Song of Anguish is a biblical solo cantata for baritone and orchestra (although one critic called it “less a cantata than an impassioned plea”) based on the composer’s own selection of verses from Isaiah and adapted by him from the English translation found in the King James Bible—or the Authorized Version. But Foss reordered them freely according to his own thematic and artistic concept. Some of these verses represent Isaiah’s castigation of the all-encompassing corruption, decadence, and perfidy into which the Jewish people in the Kingdom of Judah had fallen. They address the people’s perversion of moral values, their arrogance and self-righteousness, their adherence to false leadership, their dishonesty and self-delusion, and their hypocrisy and outright malevolence. In Foss’s reordering, these denunciations are punctuated by predictions and promises of Divine retribution against all perpetrators of evil—whether in Judah or the other nations. Isaiah assures the people of God’s unfailing and unabated anger until all evil will have been rooted out and destroyed, “until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate.” Collectively, those verses portray a deep, penetrating anguish—the anguish of the prophet as he painfully observes and enumerates the people’s unalloyed wickedness and evil; the anguish of the situation and of the doom the people has—or will have—brought upon itself; and perhaps God’s own emotional anguish, out of which derives His anger, for the God of Israel is known and described in Scriptures as “abundant in mercy, long-suffering, and slow to anger.” It may be worth considering that despite its transparent references to Divine anger, this work is titled Song of Anguish, not Song of Anger.
The Book of Isaiah is one of the eight books of the Prophets (n’vi’im), which constitutes the second of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible (surrounded by the Torah—the Law, or Teaching—and the Sacred Writings). It is generally accepted that Isaiah had been developed into its present form by 180 B.C.E. A statement in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) indicates that Hezekiah was the actual writer, or perhaps editor, of the book, which is considered a record of Isaiah’s teachings, preaching, admonitions, warnings, and prophecies. For a long time it was accepted by the rabbis and sages that the Book of Isaiah was the work of a single author or represented the words of a single prophet: Isaiah (Y’shaya in Hebrew, meaning God’s help or deliverance), son of Amoz, who, according to a tradition recorded in the Talmud (Meg. 10b), was the brother of Amaziah, a king of Judah. Isaiah was both a statesman and a prophet as well as an impassioned public orator, and he was a contemporary of the prophet Micah. He followed shortly after Hosea and Amos, who preached in the Northern Kingdom.
It is now nearly universally acknowledged in the world of biblical scholarship that Isaiah should be viewed as the composite work of at least two distinct authors or prophets. According to this conclusion, I Isaiah (First Isaiah) includes Chapters 1–39 and refers to the known Isaiah (ben Amoz) whose diplomatic-political, prophetic, and preaching activities in Jerusalem are believed to have occurred in the second half of the 8th century B.C.E.—viz., between ca. 740 and 700 B.C.E. Chapters 40–66 are generally attributed to another prophet who lived and prophesied later, during the Babylonian captivity, but who is otherwise unknown. He is designated as Deutero-Isaiah, or II Isaiah, and his prophecies and pronouncements pertain to the Babylonian Exile (ca. 540 B.C.E.). Many biblical scholars also assign a third author altogether to the closing chapters (56–66)—a Palestinian prophet, Trito-Isaiah (Third Isaiah), who is thought to have been active after the return from Babylonian captivity. Yet some fundamental traditionalists reject modern biblical criticism from both literary and historical angles and prefer to adhere to the older rabbinic axiom of single authorship. They accept the explanation that the exilic and postexilic oracles and pronouncements—which obviously would have occurred long after Isaiah’s lifetime, and which have been held to depart from Chapters 1–39 in details of literary style and tone as well as in religious and political circumstances—are Divine predictions of the future that were nonetheless transmitted and voiced through the same prophet Isaiah.
All of the verses Foss chose for Song of Anguish, however, are from the section of Isaiah that comprises the first thirty-nine chapters. Thus, this cantata reflects and musically interprets Isaiah’s warnings and predictions before the projected calamity of the Babylonian captivity and exile.
Isaiah’s career and prophetic role coincided with one of the most critical periods in ancient or biblical Jewish history, when the Northern Kingdom of Israel collapsed and when the very existence of the Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, were threatened by the most powerful empire of the day. A part of Isaiah’s prophetic activity lay in diplomatic and political counsel with regard to the wisdom or ill-advised nature of alliances and other purely military or political strategies, and his conviction that ultimately, Judah’s protection lay in Divine hands rather than in human schemes. The political, foreign policy, and military issues and events formed the historical backdrop to Isaiah’s deeper concern for the spiritual and moral state of his people and its internal life, social consciousness, and religiously related and divinely mandated adherence to a code of moral and ethical behavior.
Isaiah began his prophecies at a time when Judah was experiencing great abundance and prosperity. But the kingdom was also rife—perhaps in some respects as a consequence of that prosperity and the self-righteousness and insensitivity it may have bred—with social and political injustice, economic class oppression, and moral decay. He depicts a disillusioned scene of a nation where bribery could acquit the guilty, where orphans went undefended, where the poor were looted to provide further riches for the prosperous, where the innocent could easily be convicted to suit their accusers, where idolatry had reemerged, where materialism triumphed over the spirit, where the successful worshiped their own accomplishments rather than God, where sanctimonious religious ritual was disconnected from moral values and actions, where outward religious practice had no effect on conduct, where adultery was tolerated, and where even murder could go unpunished.
Isaiah stressed the following: Divine holiness and unswerving reliance on God rather than on human tactical endeavors in the pursuit of Israel’s destiny; the inviolability of Jerusalem as the holy city and as the ultimate site of universal acknowledgment of God and Divine Truth; the assurance of ultimate justice and redemptive peace under the leadership of a messianic ruler, even though only a remnant of Israel would remain after the predicted doom; and the moral and ethical parameters of religious teaching. His central admonition was that ultimate disaster and destruction could be averted only by the dual course of trust in God and His wisdom—and renunciation of the wholesale national corruption and evil, which God’s Law had been given in order to prevent.
Foss composed Song of Anguish in 1945. Its first performance included a solo dance element and was given with piano accompaniment at Jacob’s Pillow, a festival in the Berkshire Mountains, in the summer of 1948. The premiere of the full orchestral version in 1950 was sung by Aron Marko Rothmüller together with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.
The work is in the form of a single movement that courses over six distinct sections that follow one another without audible break. After the initial section, which corresponds to an orchestral prelude that previews some of the thematic material, the vocal line resembles an almost continuous incantation that is also an integral part of the orchestral texture. Yet there is often a contrast offered by more sustained vocal passages set against greater orchestral motion, which facilitates a degree of transparency of the words. The dramatic and deliberate vocal entrance at the beginning of the second section, for example, sustains over sharply delineated disjunctive intervals in the orchestra, which immediately engages the listener—just as Isaiah’s words might have jolted his audience. The third section is built largely around another, more sedate orchestral figure; and section four is almost a recapitulation of the second, with accompanimental variations. The fifth section is the longest, and it is characterized by continuous development and alteration of repetitive motives, and by motoric, almost nervous activity in the orchestra. Although the continuous development and unfolding of material deliberately ignores the poetic structure of the text, the angry and even violent mood of the words are aptly mirrored by the throbbing pace of the music, which is infused with pungent and pulsating rhythms that can seem reminiscent of Copland—especially his ballet music—bringing a strange but intriguing flavor of aesthetic Americana to an otherwise biblically oriented work.
A reminder that God’s anger is “kindled against His people” and is “not [yet] turned away” (repeating parts of a verse sung earlier) forms the transition to the sixth and final section, which opens with the prophet’s question: “How long?” sung in an imploring vein. The Divine reply to Isaiah (“Until the cities be wasted ... and the land be utterly desolate.”) has an eerie quality about it, both in the vocal line and in the calm but resolute orchestral flow with which the voice sounds are intertwined. The short concluding orchestral gesture leaves no doubt and no opportunity to remonstrate; it signifies the finality and resignation of that judgment.
Sung in English
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.
That put darkness for light and light for darkness.
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes,
That are prudent in their own sight.
Woe. They have erred.
For the leaders of this people caused them to err
And they that are led of them are destroyed.
The earth mourneth and fadeth away,
The world languishes and fadeth away.
The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved,
The earth is broken down, the earth is moved exceedingly.
The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard.
Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed.
Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against His people,
And He has stretched forth his hands against them,
And He has smitten them.
And the hills did tremble,
And the carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets.
For all this His anger is not turned away,
But His hand is stretched out still.
Everyone that is found shall be thrust through,
And everyone that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.
For we have made lies our refuge,
And under falsehood have we hid ourselves.
Their children shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes,
Their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished.
For everyone is an hypocrite.
For everyone is an evildoer,
Every mouth speaketh folly.
Then, said I, Lord, how long? And He answered:
Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant,
And the houses without man,
And the land be utterly desolate.
Publisher: Carl Fischer. Available at: http://www.carlfischer.com/magento/song-of-anguish.html
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