15 Esther

In this chapter you will

  • discover the connection of the famous story of Queen Esther with the holiday Purim
  • learn why and in what ways Esther’s story has become the subject of such a varied array of instrumental works, oratorios, operas, plays, and movies

Purim is a Jewish holiday that has a largely comedic focus, and much music associated with the occasion is likewise far from serious. Yet the story that provides the inspiration for the holiday, the book of Esther in the Bible, has much more somber subject matter, and musical treatments thereof have often reflected that. Some have wedded the two—the festive holiday and the tale of genocide avoided. Add to this resonances with the composers’ own time, as in the case of Darius Milhaud’s Esther de Carpentras (which is about an effort to stage a performance of the story and a Catholic official’s determination to use the occasion to try to get the Jewish community to renounce its faith and identity), and the musical exploration of the Esther story may prove extremely rich and multifaceted indeed.

Aaron Avshalomov’s Four Biblical Tableaux makes “Queen Esther’s Prayer” its first movement. Benjamin Ivry’s article in Forward about Hugo Weisgall’s opera Esther reflects on its significance both in relation to the composer’s own experience and, when performed more recently, in the wake of September 11, 2001. Neil W. Levin writes in his liner notes for a Milken Archive recording of the work that Weisgall and librettist Charles Kondek took significant liberties with the biblical story. Yet the fact that we have different ancient versions of the book of Esther makes it hard to fault any modern librettist or composer for expansion or selectivity (compare the version in Catholic Bibles, based on the expanded Greek version, with that in Jewish and Protestant Bibles to see what I mean). Also particularly striking is Jan Meyerowitz’s symphony Midrash Esther. Midrash is a traditional form of Jewish literature that often included retellings of biblical stories that expanded on dialogue, explored things left unsaid, and otherwise sought to fathom the depths of scriptural narratives in ways only accessible if one employs this sort of creative liberty. Musical treatments of biblical texts are by definition “midrashic” in character, yet Meyerowitz stands out in explicitly acknowledging this and drawing attention to it.

Musical treatments of the story are not limited to Jewish composers. Handel’s oratorio Esther represents the first English oratorio, and his choice to set this particular text deserves further exploration beyond what we can give it here. There is also incidental music composed by Danish composer C. F. E. Horneman. American composer William Bradbury’s treatment in Esther, the Beautiful Queen, with libretto by Chauncey Marvin Cady, incorporates other texts from Scripture and also alludes to a number of hymns. The published score included an excerpt from the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’s expansion on the biblical narrative. Musicologist Juanita Karpf writes on this subject,

Although most of the work’s lyrics consist of paraphrased excerpts from the Book of Esther, Cady also inserted his own verses along with passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and the Psalms. Bradbury appended another well-known version of the Esther narrative to the score—the essay “Concerning Esther, and Mordecai, and Haman,” written by the first-century historian Josephus. Some 6,700 words in length, this essay was often printed in programs distributed at performances of Esther. While Bradbury did not set any portion of Josephus’s narrative to music, he considered its inclusion in concert programs and in his score to be important enough to justify the considerable expense of additional paper and printing: “Josephus’ account of Esther is so full and complete, that it will very much enhance the interest of the piece.”[1]

Since Josephus’s retelling (in his Jewish Antiquities 11.6) is itself a form of midrash, that returns our musical exploration of the story of Esther here to where it began. The intersecting resonances among multiple biblical texts, retellings of the Bible, a holiday connected with the story, and musical interpretation of the story containing echoes of multiple musical works, potentially accompanied by a printed program, all come together in this way to illustrate well the nature of what scholars following Julia Kristeva have called intertextuality.[2] A text is not and can never be sealed off as an isolated entity unto itself. This is true of musical “texts” (whether written or performed and heard) every bit as much as literary ones (whether written or spoken and heard).[3]

For Further Reading

Karpf, Juanita. “If It’s in the Bible, It Can’t Be Opera: William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen, in Defiance of Genre.” American Music 29, no. 1 (2011): 1–34.

———. “Populism with Religious Restraint: William B. Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen.” Popular Music Society 23, no. 1 (1999): 1–29.

Kilgannon, Corey. “Purim! The Musical.” New York Times, March 18, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/nyregion/purim-the-musical.html.

Kneebone, Emily. “Dilemmas of the Diaspora: The Esther Narrative in Josephus Antiquities 11.184–296.” Ramus 36, no. 1 (2007): 51–77.

Walker, Jennifer. “Darius Milhaud, Esther De Carpentras, and the French Interwar Identity Crisis.” MA thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015.


  1. Juanita Karpf, “If It’s in the Bible, It Can’t Be Opera: William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen, in Defiance of Genre,American Music 29, no. 1 (2011): 4.
  2. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 36–37.
  3. Also of interest is Victoria Bond’s work Sacred Sisters, which provides a musical exploration of the characters of Ruth, Esther, and Judith.


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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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