Musica Sacra

The Song of Songs

May 9, 2015

Sensual Texts from the Bible's Raciest Book

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Now available on CD!

The texts of the Song of Songs reveal an intimate dialogue between two lovers, celebrating not only romantic love but also the sensuous and mystical quality of erotic desire.

These timeless passages have been set by composers as ancient as Gombert and Palestrina and as modern as Daniel Pinkham, Pablo Casals, Ivo Antognini, René Clausen, and Wolfram Buchenberg. Come luxuriate in the luscious music inspired by the Bible's raciest book.

Covid-19 Protocols

Musica Sacra is requiring that all performers, volunteers, and audience members show proof of vaccination against Covid-19, or a negative PCR test within 3 days or an antigen test within 6 hours in order to attend concerts in-person. Additionally, we require that masks be worn at all times by audience members and performers. Audience members will be spaced apart in the sanctuary to allow for social distancing.

Performance Venue

Purchase tickets for this performance

Advance ticket sales for this 8:00 concert have closed, however, some tickets remain and will be available at the door beginning at 7:00 PM. We hope to see you at the concert.

Performance Notes

Welcome to Musica Sacra's final concert of the season. What a treat to program and present a concert comprised solely of settings from the Song of Songs! As we turned our attention to tonight's works, I came to realize that there are few examples outside of opera in classical Western music that contemplate and celebrate sensuality and sexuality. Therefore, settings of text from the Song of Songs, also known as the Canticles and Songs of Solomon, provide composers a unique outlet to explore the emotions inherent to carnal love.

Why would such racy texts exist in the Bible, a book that defines Christian belief? Ostensibly because they were purportedly penned by King Solomon, he who was wise enough to determine the actual mother in a dispute over a child by suggesting the child be divided in two, knowing that the birth mother would cede ownership out of love for her child. Since the Song of Songs can only reliably be dated back to the 6th century BCE, however, that requires a willing suspension of disbelief. A more likely reason for their inclusion is that humanity throughout time has recognized the ultimate power of love between two people who are physically intimate. In the Judaic tradition, that love is used allegorically to allude to the intensity and intimacy of the relationship between God and human. The editors of the Christian Old Testament could have omitted it; after all, a lot of hang-ups about human sexuality seem to have their origin in the Christian canon. However, they left it in as an allegory of Christ's love for believers, and so this "decadent" and sensual text remains as part of sacred text in both the Judaic and Christian traditions.

Most of tonight's works focus on two of the emotional manifestations of intense intimacy: ecstasy and reverence. The exuberant nature of some of the works, Pinkham's Wedding Cantata comes immediately to mind, express the supreme happiness that comes from the knowledge that the one you love returns that love. The reverential nature of others, such as those of Antognini, Buchenberg and Gjeilo, expresses the ultimate tenderness that love for the other inspires. To this listener, they also convey the languid indolence of the post-coital bed.

I love the fact that composers of sacred music in the Christian tradition could turn to these texts without fear of sanction or censure; even in Puritan Boston, Billings could set and publish I am the rose of Sharon. Palestrina sets "your two breasts are as two gazelles; your neck is a tower," with the musical tools of Renaissance polyphonic style to illustrate those concepts. Two male voices sing "your two breasts" in an imitative duet answered by a similar duet in two treble voices "are as two gazelles." Then all voices enter to state "your neck is like an ivory tower" in homophony, in which all move together as one hears in hymns, to represent musically that tower's strength.

I confess that the settings of the Renaissance composer Melchior Franck are the inspiration for this program's theme and my favorite works in tonight's concert. He so wonderfully captures the fluctuating emotions of one sensuously besotted through the use of note values of longer and shorter duration to effect dramatically alternating contrasting tempos. Through his music I can imagine the lover, waxing poetic in languorous contemplation, only to be jolted into exuberant exultation over consideration of another aspect of the beloved. Listen to his setting of "your breasts are sweeter than wine, and your garments and the smell of your ointments better than all spices" and you will hear what I mean. He also enjoys depicting the images conjured up by the text in musical terms. Listen to the imitative line setting "your lips are like the dripping honeycomb;" the falling scalar line of alternating long and short note values conveys the reluctant descent of the viscous honey.

Pinkham also makes use of alternating tempos to show the different emotions engendered by love, but he compartmentalizes them within movements. While his faster settings relay the rhapsodic joy of the lover, the slower movements have a gravitas unique among tonight's offerings. In the second movement, Pinkham employs a canon, such that each of the four voices enters in succession with the exact same melody, to underscore the conviction that the fires of love are inextinguishable. In the final movement, he uses homophony to emphasize the power of the statement: "for love is strong as death." Contrast this with Clausen's setting of the same texts in Set me as a seal, which expresses by musical means an exhortation rather than a declaration.

May these musical offerings remind you of love's power and passion. Whether such love is a memory, a reality, or an aspiration, tonight's concert allows us all to bask in the wonderful feelings romantic love inspires.

© 2015 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.