Seter, Mordecai

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SETER, MORDECAI (Marc Starominsky ; 1916–1994), Israeli composer. Seter was born in Novorossiysk (Russia) and immigrated to Ereẓ Israel in 1926. In 1932, he studied in Paris with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger and graduated in 1937 from the Ecole Normale de Musique, returning to Ereẓ Israel the same year. In Tel Aviv he taught harmony, form, and counterpoint over the following five decades. In 1951, he joined the faculty of the Israel Conservatory (later renamed the Rubin Academy), Tel Aviv. In 1972 he became a full professor at Tel Aviv University and taught there until his retirement in 1985.

In 1937, composer Joachim *Stutschewsky lent him a volume of *Idelsohn's Thesaurus (Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (Sephardi Jewish tunes), which inspired him and became a source of melodies for his first acclaimed composition Sabbath Cantata (choir and orchestra, 1940). Idelsohn's book and his own research into traditional Middle Eastern Jewish tunes, forming his collection Niggunim, served as a springboard to Seter's first period of composition in the 1940s, including Motets (1940) and Festive Songs (1943–49).

Seter's second period, in the 1950s, focused on chamber music. His Ricercar (for violin, viola, cello, and string orchestra; string quartet version, 1953–56, both a triple fugue and a variation form) won the International Rostrum of Composers Prize (unesco, Paris, 1961). Ricercar was also staged as a ballet by the Batsheva Dance Company, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Ballet Rambert. In his third period, which began in the late 1950s, Seter turned to orchestral music. His first orchestral works were Sinfonietta (1957) and Variations (1960, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra commission).

His signature work, Midnight Vigil (1957–61), was written first as a small ballet, commissioned by choreographer Sarah *Levi-Tanai for her Inbal Dance Theater. It was based partly on Yemenite tunes portraying a kabbalistic vision of redemption in Zion. Its fourth version, a 31-minute radiophonic oratorio, won him (with the librettist Mordechai Tabib) the Prix Italia; and the fifth and final version, a 43-minute oratorio for soloist, three choirs and orchestra, brought him the Israel Prize. All versions of Tikkun Ḥaẓot, as most of Seter's orchestral works, were premiered by conductor Gary *Bertini, who was one of Seter's composition pupils in the late 1940s. In the early 1960s, American choreographer Martha Graham commissioned Seter to write two ballets: Judith and Part Real Part Dream (Fantasia Concertante). A third ballet, Jephtah's Daughter, was commissioned for the Batsheva Dance Company. His last major symphonic-choral work was Jerusalem (1966).

Following the national and international successes of the 1960s, Seter surprisingly began refusing any more commissions, reduced his contact with performers, rejected institutional positions and began to write introverted and original chamber music, both in terms of style and technique. From 1970 until his last work in 1987, he wrote approximately half of his oeuvre – mostly unknown works today: 46 paradigmatic late-style compositions, roughly half for the piano and half for small chamber ensembles. Most of these works are based on his own modes (comparable to both Stravinsky's series for his late works and Messiaen's modes), ranging over 12–25 diatonic notes for each mode. His modes create unity and coherence in terms of melody, counterpoint, and harmony, but his notation, rhythms, and forms remain rather conservative. Among his late works are the set Chamber Music 1970 (including Intimo, Epigrams, Automn, Requiem), Concertante (piano quartet no. 1, 1973–81), Events (1974), and four string quartets (1975–1977). Notable among his works of the 1980s are his Piano Quartet No. 2 (1982), Violin and Piano (1985), and his piano works Sonata (1982), Dialogues (1983), Opposites Unified (1984), and Presence (1986), all premiered by Ora Rotem, who recorded two cds of his piano works of the 1980s, issued before the composer's death.

Seter was perceived as a composer with a highly individual style. He considered renaissance and baroque forms, such as the toccata, motet, cantata, chaconne, and passacaglia, as optimal for the coveted East-West synthesis, believing that these forms could potentially be compatible with the Oriental concept of music. His techniques and style attracted composers to study his work, especially his peers Partos and Boskovich as well as composers of the second generation (*Sheriff, *Orgad, and *Braun). His special status among the founders of Israeli music was symbolically cemented during the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's millennium concert, programming Seter's Midnight Vigil along with Bach's B Minor Mass and Beethoven's Ninth.


ng and Grove Music Online; P. Landau, Mordecai Seter (1995), a 24-page booklet, including a short biography, work list, bibliography, and discography; R. Fleisher, Twenty Israeli Composers (1997), 108–19; R. Seter, "Yuvalim be-Israel: Nationalism in Jewish-Israeli Art Music, 1940–2000" (Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 2004), 249–339.

[Ronit Seter (2nd ed.)]