Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi

Instrumentation: Piano
Duration: 21:00
Premiere: 3/22/98
Pianist Mary Kathleen Ernst
The Derriére Guard Festival, Chicago, IL

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Program Note:
Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi was inspired by the folk song Eliahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), often sung during the closing service of the Jewish Sabbath. The letters of “Chai,” which means “life” or “living” in Hebrew, symbolically stand for the number 18; hence, 18 variations. I decided to give the performer a choice regarding the ordering of the variations as a reflection of my sense of performance as a collaboration between performer and composer (and, for that matter, listener). It also reflects a dynamic conception of musical form. This means that there are 18! Or 6,402,373,705,728,000 possible orderings. In other words, there are six quadrillion, four-hundred-two trillion, three-hundred-seventy-three billion, seven-hundred-five million and seven-hundred-twenty-eight thousand possible versions! I composed this work while in residence at Brahmshaus in Baden-Baden during the summer of 1995. It is dedicated to the Abel family. Their warm welcome will not soon be forgotten, nor Herr Abel’s efforts to establish and administer this studio. It has been recorded by Mary Kathleen Ernst, a major champion of contemporary music, on the Innova label, and by the distinguished pianist Nathan Carterette on his Poets of the Piano – Acts of Faith CD, available both directly, and on Amazon, Spotify, and other streaming services.

Press Quotes:

Poets of the Piano: Acts of Faith:

Poets of the Piano: Acts of Faith  “Carterette tracks the music’s shape well, something he achieves again in Judith Shatin’s Chai Variations on Eliahu Ha’Navi. Here, it is explicitly a Jewish liturgy that is involved, and Shatin uses a Hebrew folksong associated with the end of the Sabbath, a call for the return of Elijah with the Messiah. The variation structure is clear to the ear; there is an almost Beethovenian aspect to Shatin’s workings, both in ruggedness and in deconstructive gesture (try the oscillations of the third variation, Lighthearted). The work came after Shatin had composed Elijah’s Chariot for amplified string quartet and shofar, so clearly there is a religio-thematic link (Elijah’s Chariot was on an Innova disc and reviewed by Maria Nockin and by myself—I also had the privilege of interviewing her—in Fanfare 37:6). One can occasionally hear parallels with Glass’s music (as in Variation VIII, Flamboyant); it would be interesting to hear if those links were as pronounced in a performance that was not preceded by some Glass. The highly Pointillistic nature of Variation XII (With cunning) cedes to the fascinating, almost dismissive chord pairings of the next variation before Shatin proves that tenderness absolutely can be achieved through decidedly post-tonal means. When the theme returns (XX, “Theme”) it carries a similar clarity than does, for example, the return of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This is a magnificent piece of piano music that should be in many, many pianists’ repertoires….” –Colin Clarke (Fanfare Issue 44:2, Nov/Dec 2020)

“…the other contemporary work, the 1995 Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi by Judith Shatin, is particularly wel­come. The treatment of this Jewish song, often sung at the end of Sabbath services, remains almost entirely in a diatonic or pandiatonic domain. Some of the variations are quite pointillistic-indeed I feel the specter of Cop­land’s Piano Variations lurking behind several variations, and one called ‘Majestic’ distantly recalls the slow, chorale-like variation in Beethoven’s Diabellis. It’s a marvelous work and I hope it becomes better known…” –Haskin (American Record Guide, March/April 2021)

“…The most substantial work featured on the disc is Chai Variations, a 20-movement, 21-minute tour de force for solo piano by Judith Shatin that was inspired by the Jewish folksong “Eliahu HaNavi.” Chai, the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is often used to represent the number 18 as well as life, hence Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and this set of 18 brief variations with a theme at the beginning and a recapitulation of the theme at the very end. Ernst shows a particular affinity for this music, having previously recorded a whole disc of Shatin’s music with violinist Hasse Borup which included the formidable solo piano piece Widdershins….”–Frank J. Oteri, New Music Box

“…Judith Shatin’s music has been well received in the pages of this magazine, including by myself. I have commented on her strong ability to create a narrative pulse in her work, calling her a natural story teller. That quality is much in evidence in this large and compelling composition. Chai Variations takes its main theme from Jewish liturgical music (and its name from the Hebrew word for life). The brooding theme is followed by 18 variations, with such titles as “Yearning” and “Pensive,” reflecting differing aspects of the human condition, before settling back to the original theme.” –Peter Burwasser, Fanfare

“…Pieces by Brooklyn native Jennifer Higdon, flutist Katherine Hoover, and China’s Jing Jing Luo serve as appetizers to the disc’s centerpiece — University of Virginia professor Judith Shatin’s 20-movement tour-de-force “Chai Variations.…”
– Bill Meredith, The Palm Beach Post

“…a shapely, convincing set.”
– Steve Hickman, CD Reviews

“…incredibly imaginative creations….”
Terapija ( (translated from the Croatian)

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