People and Genres

34 Andrea Clearfield

In this chapter you will

  • learn how one contemporary composer draws on a range of historical and contemporary sources in producing her own unique creation
  • have the opportunity to reflect on music as biblical interpretation and how music can help highlight neglected aspects of biblical stories about women

We mentioned Andrea Clearfield’s Women of Valor suite and her “Hagar” in chapter 9 about Isaac and his family. More needs to be said about the former work. In the program notes to accompany performances of the piece, Clearfield writes,

The musical material for Women of Valor incorporates ancient Hebrew synagogue chants as well as other traditional melodies which are sung to the Eishet Hayil text. These melodies are woven through the piece like a tapestry, connecting threads between the old and the new. A Renaissance technique, soggetto cavato dalle vocali, was employed where a theme is carved out from the vowels of a phrase. Thus, the theme for the oratorio was created from the vowels of “Women of Valor” where o-e-o-a-o becomes do-re-do-fa-sol. Likewise, the longer version of the theme, do-re-do-fa-sol-sol-la-ti, is derived from the vowels of the words “Women of Valor, Who Can Find?” and rises like this question from the opening of Proverbs 31. Heard in a multiplicity of forms, this theme pervades the work. Another structural element is shaped by the acrostic nature of Proverbs 31, which uses each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Women of Valor employs a 22-note scale which was devised from three synagogue prayer modes, providing a musical representation of the literary acrostic. Each line of the biblical text is sung on a consecutive degree of the scale, preceded by a chime tone.

While not an authentic representation of any traditional ritual, prayer or musical style, Women of Valor is influenced by cantorial ornamentation, biblical instruments, Jewish dance forms and Middle-Eastern and Sephardic music so that these elements became resources for color, melody, rhythm, phrasing and orchestration. Mixed meters, syncopated rhythms, traditional scales and percussion instruments such as the dumbek, rik (small tambourine), finger cymbals and sistrem add a Middle-Eastern ambience to the composition. Portions of ancient melodic patterns, called tropes, sung to the Torah, can be heard in the Sarah, Miriam, Hannah and Ruth arias as well as in fragments and layers in the orchestral prelude and other interludes. The centerpiece of the work, “Miriam’s Dance,” was inspired by the biblical heroine, Miriam, who led the women in song and dance after the crossing of the Red Sea. Among the tropes woven through the dance is the particular melodic pattern that is chanted to Miriam’s “Song of the Sea” in the Book of Exodus.[1]

The entirety of those program notes, as well as the additional information found on the composer’s website, are all worth exploring in full detail. The excerpt above provides insight not only into the process of setting a biblical text to music but into approaches to composition more generally. The composer has found ways of embedding aspects of a text, right down to its structure and/or its vowel sounds, into the music. The work thus not only explores the biblical text but weaves in historical elements and instrumentation that connect this contemporary music with the historic musical traditions that have explored the same stories down through the ages.

You can hear more from the Women of Valor suite (whether in the full orchestral version or in a chamber arrangement) on the author’s website and on the YouTube channels of some whose performances of the work have been recorded. The LA Jewish Symphony has shared several of the movements of the full orchestral version.

Soprano Anne Slovin has several performances of the chamber arrangement on YouTube.[2]

Listening to the same movement or work in more than one arrangement can also help listeners appreciate aspects of the work in new ways. On Clearfield’s own YouTube channel, you will also find another work of hers that sets biblical text in the form of one word: “Alleluia.”

If you haven’t already done so, now might be a good time to read chapter 20 on alleluias and the nature of biblical allusions.

  1. Andrea Clearfield, Women of Valor program notes, August 2009,
  2. Anne Slovin, soprano, and Michael Gaertner, piano, perform Clearfield’s Women of Valor on April 14, 2018, in the Auer Hall at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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