David (and Bathsheba) in Song

David (and Bathsheba) in Song February 27, 2018

There is a lot of music about King David, the Biblical character, as well as much more that purports to be by him. My most recent discovery in this subgenre is by Greek composer Eleni Karandraiou, and it is especially interesting, since it is a setting of an 18th century Greek work about David, making it doubly if not triply historically interesting.

Turning to another composer’s setting, there is a wealth of information online about Milhaud’s David (op.320), including an online exhibit of letters from/to/about the composer and this composition. That entire work is on YouTube in two parts, which is a relief since there doesn’t appear to be a commercial recording currently in print!

In Milhaud’s oratorio, we only get the story of Bathsheba and David in retrospective near the end, as they both look back with regret on their actions:

The meaning conveyed is that the tragic events that unfolded were the result of what we would call an affair, in which the two of them willingly engaged.

The story of Bathsheba begins about 45 minutes into the English version of Artur Honegger’s Le Roi David in the recording below:

The music is solemn rather than alluring or romanticized, but there is nevertheless some ambiguity, even if the overall sense that one gets is of David being the focus of action and blame.

Especially problematic is the rendition in the movie David and Bathsheba, scored by Alfred Newman, which you can (as of my posting this) watch online in its entirety:

There it has David initially appear to be the blameworthy party, only to then introduce deliberate seduction on Bathsheba’s part. On the one hand, turning her into a strong character in this way, who is able to get what she wants from the king, has some merit as a transformation of a story set in a patriarchal society in which women were mostly treated as property. On the other hand, those very changes highlight the stark difference between the Biblical story as we actually find it in the ancient sources, and this modern rendering.

And so perhaps the best rendition of the story of Bathsheba in music, if we are talking about the most faithful to what is implicit in the narrative as we actually find it in the Bible, is a rap version by Knine, which seems to me to get the situations of both David and Bathsheba right, at least initially (although having started with a clear conveyance of the power dynamics, I’m not sure that it entirely avoids shifting later in the song away from treating the story as a rape, to treating it as consensual – what do you think?):

Which is your preferred version, and why?

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