thomas Adès, one of Britain’s most brilliant contemporary composers, included chants from the Adès Synagogue in Purgatorio, the second act of The Dante Project, his ballet score commissioned and choreographed by Wayne McGregor. After all, few composers can boast sharing a name with a Jerusalem synagogue.

And as if one shul in the family was not enough, there’s another, closer to home, in Manchester. In fact, Adès who rarely gives interviews, is heading to the city’s Bridgewater Hall concert venue to conduct a concert performance of the work ahead of the complete ballet’s revival at the Royal Opera House next month.

“Given the family connection, Manchester felt like the right place to put Purgatorio into a concert programme for the first time,” Adès enthuses. One of his ancestors was a founder of the city’s Sephardi Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which opened in 1874 and which today forms part of its Jewish Museum.

He’s poised to go on a roots-finding mission to the shul: “I’ve never seen it before and it will be a real treat. There’s a memorial window to my great-great-grandfather, Habib, who in England called himself Harold.”

Habib/Harold’s name also appears on a document discovered in a time-capsule that turned up buried behind the synagogue’s cornerstone. The glass bottle, sealed with a cork, also contained some newspapers, including an 1873 issue of the Jewish Chronicle

“He was the president of this synagogue in the 1870s, which to me is a very strong, moving link,” says Adès. “On the one hand, a lot has happened in the world and in family since then.

But at the same time it feels recent. And because I am using Jewish melodies, these feelings, these colours, are very much in the music.”

Adès grew up in north London, the son of a poet and an art historian. After studying at Cambridge, he launched early into a meteorically successful career, his fertile imagination and fine-tuned sense of poetic imagery packing a tremendous punch in his music. His operas, including Powder Her Face, The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel, enjoyed runaway success and continue to travel the world.

Over the years he has been artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, made recordings as both pianist and conductor and written, among much else, orchestral works for Sir Simon Rattle and the piano concerto In Seven Days.

The concerto is among several works in which he draws deep on his paternal Jewish roots. Tevot (2007) was inspired by his discovery that the Hebrew word for “ark” or “vessel” also means, in modern Hebrew, a bar of music.

“I wasn’t brought up with Jewish traditions,” Adès says, “but I’m very aware of my Jewish side, of my Jewish roots. I feel connected to a Jewish way of thinking, to the idea that how you express yourself and what you say really matter. I feel the weight of responsibility. And these things go into my music.”

His family were originally Syrian Jews who moved to Egypt in the mid-19th century. “After the 1860s they were first in Alexandria and later in Britain,” he says. “They brought cotton from Egypt and traded it with Manchester and London. They built rather a big business and continued to live in Egypt right up until the Suez Crisis.”

When he was a child, Adès’s father used spend part of every year in the family house in Alexandria. “But then in 1956, under Nasser and the removal of the Mutamassirun [Egyptianised foreign population], out we went, on two counts: for being Jewish and for being English.

That was the end of that chapter. “Some of the family went to Paris, others to Geneva and ours came to England.” It was only when he visited Israel for the first time, however, that Adès heard about the Adès Synagogue, created by a branch of his family.

“It was built in the early years of the 20th century,” he says, “and they have a special form of sung prayer, Baqashot, which only really exists there now.”
His brother gave him a recording of these prayers: “It was sitting on the shelf while I figured out what to do with it.”

Although he created The Dante Project with McGregor, he had free rein to write the music in whatever way he wished, and made the Baqashot recording the heart of the second act.

“In Purgatorio Dante describes big clouds of souls singing psalms. The chants from the Adès synagogue are psalms; in some, the texts are the same as they would be in the poem. I listened to dozens and chose seven. The piece is a fantasia based on these melodies.

“I wanted to use the recordings because I wanted the actual voices,” he adds. “It’s ornamented with a different kind of tuning from normal classical intonation, and whether it’s the Chazan himself or the congregation, the tone of voice is very particular. You couldn’t ask a classical singer to replicate it.”

In addition, the recordings are woven into the fabric of the live music. “It’s as though they are at the back of the orchestra, but they are voices from the past. Some were recorded in the 1970s, others in the 1940s.

But the psalms are from the very distant past, handed down from generation to generation over hundreds, maybe thousands of years. I wanted the music to feel as though we’re not in a specific moment, but in a space which is beyond measurement by date and time.

“I’m English for all sorts of reasons, but Habib Adès, this person from long ago, has had a huge influence on our lives and I wanted him to influence the sound of my music.

"Everything is connected in mysterious ways that we don’t always understand, and I acknowledge this in this piece. The orchestra plays psalms that my ancestors would have heard.”

At its premiere two years ago, the ballet was hailed a masterpiece. And as Adès brings history full circle, his Manchester concert promises to also be a night to remember.

Thomas Adès conducts the Hallé Orchestra at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on October 26. The Dante Project opens at the Royal Opera House, London on November 18.

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