‘Arrestingly rich and expressive…’ The Independent on Sunday
2(II=picc).2(II=ca).2.2(II=cbsn) - 2 hns - perc(2): vib/2 glsp/t.bells/crot/3 tgl/large siz.cym/anvil/ tam-t/BD - strings
Shir Hashirim was commissioned by the BBC. I have always wanted to set the text of the Song of Songs, the most beautiful love poetry of which I am aware. In fact, a previous attempt to set part of it in English (for chorus and wind in 1994) was only aborted when the commission fell through. Nothing of that attempt could be re-used here, for the music was completely remote stylistically from my present interests and has since been destroyed. However, it was a useful botched attempt at dealing with this richly complex text, which might otherwise have proved very daunting. This setting is in Hebrew, for the sonorities and accentuation of the original seemed to me still more musical and beautiful than the fine King James Bible version (the Vulgate Latin was discarded mainly because it is a more inaccurate translation). I am much indebted to Amira Goehr for reading the original text to me and helping me to appreciate the syntax and phonetic colours of Hebrew. The orchestral part is highly elaborate and uses a wide range of textures and harmonic/melodic colours in an attempt to match the richness of the text. The modal writing uses hybrid scales which spread over several registers without exact repetition; this enables the orchestral writing to operate on more than one speed and metre simultaneously, and to vary in vocabulary form the very diatonic to the densely chromatic and even microtonal. The vocal part makes use of various different types of word setting, from the syllabic recitation through vocalise to very ornamental melismata. The syllabic recitation clearly takes its cue from the accentuation of the Hebrew, whilst the other approaches tend increasingly to obscure or ignore the natural word stress, breaking the words up and at times almost dissolving them into nonsense syllables. Shir Hashirim is dedicated to Henri Dutilleux in celebration of his 85th birthday this year.
‘Arrestingly rich and expressive…’
The Independent on Sunday (Anna Picard), 8 June 2003
'Shir Hashirim examined ecstasy from a more sublime perspective, by way of a dramatic, slightly exotic soprano line wrapped in otherworldly orchestral swells and percussion sparkle.'
The New York Times (Allan Kozinn), 12 August 2009
‘The alluring instrumentation is matched by the expressive vocal writing which encompasses stark syllabic setting, vocalise and elaborate melismata, the whole couched in modally-inflected harmonies which accentuate the music’s ecstatic yearning to potent effect.’
The Classical Source (Richard Whitehouse), June 2003