0000 - 0.1(or crt).0.0 - harp - acoustic gtr (1 or 2 if gently amplified, otherwise 3-5) - pno - (organ) - timp - perc(1): glsp/susp.cym/finger cym/rain-stick/BD/t.bells/shaker/SD/tam-t - strings (min 64442)
‘Thy people shall be my people…’
One of the great gifts bestowed on a composer is that it is sometimes possible to appraise afresh a poem, a psalm, a passage of scripture or a hymn text that has been familiar all one’s life, to ‘hear’ it all over again as if for the first time. Some might call it immodest or foolhardy but at several points in my career I have perhaps rashly attempted to set sacred texts that are not only familiar as words but have well-known tunes ascribed to them as well! My setting of Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, since its being written for and broadcast in the BBC TV comedy series The Vicar of Dibley from 1993 onwards is now - for anyone under a certain age - assumed to be the tune for that psalm, having cheekily supplanted the traditional stalwarts Crimond, Dominus regit me or St Columba, an outcome I had neither sought nor anticipated. Similarly, for a millennium commission in 2000, I composed a new setting of the great Charles Wesley hymn, Love divine, all loves excelling, not because I thought I could better John Stainer’s Love Divine, Charles Stanford’s Airedale, the Welsh folk tune Moriah or the English folk tune Exile (and I imagine there are others around the world to the inspirational text) but because one morning in the shower (the 3rd January 2000, as it happens) I heard a completely new melody for these verses, finished, in my head.
Why do I mention these precursors to Every purpose under the heaven: The King James Bible Oratorio? Because when first approached by a former Archbishop of Canterbury to ask me if I’d be interested in writing an oratorio to mark the 400th anniversary of its 1611 publication, the first thought that entered my head was, hasn’t this all been done before, rather often, and by others far more eminent than me, George Frederick Handel to name but one? In fact, the commissioning patrons, Sir Ewan and Lady Harper’s first idea had been to suggest an oratorio rather more like an opera or musical, in which the story of its coming into being, peopled with soloists portraying translators, scholars, poets and kings, would be brought alive as never before. This story - ‘clever folk do a time-consuming job for a well-meaning monarch on time and to budget’, didn’t feel like it would trigger a shower-style epiphany for me. Perhaps if I had read Adam Nicolson’s compelling account of the birth of the King James Bible, God’s Secretaries, at this point, I might have thought differently. But I was drawn instead to the texts themselves. And the brief for the commission was that the piece could be performed not just by adult choirs and choral societies but also schools and colleges, to introduce young people to its poetry and grandeur, so I was magnetically attracted, as I had been with The Lord is my shepherd and Love divine, to the passages that has resounded with the most impact on the largest number of people over the centuries. The appeal, to me, of these well-trodden paths was the challenge of re-charging them with new music, so that they would - literally - be heard as if for the first time. That was the aspiration, at any rate.
As well as being familiar, the fact and content of the King James Bible also represents a cultural milestone in our western civilisation: its narrative imagery, its many ethical dilemmas, its poetic phraseology so frequently reminiscent of its contemporary, the First Folio of William Shakespeare, not to mention its uninhibited yet thoughtful spirituality, all permeate the English language and shape the way we have conceived our society, mostly - though not always - for the better. It is surely the most obvious legacy that binds the Christian faith with its Jewish antecedent: I vividly remember singing Anglican settings of psalms (in the Coverdale translations, so much of which found their way into the 1611 work) every day of my childhood, as a chorister in an Oxford college chapel, come rain come shine, a kind of daily tapestry of the extreme highs and lows of the Hebrew desert experience that was about as removed from the cloistered damp of a somewhat jaded medieval Oxford in the 1960s as one can imagine. The God of the Old Testament psalms gave composers plenty of opportunity to spit out the chanted words with despair, rage and vengeance. My most daunting task, as I saw it anyway, was to conquer my nervousness at treading on some of the territory (unbeatably) claimed by Handel’s Messiah (and his other, superb oratorios on Biblical themes), since metrical regularity made of repeating patterns, is essential - as Handel demonstrated so eloquently - to the fine arc of a song melody (with vast swathes of the King James Bible being, of course, in what amounts to prose). Whereas William Tyndale’s magnificent translation of the Bible (which had preceded the King James by around 80 years) stressed the still-pervasive Anglo-Saxon version of English of the earlier Tudor period with its shorter, blunter, more direct linguistic rhythms, the team of writers commissioned to produce the King James Bible were learned scholars who tended, a hundred years into the effects of the Renaissance, towards more compound, Latinate words. These sound wonderful when read aloud but the Tyndale often sounds better sung, since its directness speaks to the emotional core of a phrase. As a composer I always prefer emotional directness to work with, whatever its providence. However, despite his ghostly presence throughout the text of the King James Bible, Tyndale gave way to the more sophisticated tone of the later scholars and I hope very much some of his no-frills clarity can be heard in the way I have set my chosen passages.
Knowing that my 2011 King James Bible Oratorio was intended to reflect the themes of both Old and New Testaments, I set about selecting what I felt were the ten most memorable and powerful passages, then created ten movements from these, working chronologically through from Genesis to Revelation. With the exception of placing the opening verse of St John’s Gospel before Genesis, as part of the mystery of creation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise but I was taken aback at the contemporary relevance of so many of these ancient words when I came to set them to music. Though I composed Every purpose under the heaven in a less turbulent time than we are experiencing now, I felt very deeply the simple prayers and pleas for tolerance, love, compassion and solidarity that ring through these movements. Love one another, however dark your torment there can be help, do not be afraid, thy people are my people, thy God is my God, I was a stranger and you took me in, charity never faileth, never faileth, never faileth.
Who would not want to hear in one’s head new music for these sentiments, transcribe it, and share it in collective performance?
© Howard Goodall