The greatest song of all time?

Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 2012

After their sell-out performance at last year’s Winter Festival, The Sixteen return with a sacred and sensuous set of Palestrina, Victoria and new works by John Barber all inspired by the Song of Songs.

The Song of Songs is an immensely influential biblical text which has remained a vast source of inspiration for composers from the Renaissance to more recent times. It is one of the scrolls found in the canon of the Hebrew bible as well as the Old Testament, and although there is no singular narrative, there are running themes of love, desire and passion.

Many of texts grouped into the Song of Songs were found along with the Dead Sea Scrolls in a series of caves along the West Bank, Jerusalem, and they are thought to be written by King Solomon (Song of Solomon). There are various interpretations of the title Song of Songs, one being that its an assertion of its authority (this is the best song that will ever exist), another being drawn from its description as a single poem containing many other poems, so more literally a song of songs.

The work starts with a lyrical expression of a woman’s desire for the man in the poem. Although the topic doesn’t appear to push any boundaries, the way that it’s presented could been to seen to be more subversive. The female figures in the song are often the ones to take the initiative – the women take up 53% of the text with their voices, whereas the men only speak out 39% of the time.

The women and men that appear through the Song of Songs are not intended to represent specific historical figures, but instead invite a more allegorical reading. Areas of the Christian tradition believes that the work celebrates the relationship between Christ and the Church, whereas others interpret the women to indicate Israel and the man to be God. Although there are many readings, there is a common theme and that is the search for union.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your love is better than wine.”

The poem moves through several scenes from a vineyard to a ‘wine house’, a nut grove, and many flowering gardens, as nature plays a large role in portraying beauty and admiration:

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
is my lover among boys.
I desire his shade and I dwell there;
His fruit is sweet to my palette.
He has brought me to the wine house
and his banner over me was ‘Love’.
Sustain me with raisin cakes;
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.

Palestrina is among the many composers who have been influenced by the sensuous Song of Songs. He wrote a series of motets for five voices using solely the text from the work, and by accenting certain points of meaning, he made them much livelier than motets commonly were at the time! Because of the risqué themes present in the text, Palestrina was not without his critics. He went to great lengths to explain to his patron Pope Gregory XIII that the songs expressed divine love for Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. To create a large-scale structure, Palestrina defined sections with modes, cycling through what we now call Dorian, Mixolydian, Aelion, Phrygian and Lydian modes. You can listen to Palestrina’s Vineam meam non custodivi below which The Sixteen will be performing in June.

minstrel plays for King Solomon in Song of Songs

A minstrel playing for King Solomon above the opening verse of the Song of Songs.

Come and see The Sixteen perform Palestrina alongside Victoria, Mundy and new works by John Barber, all inspired by the Song of Songs!

Song of Songs
Tuesday 17 June
Christ Church Spitalfields


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