Bible as the source of Western music

The result of comprehensive scientific and systematic research, lists composers and their music in relation to the order of books as they appear in the Bible.

'David playing the Harp,’ 1670, by Jan de Bray (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'David playing the Harp,’ 1670, by Jan de Bray
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In two monumental volumes, Max Stern – a composer, conductor, musicologist and music critic – conducts a systematic review of musical compositions based on biblical texts.
For centuries, the Hebrew Bible inspired numerous composers who, in musical voice, brought to life the experiences of our patriarchs, heroes, kings and prophets.
If, for instance, we listen to a musical composition by Joseph Haydn and ponder how, when and under what circumstances he composed his immortal hymn to creation, based on the Book of Genesis, Stern – in Bible And Music: Influences of the Old Testament on Western Music – provides all the answers.
His effort, the result of major, comprehensive scientific and systematic research, lists composers and their music in relation to the order of books as they appear in the Bible – except for Psalms, which appear in a separate volume – and certainly allows for a better understanding and enjoyment of music by the world’s public.
What inspired, for instance, Arthur Honegger to compose music according to the story of King David and render it in spoken words and tone, as a series of tableaux employing polytonal idioms? The reader will find a complete biography of Honegger the composer and of Rene Morax, his librettist. He will also find the text and context of their work of art, supplemented with ample original quotations.
He will find it interesting how they retell King David’s career in a unique combination of spoken narration, songs, choruses and instrumental portraits, all accompanied by an extensive index of sources.
Or let us enjoy Stern’s interpretation of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice reenact the story of Joseph and convert it into a 20th-century fantasy. They certainly succeeded in reframing a biblical story for a whole new generation of young listeners, and Stern sees the play as a classy, glossy byproduct of the Beatles generation. “The hot sauce of percussion covers everything with a pulsating beat. Prosaic melodies and materials are given variety through simple counterpoints. Its vagueness, though, lies in the transformation of a teen... musical palette [into] entertainment for adults.” A thorough analysis of this spectacular musical follows, containing prologue, two acts and epilogue.
Stern tells us that Lloyd Webber’s rock musical affords us an opportunity to examine the Bible as a source penetrating the world of contemporary musical theater and popular culture. He quotes an appropriate chapter, and provides biographic context of the composer and librettist, along with details of libretto, genre, medium, style, first performance, and texts of the first and second act. There is also a list of related compositions on Joseph, since the theme was found among the earliest oratorio subjects from the beginning of the 17th century.
Prophetic utterances inspired Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, a symphonic essay in which the promises, denunciations, calls for repentance and laments of Jeremiah became implicit subtexts.
The author quotes from Jeremiah, introducing us to the prophet and his time of political upheaval. There is a biographical portrait of Bernstein as a composer and conductor who was fond of improvising at the piano; there are quotations from the symphonic Lamentation of Jeremiah, and of its first performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1944.
These are just a few examples of Stern’s extensive research, covering classical oratorios, melodramas, operas for adults and children, cantatas, musicals, liturgy, chamber music, spirituals, symphonic psalms, coronation anthems, hassidic songs and ballet.
This specter of musical voices is related to the experiences of our biblical ancestors, and interpreted by composers throughout the ages.
The African-American spiritual “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” for instance, inspired by Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot, for solo and choral response, never fails to inspire; Stern provides all details of this extraordinary folk song.
Stern offers his readers more than just musical data, biographies and professional comment. He actively participates in composers’ experiences, explains their music in simple terms and shares with us his understanding of their various concerts, operas and dramas, simultaneously quoting the relevant passages from the Bible.
This deepens the reader’s knowledge and memory of both the biblical text and the accompanying musical voice.
One can only hope that such new and complete musical concordance might, in the not-so-remote future, be actually accompanied by the relevant music for our enjoyment. A better and more complete knowledge of any artistic endeavor is always a blessing; Stern acts as a composers’ biographer, music critic, teacher and guide.
THE BOOK of Psalms influenced musical voices through the ages. In analyzing it, Stern employs the same technique of combining the biblical text with the relevant music, as in the previous volume.
A general introduction to the Book of Psalms, its history and its religious and social relevance, contains a selected bibliography of Psalms which served as a source of inspiration for individual composers.
The author then divides them by the time of their composition, from early Christianity to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Italian-Jewish ghetto and the Protestant Reformation, through the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, up to our own time.
Psalms inspired chants, motets, cantatas, art and music of all dimensions, such as folk, pop and even rock. Bernstein, for instance, composed Chichester Psalms; David Brubeck a jazz pastiche, The Gates of Justice; Salomone Rossi, Baruch Haba; Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. All such compositions are listed, thoroughly studied and explained.
All 150 Psalms are given a complete music and musical exegesis, and a religious, historical and general analysis, accompanied by quotations of relevant verses, improvisations and doxology. There are indexes of accompanying literature and of composers, and a general index, in this well-edited, bound and printed volume.
One can only wonder how the author, a music critic for The Jerusalem Post, the founder of the orchestra and chorus of the Ben-Gurion University, and a professor of music at Ariel University, found the time and patience to create such a huge, painstaking work – a unique achievement not only in the worlds of Bible and music, but in the world’s universal spiritual library.