The greatest of these is love

The greatest of these is love

And the Greatest of These Is Love, by Alla Borzova (2012).

This work was commissioned by Gail Archer and premiered at Central Synagogue, New York City in February, 2013.


1. The Rose Window (by Matisse)

2. “Seek and You Shall Find” (“The Crucifiction” window by Chagall).

3. “I Will Pour Out My Spirit Upon All Flesh” (“Joel” window by Chagall).

4. “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (“Elija” window by Chagall).

5. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”(“The Good Samaritan”  window by Chagall).



The title of the piece quotes the famous passage from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:13) “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

The piece was inspired by the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, located at the historic Union Church of Pocantico Hills in Westchester County of New York State. There are nine windows by Chagall and one window by Matisse at the church.  I selected four Chagall’s windows and Matisse’s rose window as a source of inspiration for my piece.  Two of Chagall’s windows depicted the subjects of the Old Testament (“Joel” and “Elijah”) and two-of the New Testament (“The Crucifiction” and “The Good Samaritan”).


The village of Pocantico Hills is a gateway to the Rockefeller’s estate, called Kykuit.  The church, which current building was built in early 20s, has been a place of worship for Rockefeller family. The windows were commissioned to the artists by Nelson and David Rockefellers, sons of John Rockefeller, Jr. When I visited the church for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the intense colors and light, emanating from Chagall’s windows. At the same time I felt being at “home” there, probably because both Chagall and myself came from Belarus. Chagall was born and lived his childhood and a part of young adulthood in Vitebsk, a city in Belarus.  In early 20s  of the last century he came with his wife and daughter to Paris and France became his second home.  I arrived in the U.S. with my husband and daughter from Minsk, a capital of Belarus, and made my second home in Unites States in 90s.  I live in Westchester, where the church is located.


My composition is a set of variations on two themes, introduced in the first movement (The Rose Window) and developed in subsequent four movements. All movement are performed without a break. All Biblical quotes were selected by Chagall. I made them the titles of my pieces (rather then brief names of the windows), as they perfectly reflect the content of my music.


1. The Rose Window (by Matisse), located above the chancel, was a memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (mother of Nelson and David Rockefellers), who admired Matisse’s talent.  The window was the last work of the artist, who died in 1954. The mood of this abstract window is that of peace and harmony, prayer and contemplation. “The colors of light blue, green, yellow, and white are …set in perfect balance. The curving shapes are similar but each is unique.  Each petal form is different…suggesting…the three dimensional qualities of a leaf, a shell, or the human form”. It is “both unity and diversity”.  (from the book Matisse &Chagall at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, by Smith McKelden). On a windy day, the moving branches of the tree, planted outside the transparent window, add “an element of motion” to the window. Musically, this piece is a theme and two brief variations. At the end of the second variation the second theme appears, a quote of the Belarusian folk song, the lament of a girl parting with her beloved, who is going to the war.  This is one of the most beautiful Belarusian songs and one of my personal favorites.


Windows 2-5 were created by Chagall, who maintained the strong interest in Biblical themes and characters (both from Old Testament and New Testament) throughout all his life. A master of color and light, Chagall often told that his understanding of them comes from love.  Chagall is also one of the greatest mystics of 20s century. “In every work of art”, wrote Chagall, “must be present always a large part of the mystery”. Otherwise the piece would not  “have power to move”.  (Chagall was the favorite artist of Messiaen, another great French mystic of 20thcentury).


2. “Seek and You Shall Find” (“The Crucifiction” window by Chagall). This window is dedicated to Michael Clark Rockefeller, a son of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who, at the age of 23, was lost while on an anthropological expedition to New Guinea.  As his brother Steven wrote, Michael’s short life was “a seeking for knowledge, for artistic beauty, for spiritual insight”. The window depicts the crucified Christ and akneeling figure at the foot of the cross with the face lifted toward Christ.  An angel gently prostrates his hand toward the figure. The bright shadows of blue color (a color of love for Chagall) dominate the window.  Musically, this energetic piece transforms Theme 1, introduced in the “Rose Window”.  The counterpoint to this theme has syncopated rhythm, influenced by African music.  The impetuous movement is interrupted twice by the meditative reminiscence of the Theme 2 (Belarusian song). At the end of the piece the movement stops suddenly, just as Michael’s life stopped.


3. “I Will Pour Out My Spirit Upon All Flesh” (“Joel” window by Chagall). The window was dedicated to the memory of Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was four time elected governor of New York. The central figure is that of a prophet Joel, believed to have lived in Judah around 400 BC. Chagall depicts him a deep contemplation on the scroll of Torah.  In the time of the plague of locusts, Joel delivered a prophesy that only the power of God can save Judah from destruction.  The hands of God, symbolizing the pouring out of the spirit, are placed near Joel’s head.  The shadows of green color dominate this window. The tune of this variation piece is a combination of Theme 2 (Belarusian song) and Haftarah trope, one of chants, used in synagogue to read the Torah. I was surprised to discover that both Belarusian and Jewish themes were very close musically (as they both originated in the same geographic area). I explored that similarity to write this movement.   During the last passage of the tune in the organ pedals, the imitation of the sounds of shofar is heard in the manual. Chagall placed shofar above Joel’s head. Shofar, an ancient horn, is blown in synagogue during holiday services of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kipur (Day of Atonnement).


4. Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (“Elija” window by Chagall). Elijah was a Hebrew prophet, who lived in the early 9th century BC. The window depicts his ascent to heaven in the whirlwind in the chariot of fire led by horses of fire.  The brilliant yellow color suggests both fire and light and Chagall masterfully represents the whirlwind in the confusion of horses’ heads and chariot wheels. One of critics compared Chagall’s dynamism with Hasidic dance, which is the surge of the soul up toward God like a flame. For this movement I used the old Hasidic theme (Nign), recorded by a prominent Jewish musicologist Beregovsky in  Vitebsk. It is possible that Chagall could hear this tune when he lived in Vitebsk.  The music is a fiery double fugue on that theme, combined with a transformed Theme 1 from the “Rose Window”.


5. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”(“The Good Samaritan” window by Chagall). This window is dedicated to the memory of John D. Rochefeller, father of Nelson and grandfather of Michael Rockfeller.  The large window dominates the rear wall of the church opposite Matisse’s rose window.  It is the last window that the congregation sees leaving the church.  Steven Rochefeller wrote, that, this window calls to “ethical action in the world…guided by the spirit of love and compassion”. The window, one of two in the church depicting New Testament, illustrates a parable from Gospel of Luke, when Christ tells a story of a beaten and dying man, saved by a stranger, “the good Samaritan”. While the main theme of Matisse’s window is contemplation, this window depicts love in action.  It has the vibrant spectrum of color, which fills the sanctuary with light.  Rich palette of blue is the central theme of the window, while other colors add the three-dimensionality. Musically, the movement follows the story, describing the fight; the beaten man, left to die; and the appearance of Samaritan.  As the theme of salvation I used Tone 2 of “obikhod” (traditional tunes), a part of Orthodox service. The theme repeats several times, becoming more and more ecstatic, and leads into the majestic climax, where the Theme 1 (the opening theme of the entire composition) is treated polyphonically, both in regular appearance and in augmentation. Ringing chimes (motive of the Belarusian folk theme-Theme 2), end the composition as a triumph of divine Love.


I am grateful to cantor Gerald Cohen (Scarsdale synagogue and The Jewish Theological Seminary), who kindly provided to me with the Haftarah trope. The composition was commissioned by and dedicated to Gail Archer, a concert organist and professor of Vassar and Barnard Colleges in New York state.


© 2013 Alla Borzova

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