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Program: #19-20, Air Date: 05/06/19

Note: For this month and next, we share interviews from our recent journey to England celebrating some of the great conductors and ensemble. Suzi Digby joins us with the latest from her Ora Singers, featuring “the sensuous and highly-charged texts of the Song of Songs."

 
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The wealth of compositions using the sensuous and highly charged texts of the Song of Songs is incredibly vast and rich. In the course of compiling this recording I re-discovered music that I have known for years, was introduced to pieces I didn’t know existed, and was privileged to commission a couple of works to add to this wonderful legacy of compositional material. Taken as a whole, the collection of pieces gathered here presents a varied and enlightening journey through the book of Song of Songs, and through the musical language of different centuries. I hope that both those that are well known and those that are new discoveries will encourage listeners to delve further into this miraculous repertoire.- Suzi Digby OBE
 
Suzi Digby OBE
was born in Japan and lived in Hong Kong, Mexico and the Philippines before settling in London & Cambridge. She is an internationally renowned Choral Conductor and Music Educator. She has trail-blazed the revival of singing in UK schools and the community over two and a half decades. 

Suzi founded and runs the following influential National arts/education organisations: The Voices Foundation (the UK’s leading Primary Music Education Charity); Voce Chamber Choir (one of London’s finest young Chamber Choirs); Vocal Futures (Nurturing young [16-22] audiences for Classical Music); Singing4Success (Leadership and ‘Accelerated Learning’ for Corporates) and The London Youth Choir (a pyramid of 5 choirs, 8-22, serving all ethnic communities in London’s 33 boroughs). Suzi is also a visiting Professor at University of Southern California (Choral Studies) and in 2014 launched her Californian professional vocal consort, The Golden Bridge. 

As a conductor, Suzi’s 2011 debut with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Vocal Futures’ Bach’s St Matthew Passion) was met with outstanding critical acclaim: “Choral wizard”, “The mother of all music”, The Telegraph; “Sensitive and accomplished conductor”, Musical America; “A serious force for good within Britain’s music education system”, New Statesman. Suzi annually conducts 2,000 voices in the Royal Albert Hall in a scratch Youth Messiah which, last year, this was awarded Best Classical Music Education Initiative Nationwide by popular Classic FM vote. Suzi has conducted many major choral-orchestral works with, amongst others: BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Brandenburg Festival Orchestra. Venues at which she has conducted include The Royal Albert Hall; St John’s Smith Square; the Gstaad Festival; Ambika P3, London; St Martin in the Fields; St James’ Piccadilly; King’s College Chapel, Cambridge; and (with the Rolling Stones) O2; Glastonbury Festival and Hyde Park. 

Suzi is a Trustee of Music in Country Churches, among other music and education charities. She is Past President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and was Acting Music Director of Queens’ College, Cambridge (where she founded and runs the Queens’ Choral Conducting Programme). Amongst many TV appearances, she was judge in BBC1’s hit show, Last Choir Standing with over seven million viewers. She regularly adjudicates choral competitions and gives workshops and lectures around the world. 

 
 
The Song of Songs is one of the most beautiful, most feared, most misunderstood books within both the Jewish and Christian traditions. To start to understand the depth, passion and uniqueness of this text I will explain where the book has come from and how it is translated. I will comment on the man Solomon to whom this book belongs, and will write about interpretation and allegory. I will reflect in fallible ways how we can glimpse something of the infallible and eternal.
Welcome to the Song of Songs.
 
The Song of Songs (often referred to as the Song of Solomon), is a book from the Jewish Scriptures and as part of such is one of the Canonical Old Testament books of the Christian faith. With respect to Jewish literature used within the Hebrew Bible there are the books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The Torah consists of the books that recount the various versions of the history of God’s chosen people. The Prophets predict and speak to both interpreting God’s actions in the past and present for his people, whilst also setting out the Divine plan for the future of humankind and salvation. Within the ‘Writings’ of the Jewish Bible, we find books of Poetry and Wisdom. Books with various authors (even within each book) that seek to inspire, amaze and baffle the readers with how God’s power and presence transcends every level of life and even death.
 
A collection of three books in the category of ‘Writings’ are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. They are grouped together by their explicit connection (if not part authorship) with Solomon. This connection with the great ancient king (more of which is below) also leads to the name of ‘The Three books of Wisdom’. Whilst Proverbs and Ecclesiastes focus on practical wisdom, the Song of Songs focuses on the wisdom found only in intimate love; the knowledge of the other only found when you are so close, on every plane, to the one you love.
 
The original language text of the Song of Songs was Hebrew. This then, along with the other Old Testament text, is either translated directly to English, or historically to a Latin text (the Vulgate) and then from Latin to English. There are two difficulties in translating the Song of Songs. The first is that – like much poetry in the Old Testament – the original text was chosen with reference to rhythm and rhyming word in the original text. This means that when the translated, individual, words are placed into other languages either the flow or the meter of the text can seem less beautiful than the original was intended to be. For translators this always presents a choice between a literal translation and a thematic translation. Both are represented in this album including one translation from the Vulgate. The second problem is a particular issue in translating this book. This is that many of the illustrations of beauty, strength and faithfulness are in the context of specific geographical sites or unique regional demographics. This inevitably means the original readers would have had a clear understanding of the intention of some of the phrases and what is being implied, whilst we, as modern day readers, singers or composers perhaps have to work harder, often with a good commentary to hand.
 
With all that is said about the problems of translation and understanding the original Song of Songs, at the most basic and most striking level this is a book that describes a conversation between and about a couple. More than that, it is passionate and sexually explicit. It is tender and lustful. It is boastful and coy. This has led, over the years, for this book to be viewed with suspicion or even contempt. Within some rabbinic training this book was not allowed to be read until the age of thirty as it was seen as so explicit. There are many examples in Christian history – especially within monasteries – where only the most devout, spiritually strong and mature were allowed access to this potentially dangerous text. However, as we shall see below, this book contains many layers, many themes and has been used by many to read and learn something of the wisdom of God, and the wisdom God has for His people. First let me say something about the man Solomon. Solomon succeeded King David, who had been commissioned and anointed by God to replace Saul, Israel’s first king.
 
Solomon was not the first son of David and his elevation is seen as one of the ways in which God, in the early history of revelation, worked his Grace. Solomon was David’s second son by Bathsheba, who had been the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah was one of David’s finest military leaders. David, having fallen in love with Bathsheba, and committing adultery with her, arranged for Uriah to be placed in a battle that would mean certain death for him. This occurred and David subsequently married Bathsheba. It is to the amazement of those reading the book of Samuel in the Old
 
The Old Testament that God would then bless the life of the offspring of this corrupt, murderous and scandalous relationship. It is however an early example – seen throughout the Scriptures – of God revealing His power and ability to turn the most reprehensible traits of humans to reveal something of His purpose to His chosen people. David appoints Solomon as his heir. God offers to Solomon anything he desired. Solomon asked for wisdom to rule his people well. We are told in the early chapters of 1 Kings that God, in response to Solomon’s request, not only makes him the wisest man in the kingdom, but also gave him wealth, honour and a long life. This pouring out of wisdom – recognised by the people – gives rise to the three books attributed to Solomon as the Books of Wisdom.
 
The story does not end there – as with many of the Biblical characters. Despite the immense Blessings bestowed on Solomon the temptation to deviate from God’s path is too great. Before Solomon’s time we read in earlier books concerning Moses that kings must not ‘acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away [from God]’ (Deuteronomy 17.17 NRSV). Disregarding this, Solomon took many wives and concubines. Within the Song of Songs (chapter 6, verse 8) sixty wives and eighty concubines are identified. Involvement, and often marriage, with princesses and women of power in the time of Solomon was seen as a political instrument to secure agreements and treaties. This would have meant Solomon embracing other cultures and gods with his new acquaintances. God finds worship of other gods to be a sin. The result was a lonely and empty death for Solomon and 1 Kings Chapter 11 shows the direct result of Solomon’s errors leading to the splitting of his old immense kingdom into two under the reign of his son Rehoboam. 
 
We have to ask whether the writings of this man, Solomon – with this ‘mixed bag’ of desirable and detestable qualities – are worthy of inclusion, study and focus in this album. The answer is a resounding yes. As mentioned above, God – throughout Scripture  – uses the weakness of His subjects to show us essential and eternal knowledge. This is not just an Old Testament trait. Jesus bestowed the leadership of His future Church to Peter; a man He knew to be sinful, a man that would reject Him not once but three times, but a man through whom He knew the Holy Spirit could work. Throughout Scripture both the blessed and dissolute are chosen by God to fulfil His purpose. We remember the inspired words of St Paul: ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3.16-17, NRSV). The Song of Songs is definitely worthy of study, art and music. 
 
For anyone who is wanting to get the most out of this album a key tool will be in understanding how theologians have understood the concept of allegory. An allegory is where an abstract or spiritual meaning can be represented by material forms; treatment of one subject under the guise of another. The Song of Songs has long been seen as a celebration of love, physical intimacy which the text directly suggests, but also in allegorical form. As with all interpretation of texts, different insights have been suggested, revealed and discussed over time. Scholars, since the original text of the Song of Songs, have suggested who the two main characters in the love song may represent. Early Jewish thought pointed to the two lovers being God and His people; the nation of Israel being the selected, special and unique bride of God. Within Christian theology early allegory was seen between God and His Church; between the Divine and those who put their trust in Him. Within the twelfth century a strong devotion grew to an understanding of the female lover being the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is an image that presents the Incarnation and embodiment of God in human form coming from the relationship – physical and with pregnancy – between God the Father and Mary to gift the world with God the Son. With all the allegorical interpretation there is a realness, a tangibility, a closeness of God and human kind, being communicated by the inspired author.
 
There is a rich tradition that for thousands of years has transformed talented, well presented music and art into something sublime; a glimpse of something that is so impossibly beautiful that the recipients simply marvel. Be it the spontaneous outbursts of song with those returning from exile in the Psalms or the terrifyingly beautiful realisation of God’s desire to be near us in an artist’s depiction of the Annunciation. The ideas summed up in the Song of Songs, that not only is there a connection between God and man, but that that connection is one of sensuality, penetrating to the core of all individuals, whilst actually being heard, understood and felt by the same God. This is revolutionary, new and exciting to readers and hearers alike. 
 
A Christian way of understanding this enhanced Godly beauty in our lives is recounted by Saint Louis De Mountfort when he writes: ‘Saint Gregory of Nyssa says that we are all artists and that our souls are blank canvasses which we have to fill in. The colours which we use are the Christian virtues, and the original which we have to copy is Jesus Christ, the perfect living image of God the Father. Just as a painter who wants to do a life-like portrait places the model before his eyes and looks at it before making each stroke, so the Christian must always have before his eyes the life and virtues of Jesus Christ, so as never to say, think or do anything which is not in conformity with his model.’ (Secrets of the Rosary, 1719). Through music, performance and meditation we continue to paint our own canvasses every day. On this album the beauty, subtlety, and wisdom of Scripture is brought to us. Whilst being performed by some of the best musical talent of our age we can be struck afresh with something that is beyond words. To be taken away from the busyness, the hectic tasks that infect our lives; in this music we find a retreat. A place where we can begin to see through the smoky glass, seeing dimly but certainly something of what is true and beautiful and our real purpose in Creation. This music will join the tradition and history of those creating ways to explain, illuminate and inspire those with wisdom that is greater than any we could compose on our own.
The very title ‘Song of Songs’ suggests its importance and pre-eminence over all other songs and music. It is offered here to transform and inspire your lives, relationships and reality. 
(Notes: Revd Tim Harling, Chaplain, Queens’ College Cambridge, 2017)
 

A Song of Songs collection

  • 1 Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-1512/13) Sicut lilium inter spinas   
  • 2 Jacob Clemens non Papa (c. 1510/15-c. 1555/56) Ego flos campi 
  • 3 Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) I am the Rose of Sharon
  • Julie Cooper, Zoe Brookshaw sopranos, Kim Porter mezzo soprano Jeremy Budd tenor, William Gaunt bass  
  • 4 Rodrigo de Ceballos (c. 1525/30-c. 1581) Hortus conclusus  
  • 5 Plainchant Tota pulchra es 
  • 6 Robert White (c. 1538-1574) Tota pulchra es 
  • 7 Francis Grier (b. 1955)  Dilectus meus mihi
    Julie Cooper, Katy Hill sopranos, Hannah Cooke, Kim Porter mezzo sopranos Jeremy Budd, Nicholas Madden tenors, Ben Davies, Edmund Saddington basse 
  • 8 Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495-c. 1560) Quam pulchra es 
    Steven Harrold tenor, Richard Bannan, Ben Davies baritones, William Gaunt bass
  • 9 Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) Vadam et circuibo civitatem 
  • 10 Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) Vadam et circuibo civitatem* 
  • 11 Sebastián de Vivanco (c. 1551-1622) Veni, dilecte mi 
  • 12 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26-1594) Duo ubera tua 
  • 13 Juan Esquivel (c. 1560-c. 1624) Surge propera amica mea 
  • 14 John Barber (b.  1980) Sicut lilium*   

Composer Info

Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-1512/13), Jacob Clemens non Papa (c. 1510/15-c. 1555/56), Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962), Rodrigo de Ceballos (c. 1525/30-c. 1581), Robert White (c. 1538-1574), Rodrigo de Ceballos (c. 1525/30-c. 1581), Robert White (c. 1538-1574), Francis Grier (b. 1955), Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495-c. 1560), Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), Sebastián de Vivanco (c. 1551-1622), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26-1594), Juan Esquivel (c. 1560-c. 1624) , John Barber (b.  1980) )