I recently discovered that several excerpts from Andrea Clearfield’s piece “Women of Valor” are on YouTube. This is an oratorio focused on the stories of women in the Bible. I had wanted to highlight it in my class on the Bible and music more than I was able to, as there was not yet a CD commercially available. That has now changed, as the piece was released on CD this year. Below are the YouTube excerpts for you to listen to. You can also find the whole thing on Spotify. The album notes can also be found online.
You can learn more about the oratorio on the composer’s website, and in the book The Bible Retold by Jewish Artists, Writers, Composers and Filmmakers. You can read my review of that book in the Review of Biblical Literature.
What do you think of the piece? The narration often incorporates a perspective on the Biblical story that is not the dominant one in the narrative in the Hebrew Bible itself. For instance, I really like Sarah’s perspective on her life experiences, and the tension between the lofty declarations by a soprano about her and the quasi-romantic feel of the orchestra that accompanies those words on the one hand, and the harshness of what Sarah herself says and the musical accompaniment. When the divine voice comes in, there is thus an appropriate darkness to its feel, as an attentive listener will understand that the promise that is being made to Abraham has literally and emotionally painful implications for his wife. Miriam’s movement is also striking, as she speaks on behalf not just of ancient Israelite women but Jewish women throughout the ages. And if Miriam is brought close to the listener through her narrated part, when Hannah speaks in Hebrew it has a rather opposite (but equally striking) effect for the English-speaking listener. On the whole, I really like Clearfield’s compositional style, which is beautiful and modern, melodic and dissonant as appropriate, working in just enough hints of historic Jewish music as we know it in our time so as to create a mood that feels “biblical” (for want of a better word).
Of related interest, Rachel Held Evans has interesting explorations of the theme of “women of valor” on her blog and in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. You can find my review of that book on my blog.