A tale some 600 years old will turn another page Oct. 20, when the multimedia concert “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” has its D.C. premiere. The production, with an original accordion-and-piano score by Bosnian-born composer and accordionist Merima Kljuco, draws on the staggeringly eventful history of the eponymous liturgical volume, whose origins may date as far back as the mid-14th century.
The concert is part of this year’s Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, mounted by the D.C. Jewish Community Center and running Oct. 19-29.
A Haggadah, the order of service used at the Passover Seder, includes a recounting of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The richly illustrated and ornamented volume that became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah originated in medieval Spain at a time of relative harmony for that country’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens. After surviving Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the book turned up in Venice, where, in 1609, a Catholic censor’s inscription seems to have preserved it from destruction in the Inquisition.
By 1894, the Haggadah was in Sarajevo. During World War II, a Muslim librarian at Sarajevo’s national museum hid the book from the Nazis, and during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, another Muslim librarian saved the priceless volume by moving it to a bank vault during fierce shelling.
The Sarajevo Haggadah is “a symbol of survival, and a symbol that inspires respect and tolerance toward different traditions and cultures,” says Kljuco, who grew up in Sarajevo and remembers a society that — before the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s — reveled in diversity. Families such as hers, she said, celebrated holidays with Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbors and felt a bond with multiple cultural heritages.
“It was a very difficult moment for most of us when the nationalists came to power and started to divide us,” Kljuco said by phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Kljuco started playing the accordion at age 12. She lived through part of the war but left Bosnia in 1993, when she was 19, and continued her musical studies in Germany and the Netherlands. About four years ago, a friend gave her a copy of “People of the Book,” a novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah by Geraldine Brooks, who had covered the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal. Kljuco was familiar with story of the Haggadah, but Brooks’s book gave her a jolt of inspiration: She decided to compose a piece of music that would follow the book’s journey through the centuries.
The Sarajevo Haggadah’s unusual illustrations depict, among other events, God’s creation of the world, so Kljuco began her 12-movement composition with a sequence in which her accordion mimics the sound of breath — an evocation of metaphysical and artistic creation. Subsequent portions of the score incorporate fragments of Sephardic melodies and bits of traditional Bosnian music and reference a medieval Jewish-Italian dance. And, Kljuco says, with clusters of notes in the piano’s low register, she “tried to paint musically the terrifying sounds I experienced during the war” in Bosnia.
Kljuco worked on the piece during a residency at Yellow Barn, a center for chamber music in Putney, Vt. That organization’s artistic director, Seth Knopp (a founding member of the Peabody Trio), became the pianist for the work, which grew to incorporate Bart Woodstrup’s video imagery. Woodstrup digitally animated the Haggadah’s illustrations and other features in such a way as to evoke the book’s historical experience. For instance, Kljuco said, the visual accompaniment to a movement she titled “Inquisitor” shows pages of the Haggadah engulfed in flames — until the 1609 inscription by the Catholic censor appears, seeming to extinguish the fire.
Commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” had its world premiere at Yellow Barn in March. It also has been seen in Dallas, San Francisco and elsewhere. At its debut in the Boston area in late March, novelist Brooks experienced the piece for the first time.
“I was completely blown away by it,” Brooks said by phone from her home on Martha’s Vineyard. The range and artistry of Kljuco’s music, she says, was a particular surprise: “I had always thought of the accordion as polka, you know?” Instead, Brooks said, Kljuco “takes you to war with this instrument. She takes you on a journey through sinuous Spanish-inflected music, through Italian music, through music of the Ladino community in their exile. In her hands, it’s such a versatile instrument.”
The piano contributes further atmosphere, Brooks said, and the video “draws on the artistry of the Sarajevo Haggadah but reinterprets it in this delicious feast for the eye.”
For the Boston-area debut, Brooks contributed an introduction and participated in a post-performance discussion, and she will handle similar duties in Washington. Audiences appreciate hearing about “the various hands that saved” the Haggadah over time, she said.
The book, Brooks said, has survived instances of “this recurring disease we humans have of demonizing otherness” and has become “a symbol of those who can stand up against these poisonous ideologies of Us and Them.”
The D.C. performance of “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” is not the first offering in the Jewish Literary Festival — there’s a local-author fair Oct. 19 — but it is being billed as the official opening event.
DCJCC’s chief executive officer, Carole R. Zawatsky, said the production’s use of 21st-century technology to bring “vibrant life” to a 14th-century artifact “encapsulates the dynamism” of the Jewish experience.
“Jews have lived all over the globe and are also always in the process of reinvigorating our own story throughout time and space,” she said.
Wren is a freelance writer.
The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book. Oct. 20 at the Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.dcjcc.org/litfest.