The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) in Music

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) in Music


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


Classical composers get much inspiration from works of literature--the use of the Romeo and Juliet story is a good example of this--but the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, has probably helped to give rise to more music of importance than that from any other literary source. Its stories have played a major role in offering inspiration to composers, both the great and the lesser ones. Mozart never used the Bible in his music and Beethoven's only relevant composition was his Twelve Variations based on a theme from Handel's Judas Maccabeus, but many composers, Jews and non-Jews, have turned to the Bible. Subjects beginning with The Book of Genesis fight through to the books of the Apocrypha have been used.

The Play of Daniel, one of the earliest of liturgical dramas, was composed in the 13th century by medieval students, and oratorios which are compositions for voices with orchestral accompaniment that use sacred subjects (either Biblical or New Testament) first appeared in the 16th century. The greatest composer to use the Hebrew Bible in oratorios was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) who has been called "the music historian of the Bible," and he has no equal in this field. Esther was his first, and during the following thirty-two years, he composed nine oratorios based on specific Biblical figures--Deborah, Athalia, Saul, Samson, Joseph and his brothers, Belshazzar, Joshua, Solomon, and Jephtah--and he also wrote one about Judas Maccabeus. Another Handel masterpiece is Israel in Egypt. His greatest oratorio Messiah is clearly a Christian work, but of its 46 major vocal passages, 26 come from the Tanakh, mainly from the Books of Isaiah and Psalms. Handel's Coronation anthem Zadok the Priest is taken from 1 Kings.

Cantatas are essentially short oratorios, but they can be based on secular or sacred subjects, and sacred cantatas were significant in Johann Sebastian Bach's repertoire. His 96 cantatas come mainly from the psalms, and other members of his family also made free use of the Bible. CPE Bach, for example, wrote an oratorio Israelites in the Wilderness. Many composers have been attracted to the psalms because of their ability to uplift the spirit in song. The early 19th century Roman, Pietro Raimondi planned to set all the psalms to music, but he only reached Psalm 60. The Elizabethan composer William Byrd, although a Roman Catholic, wrote a number of sacred vocal compositions for the Anglican Church, mainly using psalms, and his fellow countryman, Henry Purcell, considered by some to be the greatest of all British composers, wrote 88 works using mainly psalm texts. The New England composer Charles Ives set ten psalms to music, and the Austrian Anton Bruckner five. Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus, based on Psalm 55, was composed in 1923 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest. Other notable composers inspired by the psalms include Charpentier, Haydn, Liszt, Dvorak, Honegger, Elgar, Mendelssohn, Britten, Goldmark, Bloch, Meyerbeer, Walton, Spohr, Saint-Saens, and Milhaud--some Jewish and some non-Jewish. Schubert, using the Hebrew text, set Psalm 92 for the great Viennese chazzan Salomon Sulzer. Arnold Schoenberg's last completed work was his De Profundis based on Psalm 130. Work on this score led him to a deep study of the Psalms, and much of the last year of his life was devoted to a series he originally intended to be called Modern Psalms. Ten such pieces were planned to be a continuation of the 150 psalms of the Bible, but only the first "psalm" was set to music. Igor Stravinsky was also attracted to this subject. His Symphony of Psalms was composed in 1930, and he wrote of it that its first movement was composed in a "state of religious and musical ebullience."

A part from his settings of psalms, Schubert went to the Bible for his very first song, Hagars Klage that he based on chapter 21 of the Book of Genesis, the chapter that relates the abandonment of Ishmael by Abraham. …

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