Song of Songs

Shalom everybody. Once again, it’s showtime. That is to say – concert time. Last Friday (June 26th), my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, of which, as you know, I am justifiably proud 🙂 , ended the 2014/15 season with a concert entitled Jerusalem Luminosa.

The concert, conducted by Kate Belshé, who is now celebrating (I hope!) the completion of her first year as our musical director, took as its main theme the Song of Songs, with settings in Hebrew, German, Latin,  and English, from various times and countries, of the great Song of Solomon. The original idea was to celebrate the music of the House of David, father and son,  and so the programme incorporated settings of psalms, in English, Latin and Estonian. However, as Kate developed the idea, adding works that were based on, and inspired by, these two great books of the early Kings of Israel, the concert broadened into a celebration of composers from the far north, with works by the Norwegians, Edvard Grieg, Egil Hovland, and Ola Gjeilo, as well as the Estonian Cyrillus Kreek.

As you can imagine, singing in so many different  – and unfamiliar – languages presented its own difficulties. We are quite familiar with English, Latin and German, of course, not to mention Hebrew, and have sung many times in these languages, but I don’t think we have ever attempted Estonian, Norwegian and Danish before 🙂  – and kudos is due to Revital, Shmulik and Carmiya for their work on preparing the programme, with translations into Hebrew and English of whatever language the songs were written in. Here I must mention a rather amusing story which highlights the perils inherent in the art of translation. One of the songs performed was Quam pulchra es, by the Englishman John Dunstable (c.1390 – 1453), or, as it is sometimes written, Dunstaple. This is a 3-voice setting in Latin for alto, tenor and bass of selected verses from Song of Songs 7, and was performed by six members of the choir. However, I was startled to read the English translation of the last words of verse 12 as “There will I give my breasts to you”. I looked at the original Hebrew. There, the word translated as “breasts” is “dodim” (דודים), usually translated as “love”, as it is, for example, in the King James Version and also in the New English Bible. I looked at the Latin, to which Dunstable set the song. Lo and behold! In the Latin, the word used to translate “dodim” is “ubera“, which does, indeed, mean “udders” or “breasts”! How did the Latin translator arrive at such an error? I looked again at the Hebrew. In my copy of the Bible, the word דודים appears in full script, with the letter vav (ו) after the initial dalet (ד). But it is also possible to write the word without the letter vav, substituting a small dot above and between the first and second dalet.  In such a case, if one overlooks or omits the dot, one is left with the word “dadim” (דדים – breasts, nipples) rather than dodim (love). I suspect this is what happened here to the Latin translator. Thus, the English translation in our program was faithful to the Latin mistranslation to which Dunstable set his music, rather than to the original Hebrew.

And now, without further ado, let me invite you to share some of the highlights of our concert :-).

We started off, appropriately enough, with Gjeilo’s “Prelude” which, was psalm-like enough, with its “Exultate, jubilate” – although, as you can tell from its repeated references to the Trinity, it is not actually taken from the Book of Psalms.

I have mentioned, on several occasions, our increased exposure to American music since Kate took up the baton as our conductor. The following two pieces are good examples. The first, “I am the Rose of Sharon” is by William Billings (1746-1800), known as the father of American choral music. I have to admit to not having liked this piece at all when I first heard it – but it has since grown on me, so much so that it is now one of my favourites!

In complete contrast is the following contemporary setting, by Nick Strimple, of Psalm 131:

Some of the works presented, such as Cyrillus Kreeks’s “Taaveti Laul no. 104” (Psalm 104), or Melchior Franck‘s “Fahet uns die Füchse  (“Catch us the little foxes”) were straightforward settings of the Biblical text – in this case, Song of Songs 2: 15-17.  Others, such as Grieg’s “Hvad est du dog skjön“, (“How fair is thy face”) were based on old Scandinavian hymns, sung for hundreds of years in Danish and Norwegian churches, which used Biblical imagery to illustrate Christian themes.
Oh, but you are beautiful,
you most living God’s Son!
O you, my Shulamite, yes mine,
all that I have is also yours.
…..    O so come dove!
In the cleft of the rock is peace and safety.
Oh, but you are beautiful.
you most living God’s Son!
O you, my Shulamite,
all that I have is also yours.
This hymn, sung in Danish, to a text by the Lutheran cleric and hymnodist Hans Adolf Brorson (1694 – 1764) is here performed by the choir with baritone soloist, our very own David Goldblatt:

Again by Grieg – in Norwegian , this time – here is another of our baritones, Louis Sachs, leading the choir in “I Himmelen”  (“In Heaven”). Both pieces are from Grieg’s “Fire Salmer” (Four Psalms).

As I said, the programme was built around the Song of Songs. I would hardly be human if I were able to resist bringing you this next piece, the cantata Shir Hashirim, a setting by the Israeli composer Yechezkel Braun (1922-2014) of Song of Songs 3. At twelve minutes long, it was the longest piece performed at the concert.

Oh – I almost forgot to mention it. The soprano soloist here is Yours Truly:

As we sang the final chorus, “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion,
and behold king Solomon with the crown wherewith
his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals,
and in the day of the gladness of his heart,” I imagined the author, riding in triumph right here, through the streets of Jerusalem, three thousand years ago. How glad he – and his father, King David – would have been to know that three millennia later, their songs were still being sung by Jews, in his – our – ancient capital!

I will leave you, as we left the audience in Christ Church, opposite the Tower of David, with a song for the Sabbath -“Shabbat Hamalka” (שבת המלכה – Shabbat the Queen):

Shabbat Shalom                                  שבת שלום


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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3 Responses to Song of Songs

  1. anneinpt says:

    Beautiful! And you are very talented. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Christmas Stocking Fillers and (Post) Boxing Day Delights | THE VIEW FROM THE PALACE

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