When David Heard

When David Heard July 2, 2017

I found a variety settings of “When David Heard” from across time to be very useful in my class on the Bible and music. On the one hand, the text itself is interesting, and the choice to set it (sometimes in relation to historical circumstances that make it seem relevant) illuminates the interplay between ancient text and later composers and their historical context. On the other hand, the comparison allowed me to address the question of why older music often sounds boring to listeners today. The simple fact is that our ears become accustomed to certain sounds, so that things which once sounded innovative and fresh come to sound archaic and old hat. If this is true with music from the 1950s, how much more so will it be true of music from the 1650s?

And so I shared Thomas Tomkins’ setting, which sounds a lot like any other music of its time 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.

Robert Ramsey’s setting strikes us in much the same way.

I then compared that with Eric Whitacre’s setting, which premiered in 1999:

You can read about Whitacre’s perspective on the text and setting it to music on his website. A listener today will agree that this music is anything but boring. It has moments of dissonance which grab us, using a modern idiom so that the connection to our ears, brains, and emotions is more direct.

There is a takeaway lesson for those thinking about religious traditions. If you merely repeat the same words in the same way as were shared in bygone generations, the impact will not be the same. What once was provocative, fresh, innovative, and even radical may be conservative, trite, dull, and backwards-looking.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear…

Before ending this post, let me share one more contemporary setting of “When David Heard,” one that is less widely known than Whitacre’s, that by Norman Dinerstein:

Do you have a favorite setting of these words from the Bible? Which setting makes the text come alive in a fresh way for you as a listener today?

Of related interest, there is a call for papers for a conference about music and death, at which work on musical settings such as those discussed in this post would fit in perfectly.

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  • John MacDonald

    Dr. McGrath aptly said: “On the other hand, the comparison allowed me to address the question of why older music often sounds boring to listeners today. The simple fact is that our ears become accustomed to certain sounds, so that things which once sounded innovative and fresh come to sound archaic and old hat.”

    We see an ancient philosophical account of this with the tragic Greeks. The Greeks contrasted the beauty of life for the youth where everything is new, with the tragedy of old age where lust for life has disappeared and beings have gone stale. Pre Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said:

    “αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη (Aion is a child playing draughts; the kingship is the child’s) (Krell 1972 : 64) .” This is the translation of the fragment in Greek by David Farrel Krell. There are many versions of the translation of the fragment. Whereas Miller translates the sentence as “Time (aion), is a child playing (pais paidzon), moving counters on a game board. The kingdom (basileie) belongs to the child (paidos)” The translation by Heidegger where he fed the text with his own interpretation of it is as follows: “The Geschick of being, a child that plays, shifting the pawns: the royalty of a child -that means, the arkhé, that which governs by instituting grounds, the being of beings. The Geschick of being: a child that plays”. (Heidegger 1991 : 113; 1997 : 169).

    Socrates, in the twilight of his life, had enough of life and was happy to die: “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.(Phaedo)” Socrates was saying the poison he was taking was a cure (φάρμακον) for the tragic nature of life.

    • John MacDonald

      Heidegger reminds us that Jacob Burckhardt, working from the insights of one of his teachers, claimed that the Greeks were more unhappy than most people realized. A young Nietzsche obtained an auditor’s transcript of this lecture by Burckhardt and treated it as his most prized possession. This was a foundation for Heidegger’s interpretation of the Greeks (which I wrote my Master’s Thesis on: “Heidegger’s Tragic Greeks: The Relationship Between Presence and δεινόν”).