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Song of Songs (2003-04)

A new setting in five movements by Andrew Schultz with text by Barry Hill commissioned by The Song Company and ABC The Listening Room for the Song Company’s 20th Anniversary.

Program note by Roland Peelman.


1. Enchantment

Proclamations and warnings. A scene by the city wall, near a vineyard. The tang of wine-press and of smoke is in the air. The mental atmosphere is of ripeness and ruin.

"Before the dawn wind rises

Before the shadows flee –

That I no more shall see you

The harvest pressed as one –

Return! Return! Be like a gazelle on the mountains of the dead."


2. Looking

A closed garden, a pool, a lattice. She is looking through the lattice as he prepares to bath. Each know the other is being admired.

“Rise my love

loveliest woman come

winter is done  - the rains are over - our lands are blooming”


3. Feasting

A bed near the banquet table. In a room with walls and ceiling lined by oiled cedar.

 “O feed me”


4. Lost

A bedroom, city streets, bedroom. Lost and reunited.

 “I hardly know myself”


5. Love as strong as death

We are back on the darkening plain, outside the city walls.

“He has sealed me to his heart

I am a band upon his arm

Love is as strong as death.”


Solomon’s Song of Songs

 This title, the first line of that extraordinary book known as the Canticle of Canticles, Canticum Canticorum or Song of Songs means in Hebrew either ‘by or for King Solomon’. As the son of King David, Solomon was renowned for the prosperity and peace he brought to the Jewish people, the temple and palace he built, and above all the legendary wisdom attributed to him. This book of love poems, the only one of its kind in the Bible, carries his name and has been the subject of much speculation and controversy. Not only the questions about its authorship and its chronology, but most importantly the issues surrounding its meaning and interpretation have never ceased to engage Rabbis, scholars, theologians and artists alike. On a first and literal level, it describes the love between a country girl, a Shulammite, and a man (a king?) of the court in the most erotically imaginative terms and with a remarkable absence of sexism. Both male and female speakers remark upon their lover’s dove-like eyes and at one point it is the man who has cheeks like spices and lips like lilies. Women initiate lovemaking as often as men; urgency as well as tenderness can be heard in both the male and female voices. Yet, whilst a colourful picture of nature in all its forms and metamorphoses is painted, the song is far from a poetic idyll. The text is full of complex paradox (blackness and darkness against light and flowering nature, the vineyards against city life, public appearance against private relationship, separation against consummation) and gives free rein to expressions of anxiety and fear, particularly in those passages that suggest an urban context. Some commentators have been at pains to try and superimpose a dramatic structure between a shepherd and a girl, captured for the harem where the king unsuccessfully tries to win her affection. Just as many scholars regard the work as a series of separate poems originating in Middle-Eastern folk traditions, orally transmitted and eventually assembled by one or several writers at some time after Solomon’s reign (10th century BC at the earliest).

The song may be a romantic nature fable or a rather descriptive amorous tale, but its place in the Scriptures, let alone the very canon of the Bible, still deserves explanation. When during the first century discussions arose as to which books should be accepted as sacred, the Song of Songs was vividly disputed. Its attribution to Solomon did very little to pacify many leading Rabbis’ objections to the blatant profanity of the text. Rabbi Aqivah (40-135 AC) however stated that “the whole universe is not worth the day that book has been given to Israel, because all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the most holy ” - and due to his enormous personal prestige, its passage into the canon was ensured.  Aqivah’s words refer to a mysterious inner meaning unknown even to the Rabbis. Implied is a secret reading of the text according to the principles of the Qabala, a mystic science going back to Abraham’s Revelation. According to the Qabala the title actually means ‘The Residue of Residues’ or ‘Quintessence of Quintessences’ and the whole book is a highly complex code taking on different esoteric meanings.  Failing to comprehend any of this, the ordinary Jew was taught that the text was an allegorical description of Yahveh’s love for his people Israel. Also within Christian circles, the allegorical path was taken to draw the attention away from the Song’s overt sensuality and to provide some explanation to its crucial place in the Bible. The view that it represented Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church (‘amica’ standing for ‘ecclesia’, the Church, the Soul of Christianity) has been widely held since the fourth century AC, with writers such as Augustinus and the medieval scholar Guillaume de Thierry as its major exponents.  Medieval mystics like Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross went further still and saw in this text the dialogue between the Soul and the Mystical Body of Christ.

Inevitably too, all the characteristics of the beautiful, pure and seductive young girl would be transferred upon the Virgin and as a result, most of the pre-reformation repertoire hinges on the liberal interspersing of Canticum extracts with existing Marian hymn texts. Eventually the reformed Protestant view on the Bible would take an important step back towards the reality of the text. In Lutheran circles, the words could be accepted as a poetic metaphor for the faithful conjugal relationship of man and wife and became a treasure trove for wedding ceremonies.

Andrew Schultz, himself from a German Lutheran background, chose one of the strongest but hitherto un-set passages from the Song of Songs as a starting point for Ekstasis, written for The Song Company in 1990. As we wanted the explore the Song’s poetic, dramatic and musical potential further from a contemporary point of view, it seemed logical to bring the composer together with the poet Barry Hill, who had famously delved into this territory on more than one occasion. The result of this anniversary commission is thus more than we could have bargained for: a new poetic re-creation entitled ‘Love strong as death’ and a new large-scale vocal work that extends our familiar six voice idiom into new and much wider realms.

Roland Peelman

 

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