Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text

incidental music—those genres where a religious sensibility cannot exactly be taken for granted. In any case, a completely exhaustive study of the Bible in music would be exhausting if not impossible. If you are going to admit a small number of motets and carols into the study, as Letellier does, then why not church anthems and canticles more generally? (Answer: there are an impracticable number of them.) And if not only Messiaen’s piano cycle, Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, but also some of his major organ cycles are included, then why not other great bodies of the organ literature with a biblical basis?

A lot of the book is devoted to lists and synopses, making it a work for reference rather than reading pleasure. To begin at the beginning (of the Bible, not this book), though the primordial parents of humanity get a mention with Johann Theile’s Adam und Eva—appropriately enough composed for the opening of the first public opera house in Germany, Hamburg’s Theater am Gänsemarkt—the author misses the opportunity to explore more fully how Biblical subjects came to dominate the early years of opera there as part of the management’s quest to placate church authorities resentful of the new show in town. On the subject of creation, it is perhaps odd to find Milhaud’s Création du Monde included, that masterfully compact ballet based on an African creation myth, not the biblical version, though discussion of Milhaud is always welcome and it’s good to be reminded of his large-scale opera David, premiered in Jerusalem in 1954. Surprisingly, too, Statkowski’s Maria is listed, despite it having nothing to do with any of the biblical Marys, while Mikołaj Gomółka’s settings of Jan Kochanowski’s pioneering Polish psalm translations do not appear. (Kochanowski was the greatest poet of the entire Slavonic world before the 19th century, and, as the historian Norman Davies puts it, his Psałterz Dawidów ‘did for Polish what Luther’s Bible did for German’.) One could draw up a long list of possible

Opera, December 2018

omissions, but a few examples will have to suffice: it’s curious not to find Kuhnau’s celebrated Biblical Sonatas here, nor Stravinsky included in the list of settings of the Lord’s Prayer. Martinů’s Greek Passion fails to make the cut, and despite his prolific engagement with biblical subjects Castelnuovo-Tedesco is absent altogether. Though ‘classical music’ is implied rather than spelt out in the book’s title, it’s mildly disconcerting to find Letellier including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell here, not to mention wasting space on Karl Jenkins.

What the book really needs, apart from tighter editing, is fewer synopses and more on the Bible’s role in inspiring composers. One of the more interesting points—‘The hypothesis of Greek tragic inspiration for opera and a more reflective, pastoral Hebrew heritage for oratorio, presents a fascinating bifurcation crucial to the story of the Bible and its rich and complex relation to


Skip to main content