14 Song of Songs
In this chapter you will
- encounter settings in different styles of words from the Bible’s book of romantic poetry, the Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon)
- explore whether musical settings of parts of the Song of Songs help you engage with its celebration of erotic love
Picking up a theme introduced in chapter 13 on Ruth, the most promising text in the Bible for exploration in romantic terms is the Song of Songs (also called the Canticle of Canticles or the Song of Solomon). Yet there is a long history of turning that text into an allegory about the love between God and Israel or Christ and the church. It thus turns out that the Bible’s erotic poetry gets used in worship, while texts with fewer elements of romance and sexual desire have been turned into operas with those elements. There are, however, exceptions, and here is an example of words from Song of Songs being turned into a folk song in Israel. The song, Dodi li (My beloved is mine), became popular much farther afield (as indicated by this performance by Rika Zarai in France in 1960).
Also, Percy Grainger composed “Love Verses from the Song of Songs.”
The title of Romanian composer Laurenţiu Ganea’s setting, “Shir HaShirim—Cântarea Cântărilor,” is in both Hebrew and Romanian, but the text is only the Hebrew. You may also enjoy listening to the musical explorations of parts of the Song of Songs by Yehezkel Braun, Lukas Foss, and others. Here are two by Marc Lavry in Hebrew, provided to YouTube by the Marc Lavry Heritage Society.
Alexander Knaifel’s Make Me Drunk with Your Kisses sets up an expectation of romantic expression that the music may be perceived by listeners as conveying.
When a work has a Latin title like Flos Campi, it can be easy to miss that the Song of Songs is its source. However, even when works have English titles, some listeners may not recognize the source of the words. Take, for instance, “Arise My Love” by Stephen Paulus (performed here by the Northwest Tower Choir).
Some settings of “Set Me as a Seal” include that by Nico Muhly.
Here is another setting of “Set Me as a Seal,” this one by William Walton, performed by the choir of St. John’s College Cambridge.
Ryan Malone has set the entire book to music. Emmanuel Chabrier’s La Sulamite is a setting of poetry based on the Song of Songs (the Morgan Library and Museum has the composer’s original manuscript digitized). Kate Bush’s “Song of Solomon” refers to the work in the title but bears little direct connection with the biblical text. Sinéad O’Connor’s “Dark I Am Yet Lovely,” on the other hand, is a setting of biblical text. It features prominently in this interview about her album Theology, on which the song appears.
For Further Reading
Matter, E. Ann. The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Sofer, Danielle. “The Macropolitics of Microsound: Gender and Sexual Identities in Barry Truax’s Song of Songs.” Organised Sound 23, no. 1 (2018): 80–90.
- Zarai also sang a song in French with the title “Exodus,” which was from the soundtrack of a film by the same name. The movie focused not on the exodus described in the Bible but on the founding of the modern state of Israel. ↵
- Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group. ↵
- Ganea has also composed a trilogy about Job’s sufferings. ↵
- Shared to YouTube by Hal Leonard Choral. ↵
- Licensed to YouTube by Naxos. ↵