In 1975, I was awarded a grant from the National Foundation for the Arts in order to complete a setting of the entire biblical book Song of Songs, based for the most part on the Jerusalem Bible translation. Since my concept was a hybrid of opera and oratorio, I conceived a so-called “operatorio” and called it The Song of Songs, Which Is Solomon’s, after the opening lines of the text. The singers include the Shulamite (soprano), the Shepherd (tenor), the King (baritone), and the Daughters of Jerusalem (a women’s chorus). The work was written at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and in three other cities between 1968 and 1976. Various excerpts have been performed since 1969, but the full work has never been produced.
The poetry has often (but not universally) been regarded in terms of spiritual love from a theological perspective. But it may also be understood in terms of physical love—the literal reading. Both views function in my work, either in mutual antagonism or as complementary forces. The role of the Shepherd is identified with idealism, while that of the King (Solomon) is associated with materialism, symbolizing the erotic aspect. The Shulamite as the beloved requires both the King and the Shepherd, since they represent this dual nature of love. At the end she must choose both of them, which is actualized in Set Me As a Seal, during which both men wrap her and each other in t’fillin (phylacteries, in the Greek). These consist of two small leather boxes, to each of which is attached a long leather thong. T’fillin are a sine qua non of the weekday morning prayers, when one box is wrapped around the forehead and the other is placed on the left arm. Each box contains bits of parchment on which are inscribed four quotations from the Torah. These include the passage from Deuteronomy, “And you shall love the Eternal One, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and your might”—for which I have used a familiar festive Sephardi melody from the Amsterdam Portuguese tradition. That passage from Deuteronomy and words from Song of Songs are then combined.
Although I am not aware whether anyone else has ever set the complete book, parts of this exotic section of the Bible have long attracted composers, for both its sensual poetry and its inherent drama. During the course of my composing labors, a particular favorite of mine—Song of Songs by Lukas Foss—was always in my mind’s ear. Therefore I made a conscious effort to do the opposite of what Foss had so beautifully consummated. For example, whereas he set “Awake, O north wind” as if it were a blustery swirl, I turned my setting into a gentle breeze; and whereas his interpretation of Set Me As a Seal was austere, I created my piece as a lively dance.
This work is dedicated by a grateful worker in the field of musical art to Dr. Steven F. Horowitz, a compassionate and devoted practitioner in the arts of healing.
Sung in English
SONG OF SONGS 8:6
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
Set me as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, for jealousy is cruel as the grave.
The power of love is a burning flame of God.
And you shall love the Eternal One, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you are resting in your house, when you are walking by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates.
SONGS OF SONGS 8:7
Many waters cannot quench love, nor can torrents drown it.
Performers: Clinton Barrick, Piano; Choir of Texas Tech University; Kenneth Davis, Conductor; John Haspel Gilbert, Violin
Publisher: Theophilous Music, Inc.
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