Eric Whitacre: Grappling with grief
When folks think of the great writers of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, they talk of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Edmund Spenser, and other poets and playwrights. But the most influential wordsmiths of them all may have been the extraordinary collective that produced the King James Bible. It is this language that has influenced the cadences, poetic directness, and expressive possibilities of the English language from John Milton to Martin Luther King, Jr.
English is hard to set to music: somehow it doesn't lend itself like German, Italian, or French to singing. Except perhaps in choral music—which has led to the happy marriage of King James English and Renaissance polyphony. One passage from the Hebrew Scriptures in particular seems to have caught the ear of a number of composers. It's a single verse, 2 Samuel 18:33, and in the version used by the composers, it runs as follows: "When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went down to his chamber over the gate, and wept: and thus he said: 'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
It's a heartbreaking refrain. The Renaissance choral composer Thomas Weelkes
(1576-1623) produced a beautifully lyrical version, as did Thomas Tompkins
(1572-1656). More recently, the American composer Eric Whitacre
(b. 1970) has attempted to capture the overwhelming grief of a parent for their dead child. It's interesting to hear how all three deal with the build-up of emotion within the constraints of the motet/madrigal, polyphonic form. The results, I think, match the restrained intensity of the prose itself. Let me know what you think.