|I. Awake, O north wind
|II. Come my beloved
|III. By night on my bed
|IV. Set me as a seal
Song of Songs is the Judaically accepted English rendering of the title of the biblical book Shir hashirim, which belongs to the third section of the Hebrew Bible: the k’tuvim (the Sacred Writings). In the King James Version, including the Revised Standard Version, it is titled the Song of Solomon, since Judaic tradition—though not modern Judaic nor general biblical scholarship—attributes the book to King Solomon as a single creative work.
Song of Songs is part of what is known as the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, although, unlike the other books in that category—Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—it is not thought to have a direct pedagogic function or purpose. It is also the first of the five m’gillot (scrolls; sing., m’gilla), each of which is a biblical book that is traditionally read on a specific annual liturgical occasion: Songs of Songs on Pesah; Ruth on Shavuot; Lamentations on Tisha b’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av), Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.
Song of Songs was long accepted in Jewish tradition as an allegory of the relationship between God and the people Israel rather than as human love poetry. That allegorical interpretation permitted its canonization, and indeed, the Targum (the Aramaic version of the Bible, which is also interpretive in character and approach), the Midrash, and many medieval commentators viewed the book as a depiction of a “spiritual marriage” between God and Israel following the revelation and acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. The allegorical interpretation is also found in the Talmud—including, for example, a forceful admonition against reciting or invoking any part of Song of Songs as a “winesong” at feasts (Sanh. 101a).
Much modern Judaic scholarship, however, has come to acknowledge the book’s literal reading—including its element of romantic human love, its literary-aesthetic beauty, and even its sheer sensuality. But such readings are not necessarily incompatible with simultaneous interpretations that probe the book’s moral value in terms of the holiness of love.
Foss’s work was commissioned by the American League of Composers, with the selection of text left entirely up to him. The world premiere was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky’s baton in 1947.
Foss selected brief excerpts from Song of Songs, beginning with the bride’s plea to her beloved (4:16). The work is divided into four sections or “songs,” comprising verses or parts of verses from various chapters. Although it was conceived as a single, unified artistic statement, the composer stipulated that the final setting (“Set me as a seal upon thine heart …; 8:6) could also be performed on its own.
Song of Songs predated the experimental phases of Foss’s artistic path that involved quasi-improvisational, aleatoric, and other such 20th-century compositional techniques. Here, a solid foundation of neoclassicism is present throughout, with an array of finely tuned conventional devices used to highlight and underscore the poetic features of the text. Though the work is obviously a vehicle for the mezzo-soprano soloist, the orchestral role transcends accompaniment to become an equally important partner. In some ways this piece might even be considered a duo for voice and orchestra.
Performers: Leonard Bernstein, Conductor; New York Philharmonic; Jennie Tourel, Mezzo-sopranoAdditional Credits:
Publisher: Carl Fischer. Available at: http://www.carlfischer.com/magento/song-of-songs-for-voice-and-orchestra.html
Under License from Sony Music Commercial Music Group, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.
Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.