Milhaud’s Cantata from Proverbs dates from 1951 and is scored for treble voices with the delicate trio accompaniment of oboe, cello, and harp. The work was the Ernest Bloch Award commission for the United Temple Chorus, to whom it is dedicated, and was written while Milhaud was teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California. It received its premiere the same year by that chorus at a concert in Lawrence, New York, conducted by Isadore Freed.
For its three movements Milhaud excerpted passages from three proverbs or chapters of the biblical Book of Proverbs (mishlei), Nos. 23, 9 and 31, in that order, which he set according to the English translation of the Masoretic text of the Bible. He had intended originally to assign his own descriptive titles to the movements—L’Ivrognerie et ses suites (The Drunk and His Fate); Le Banquet de la folie (The Banquet of Folly); and La Femme forte (The Strong Wife)—but he did not retain these for the printed score.
The first movement is expansive and flowing, while the second and third exhibit dancelike figurations and motifs. The third is the most complex, with a three-part fugue.
The Book of Proverbs belongs to the so-called “wisdom literature” of the Hebrew Bible, known as k’tuvim, or “the Writings,” and contains not only moral, ethical, and religious principles and maxims, but also keen observations on human nature and human behavior.
The first movement, verses 29–35 from Chapter 3, “Who Crieth, Woe?”, addresses the consequences of overindulgence. The second, verses 13–18 of Chapter 9, “Woman Folly,” portrays an unworthy woman as the epitome of thoughtlessness and foolishness. This is in stark contrast to the virtues of the ideal wife depicted in the third movement, set to verses 10–31 of Chapter 31. This particular passage is separated from the earlier part of the chapter by its acrostic form, a poetic device whereby each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is probably one of the most familiar parts of Proverbs, commonly known by its opening two Hebrew words, eshet ḥayil, which is also often used colloquially as a term of endearment to describe a treasured woman or wife who has all possible desired attributes. Its most common English translation, “a woman of valor,” is unsatisfactory. “Valor” is neither accurate in this case (the word ḥayil appears only three other times in the entire Bible with reference to a woman, but not in the same context) nor applicable to the description of valued qualities cited in the text; and its military connotation in modern English (even if confined to bravery) is misleading, as is “virtue,” which has been attempted by some translators. The problem remains to be solved, and no alternative suggestion has gained currency. Yet we intuitively know what it signifies in traditional Jewish perception: nothing less than the “ideal woman” or “ideal wife,” from the vantage point of traditional Jewish values and accolades, who is, in contemporary parlance, “all things to all people” in her family, but not excluding herself. Actually the entire poem—with its enumeration of her attributes, literal or symbolic—is the only meaningful “translation” of the phrase.
In traditional Jewish homes this acrostic is recited or sung by the husband, supported by the family, to his wife at the table of the weekly Sabbath eve dinner, prior to commencing the meal. It has been set to numerous tunes for that function. The Milhaud setting here is, of course, strictly for concert performance.
Sung in English
I. WHO CRIETH: WOE? (Proverbs 23: 29–35)
Who crieth: "Woe?" Who: "Alas"?
Who hath contention?
Who hath raving?
Who hath wounds without cause?
Who hath redness of eyes?
They that tarry long at the wine;
They that go to try mixed wine.
Look not thou upon the wine when it is red,
When it giveth its color in the cup,
When it glideth down smoothly.
At the last it biteth like a serpent
And stingeth like a basilisk.
Thine eyes shall behold strange things
And thy heart shall utter confused things.
Yea! Thou shalt be as he that liveth
Down in the midst of the sea.
Or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.
"They have struck me and I felt it not,
They have beaten me and I knew it not;
When shall I wake? I will seek it yet again."
II. THE WOMAN FOLLY (Proverbs 9: 13–18)
The woman folly is riotous;
She is thoughtlessness and knowing nothing.
And she sitteth at the door of her house
On a seat in the high places of the city
To call to them that pass by
Who go right on their ways.
Whoso is thoughtless let him turn in hither
And as for him that lacketh understanding,
She saith to him: "Stolen waters are sweet
And bread eaten in secret is pleasant."
But he knoweth not that the shades are there,
That her guests are in the depths of the netherworld.
III. A WOMAN OF VALOR (Proverbs 31: 10–31)
A woman of valor who can find?
For her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her,
And he hath no lack of gain.
She doeth him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool and flax and
worketh willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchant ships.
She bringeth her food from afar.
She riseth also while it is yet night,
And giveth food to her household,
And a portion to her maidens.
She considereth a field and buyeth it.
With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
She girdeth her loins with strength and maketh strong her arms.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good.
Her lamp goeth not out by night.
She layeth her hands to the distaff
and her hands hold the spindle.
She stretcheth out her hand to the poor;
Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of the snow for her household;
For all her household are clothed with scarlet.
She maketh for herself coverlets.
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
When he sitteth among the elders of the land.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she laugheth at the time to come.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom,
And the law of kindness is on her tongue.
She looketh well to the ways of her household,
And eateth not the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed.
Her husband also and her praises her:
"Many daughters have done valiantly,
but thou excellest them all.
Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman that feareth the Lord,
She shall be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands
And let her works praise her in the gates."
Text Source: The Holy Scriptures (JPS)
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