11 King David (and His Family, Friends, and Enemies)

In this chapter you will

  • learn about King David, who is depicted in the Bible as being a musician
  • reflect on what may be distinctive or particularly interesting about music that explores the life of a musician
  • consider how musical interpretations of David’s relationships with other individuals, such as Bathsheba, Jonathan, and Absalom, may gain emotional power through musical retelling but also have their meaning altered or adapted in ways that deserve close scrutiny

Introduction: David in Music and as Musician

King David is a figure who stands at a number of interesting points of intersection. He is a key figure in Judaism and Christianity. He is the founder of a dynasty, and when that dynasty was interrupted, the result was hope for its restoration, expressed in terms of a future anointed one (Messiah/Christ), a hope that Christians consider to be fulfilled in Jesus. David is viewed as the author of many psalms (although the Hebrew wording used, “to David,” may indicate a dedication to or sponsorship by the Davidic king rather than authorship by David himself). David is said to have been a musician according to 1 Samuel 16, which says that the king before him—Saul, the first king of Israel—employed David precisely for his musical ability to relieve the suffering Saul experienced at the hands of an afflicting spirit.

Here is an Israeli song that highlights and explores some of the things the Bible says about David (performed by the Yamma Ensemble and shared by them on their YouTube channel).

Arthur Honegger wove together music and narration in his telling of the story of David, Le Roi David (1921). Darius Milhaud is another twentieth-century composer who explored David’s life. Carl Nielsen of Denmark focused on David and Saul in his work. Contemporary composer Susan Bingham has explored stories about David and Jonathan (the son of King Saul) in a chancel opera commissioned by the Gay Christians’ Readings Group of Christ Church Parish in New Haven, Connecticut, in the United States. Josef Tal has set a story from the life of Saul in his Saul at Tel Dor. The oratorio Saul by G. F. Handel also expands on the stories in many of the texts mentioned here.


The relationship of David to Jonathan is an important topic in its own right, with aspects of it underexplored through music, not least that of same-sex attraction. Here is a famous setting by Thomas Weelkes of O Jonathan, woe is me, David’s lament on hearing of Jonathan’s death, performed by the Queen’s Six in the Marble Hall in the Monastery of St. Florian in Austria and shared by the performers on their YouTube channel.


In cinematic depictions of the life of David (whether in film, television, animation, or any other form), music plays a significant role in providing the viewer with interpretive cues and reinforcing the meaning conveyed through words and images. Consider, for example, Alfred Newman’s score for the movie David and Bathsheba.[1] You can watch the entire movie online, and if you choose to do so, listen closely to the music. On the other hand, it would be an interesting challenge to listen to the music on its own and see if you can guess what is happening in each scene. You can then either watch the movie or look up information about the score to see if you were correct.

There is a long tradition of depicting the story of David and Bathsheba as one of mutually consensual adultery. If we pay close attention to the details, however, we will see that nothing indicates Bathsheba’s consent. After seeing Bathsheba bathing from the vantage point of the roof of his palace, David sends men to bring her to him when her husband, Uriah, is away. That undoubtedly gave him the opportunity to see places that were otherwise concealed from view and whose inhabitants would have considered them private. There is a version of the song “Hallelujah” with words changed to be about Bathsheba that focuses on this.[2]


A text from the story of David that has been set to music very often over the centuries is 2 Samuel 18:33. Works that set this text about David’s lament after receiving the news of the death of his son Absalom usually bear the title of the first words in the passage: “When David Heard.” Considering examples of settings from across time can be useful in a number of ways, and this text has been set so frequently that it affords ample opportunity to do so. The specific circumstances in the story of David and Absalom are rather unique, yet the experience of loss of one’s child is alas not uncommon. Surveying the different historical and personal circumstances that make it seem relevant to different composers illuminates the interplay between ancient text and those who sought solace and/or inspiration in setting it to music. A comparison across time may also help you understand why older music often sounds boring, or at least less emotional and moving, to listeners today. The simple fact is that our ears become accustomed to certain sounds, so things that once sounded innovative and fresh come to sound archaic and “old hat” (an expression that itself has, I believe, gone out of fashion). Creation of tension and the pushing of the boundaries of acceptable sound and harmony followed by a resolution to something more pleasing to the ear play a major role in how music impacts us emotionally. Apart from possible nostalgia, music from the 1950s may connect with a new listener less powerfully on an emotional level than something from their own time, which speaks their own musical language. How much more so will this be true of music from the 1650s?

With this in mind, listen to Thomas Tomkins’s setting, which sounds a lot like any other music of its time (the seventeenth century) to most modern listeners, especially on a first hearing. The harmonic language is clearly that of a bygone era, even if we can recognize the composer’s skill. The same may be said of Robert Ramsey’s setting from the same time period.[3]

If one then listens to Eric Whitacre’s recent setting, begun on the occasion of the death of the son of a friend of his, the use of dissonance and harmony tends to be experienced differently by a modern listener. The dissonance in this example provides a good illustration of how clashing sounds can help convey emotions like agony and grief. The use of repetition also plays a part in this. Notice as well how effectively the composer uses the contrast between an individual or just a few voices and many voices singing different notes simultaneously. The interplay between complexity and simplicity is also a factor in the emotional impact of music. For those who read music, this video of the song together with the score shows how these effects are accomplished. The piece is also available on SoundCloud courtesy of the composer.

You can read about Whitacre’s perspective on the text and setting it to music on his website. Looking at the score while listening provides a visual representation of what the composer has done at many of the key emotional moments, one that will likely be understood even by those who do not read music. A listener today will agree that this music is anything but boring. It has moments of dissonance that grab us, using a modern idiom so that the connection to our ears, brains, and emotions is more direct. We can think about this in relation to not only music but also religious texts and ideas. Merely repeating the same words in the same way as they were uttered in bygone generations will not have the same impact they originally had. What once was provocative, fresh, innovative, and even radical may come to seem conservative, trite, dull, and backward-looking.

If you would like to hear what another contemporary composer has done with these words, Norman Dinerstein’s work provides another good example, as also does Richard Burchard’s and that of David Diamond.[4]

More Music about David

Herbert Howells’s song “King David” is not a setting of a biblical text, but its lyrics use the biblical character to explore the relationship between music and grief. Howells has also set Psalm 42:1–3, Psalm 84:9–10, and Psalm 118:24 (as well as incorporating still others into his Hymnus Paradisi, which we discuss in another chapter). Some musical settings of the Psalms highlight their connection with David and/or focus on those psalms in the Hebrew Bible that are specifically attributed to him. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is one example. There is also a musical King David with words by Tim Rice and music by Alan Menken (better known for their collaboration on Disney animated musicals Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast). Rice also provided the words to Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The King David musical was initially commissioned to commemorate the three thousandth anniversary of the city of Jerusalem.

The life of David and the stories of Israelite monarchs have been given a great many different kinds of musical treatment. There is drama, heroism, abuse of power, lament, romance, conflict, and through it all a significant amount of singing mentioned in the relevant texts themselves.

For Further Reading

Godt, Irving. “Prince Henry as Absalom in David’s Lamentations.” Music & Letters 62, nos. 3/4 (1981): 318–30. Accessed September 26, 2022. http://www.jstor.org/stable/736624.

Horst, Dirk von der. Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017.

Leneman, Helen. Love, Lust, and Lunacy: The Stories of Saul and David in Music. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010.

———. “Portrayals of Power in the Stories of Delilah and Bathsheba: Seduction in Song.” In Culture, Entertainment and the Bible, edited by George Aichele, 139–55. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

McColley, Diane Kelsey. Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


  1. The soundtrack includes a setting of Psalm 23.
  2. The original by Leonard Cohen is discussed in chapter 20 on allusions.
  3. Performance by the Choir of Clare College, provided to YouTube by the Orchard Enterprises. Copyright 2011 Regis Records.
  4. There are recordings on YouTube of performances of the latter by Mildred Miller and Rev. Eric Nielsen.


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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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