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In this paper, I am proposing and advocating a new approach to biblical afterlives through the examination of musical settings of biblical narratives. In the first part of the paper, I will briefly explain the steps involved in this approach. In the second part, I will give very brief examples of how I applied this methodology to the Scroll of Ruth before illustrating the paradigm with examples of Ruth-Boaz love duets. In my doctoral thesis, [1]I discussed and analyzed twelve nineteenth and twentieth century musical settings of Ruth. I am suggesting that this paradigm is relevant for the study of any biblical narrative.

Why music? My thesis is that music can be considered midrash because it retells the story in a different language. Music has the power not only to read between the lines of a text and fill in the gaps, but also to create an inner world of the heart and mind. While librettos fill in various gaps from the original story, the music continually, but wordlessly, fills in the gaps of how people are feeling and reacting. This is done by a variety of musical techniques that I will explain shortly.

There is known to be a closer relation between hearing and emotional arousal than between seeing and emotional arousal. This is why movies always have background music. In his classic book The Language of Music,[2] Deryck Cooke showed tonal music to be the most powerful and immediate language of emotion. As a shining example of music's power to enhance and even transform text, I suggest that no "Halleluja" printed on a page of text can equal the power of the "Halleluja" chorus from Handel's Messiah. The transformation into music works an alchemy on the words.

These are the stages involved in the approach I am advocating:

  1. Literary analysis of the biblical text
  2. Searching for musical settings of this text (these can be oratorios, non-staged works that are musical settings of sacred texts; or operas, designed to be staged and based on sacred or secular texts)
  3. Study of the libretto (the textual adaptation of the original story to which the music is set) and music, comparing both to the original text
  4. Analysis of selected sections of the musical setting

1. The first part of this or any study of a biblical narrative is the literary analysis of the text. Certain components take on greater importance when the goal is to compare the original narrative with a libretto; namely, character and plot development and gap filling.

2. Searching for musical settings. In my earliest research on this topic (my focus has always been biblical women), I did it the old-fashioned way—card catalogs, at the Library of Congress. I simply flipped through the cards for any biblical woman, then requested the scores. Later, I got more sophisticated and looked under Samuel to find music for Hannah or under David for Bathsheba, etc. Women subsumed under male headings, what a concept!

These days there are, of course, more technologically advanced ways to search. If you have access to a university's computer, you can search Mcat. You can also find the holdings of the Library of Congress or the British Library by browsing their online catalogs. At the very least, you'll learn what settings exist. Once you have the name of a work, you can often find a recording if the composer is well known. Obviously, thhis is the ideal way to study musical works because they were all written to be performed and heard. The obscure works I chose had not been recorded, and I was working only from the written scores and my interpretation as a pianist and singer.

3. The next step is to read through the entire libretto. In many nineteenth century works, the libretto may be printed in its entirety before the musical score; otherwise, it must be read through the lines of music. You can compare the general plot with the biblical story, taking note of new characters or missing ones, plot changes, and interesting gap filling scenes. There is no standard relationship between libretto and music. Sometimes the composer writes the libretto, some composers ask a known writer to create a libretto out of a story; some collaborate from the outset, while some composers set the music to a completed libretto. The librettist makes changes based on personal conviction, the composer's demands, or perceived audience expectations. Librettos on their own can be considered a form of midrash because of their alterations to an original narrative.

Some character depiction can be gleaned from the libretto alone. But the crucial step is the next one, the musical analysis. I am proposing to anyone interested in this new approach that it lends itself well to interdisciplinary collaborations. If you have done extensive work on, say, Sarah's role in Genesis, or Judith's character, or Jael's motives, and would like to find and analyze musical works dealing with this topic, then you should find a collaborator with the necessary musical expertise. I happen to have come to biblical studies after a lifetime of professional musical training and study of languages, so this multi-disciplinary approach was perfectly fitted to my areas of expertise. But countless further studies remain to be done, and I am hoping with this paper to stimulate and inspire others to join in this research. This area is especially well suited to those involved in studies of the Bible through visual arts. Think of the possibilities for multi-media events.

I will now give some brief examples of how I applied the above methodology to my own study of the Scroll of Ruth.

Literary analysis:

Character depiction
I did a character analysis for the main characters in Ruth, based largely on their speech and also on their actions. I later compared the results with how the same characters are depicted in the librettos and music. Here is a quick summary of two of these, Ruth and Boaz, since I am discussing their love duets below.

Ruth is an ambiguous character because her speech is both less frequent and more cryptic than either Naomi's or Boaz's. Although on the surface she seems to be a character with initiative, she usually acts in response to other characters in the story. [3] Her emotional commitment to Naomi is special and unique, especially when looked at in the context of other women's relationships in the Bible. The portrait of Ruth that ultimately emerges through her speech is that of a strong-minded woman who knows how to appear compliant, while silently working towards her own goals. But because the portrayal is ambiguous, there is little agreement in librettos and music on the characterization of Ruth: in some she emerges as strong; in others, merely sweet.

Boaz's speech patterns show the greatest variety, and this is reflected musically in several works where the tone and range of his music alters between scenes. His speech changes depending on whom he is addressing. Thus, in Chapter 2, when he speaks to his workers and Ruth, he frequently inserts the name of God; he retains some of this formality when addressing Ruth in Chapter 3, but seems less formal by the end of the scene. In Chapter 4, Boaz is revealed as clever and manipulative.

Gap filling
The numerous details absent from the Scroll result in further ambiguities. We are not told what Ruth, Naomi, or Boaz look like, how old they are, how shy or open, effusive or reticent they are (except based on our individual interpretation of their speech). In discussing gaps, three questions should be asked: What? How? And why? (What gap is being filled? How is it filled? What is the purpose of filling in the gap in this way?).

The comparison of a libretto with the biblical narrative should be done both on the story and the character level. At the story level, points of interest include which scenes are deleted, expanded, or altered; whether new scenes have been added; and what final effect these alterations have on the story. At the character level, the effect of these scene additions, alterations, or deletions on the characters should be noted.

Librettists and composers who set the Scroll all engaged in a creative gap-filling exercise of "what if..."; their answers to this question became a musical midrash. Each of the unfamiliar scenarios I'm about to offer appears in at least one libretto based on Ruth. By suggesting such scenarios, both textually and musically, the librettists and composers are shifting the spotlight in some way, opening our eyes to new possibilities.

What if... Ruth and Naomi pledged love or at least friendship to each other prior to Ruth's marriage to Mahlon? That would explain the powerful bond between the women; this bond could also explain why Ruth never had children. Perhaps she married Mahlon merely to stay close to Naomi.

What if...Ruth and Orpah had been married only a matter of months or a year or two out of the ten years that Elimelech's family was in Moab? Then Ruth's infertility would not really be an issue. The only hint in the text that it was an issue for the writer is in God's involvement in Ruth's pregnancy, recalling similar involvement in pregnancies of other biblical women (i.e., Sarah in Gen. 12.1, Rachel in Gen. 30.22).

What if... Naomi and Boaz had known each other, even had a relationship, before Naomi married Elimelech and left Bethlehem? This would explain Naomi's reluctance to turn to Boaz when she returned. It might even explain why Naomi decided to play matchmaker: it would bring her close to Boaz again, in a non-threatening way.

What if...the Bethlehemites were furious at Naomi for leaving in bad times and returning when the famine was over? Their accusations would give Naomi and Ruth the opportunity to publicly show their loyalty to one another.

What if... Ruth and Boaz felt a powerful attraction to each other? Or what if only one of the two felt this attraction? Could their meeting on the threshing floor have been chaste? Would Naomi have known of this attraction and suggested the encounter either because of, or in spite of, this factor? The deliberate ambiguity of the Scroll's author becomes a gap filled in a variety of ways by different librettists and composers.

Musical analysis:
These possibilities, raised in the librettos, offer unexpected and diverse perspectives on the story. More can be gleaned about characters from the music itself, however, than from the libretto alone.

For example, the voice type assigned to a character immediately suggests age and status: "Voice type" refers to the range of a singer's voice, which is closely linked to the style and emotional content of a character's music. The lowest woman's voice is contralto, followed by alto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. For men it is bass, baritone, tenor. The timbre, or quality, of a voice is closely linked to that voice's range. There are norms governing the choice of voice type for a given role. A bass or alto voice has a mellow, rich sound and is usually chosen for an older character, while a tenor or soprano would usually be the choice for a younger person. These are all examples of music as midrash.

Of the works I analyzed, there were rare exceptions to the casting of Ruth as a light soprano (signifying her relative youth and innocence), while Naomi's part is almost always set for alto, mezzo, or contralto. Boaz is variably a bass, baritone, or tenor. Baritone is a higher and more flexible voice than bass; bass invariably stands for maturity and authority, while baritone can also have a romantic timbre, as tenor almost always does. There is not much correlation between these voice types and the element of love interest in individual works; in other words, even if Boaz is a bass and therefore an older and socially superior man, he might still express passion for Ruth.

But vocal range is only the simplest level of what I call musical midrash. To further illustrate the concept of music as midrash, I am going to discuss various ways in which the love duets that were added to some librettos based on Ruth can be interpreted through musical devices. In a duet, the two characters sometimes sing only in succession, not together. Many duets between Ruth and Boaz do not feature the two voices singing simultaneously because this represents a kind of physical and emotional closeness that the composer may not have wanted to suggest.

The most important technical musical devices are:

  • Vocal range: High notes indicate excitement and also elicit that response in the listener. A lower range of pitch stands for calm.
  • Key: Major keys are upbeat, while shifts between major and minor keys evoke a mood change even when it is not explicit in the text.
  • Tempo/rhythm: Fast tempos establish a positive mood, while slower tempos evoke calm. Different moods are established throughout the duets by alterations in tempo and rhythm.

All of these are examples of musical midrash because they each re-tell a part of the story by injecting a particular mood or sentiment musically. In some cases, the re-telling can be found in an altered text, but most of it is in the language of music. Unfortunately, music is a language that cannot be reproduced on the printed page, and I am able to give musical examples only in a live presentation. In this paper I will present a few excerpts from librettos and will describe the music as vividly as possible. The two duets are from a 1908 German oratorio and an English chamber opera of 1956.

Georg Schumann (b. 1866, d.1952) conducted the final twentieth century performance of his 1908 oratorio Ruth[4] in 1946. The work was revived and performed at the Berlin Philharmonic in November 2003, a performance I attended as an invited guest. Schumann's harmonic style falls on the border between the late Romantic and early twentieth century.

Schumann's libretto (which he wrote, in German) is a mix of extended biblical passages—notably Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs—with "biblicized" passages blended in. Schumann uses musical leitmotifs throughout. The leitmotif is a short musical phrase linked to a person or event. In some instances, the more correct term might be "reminiscence" motive, since it reinforces the impression of an earlier situation.[5] The leitmotif of Ruth's "Whither thou Goest" aria is used extensively in both works I am discussing here, continually reminding the listener that Ruth's initial act of following Naomi set the stage for everything that happened subsequently.

There are two Ruth-Boaz duets in this work: the first in Act 2 when they first meet, and the second in Act 3.

Here are excerpts from the Act 3 duet:

Boaz: Is there a woman at my feet? Speak, who are you?
Ruth: O Master, I am Ruth.
Boaz: Ruth? O tell me, what brings you here?
Ruth: Spread your wings over me! I have come to you, for you are a kinsman and master! ...
I slept, but my heart kept watch. Then I arose to go about the city, to seek the one my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not; I called, but he answered not! The watchmen that go about the city saw me; I said to them: Have you not seen him, whom my soul loves?...
Boaz: I won't let you go from here. I will tell the people that you will be my wife. Rise up and come, and kiss me with the kiss of your mouth.

Several pages of the duet are sung to Song of Songs verses, which express love within a "biblical" context. Boaz's music in this duet soars into a higher register than in previous scenes. Both in the vocal range and in the text, this is a very different Boaz from the one portrayed earlier. The high range depicts ardor, though somewhat suppressed as expressed musically by the separation between their voices, which blend only for an instant in the entire duet. The phrase "Kiss me" is to be sung ff and molto espressivo e con moto (very loud, expressive, and quick). The final, highest note is held for five beats before abruptly dropping. The next measure is silent except for a single note in the horns, an orchestral exclamation point. As the duet builds to a climax, ascending chromatic lines sung at the top of the baritone register convey the concept of ecstasy. After this buildup, the sudden drop of the voice, as if almost cut off, makes it easy to visualize the kiss that follows.

Through this portrayal of a passionate Ruth and Boaz, the listener can conjure flesh-and-blood characters not as easily imagined from the biblical text.

My second example is Lennox Berkeley (b. 1903, d. 1989), who wrote the part of Boaz in his opera Ruth[6] with tenor Peter Pears in mind. Ruth premiered in 1956 and was performed again in 1983 and then in 2003. It has just been released as a CD on the Chandos label.[7]

This libretto is an interesting blend of biblical and non-biblical texts; modern text is interspersed with the biblical text (modified KJV). Librettist Eric Crozier's language is consciously archaic, so that the occasional direct quotations from the Bible do not obtrude.

Though the librettist creates a love interest between Boaz and Ruth, there is also emphasis on the importance of the Ruth-Naomi relationship. Ruth's pledge is continually brought back as a leitmotif, as in the Schumann, musically making it the motivating force behind all her actions. There is a complete break with older tradition of voice types: Naomi here is a soprano, Ruth a mezzo, Boaz a tenor.

Here are excerpts from the Act 3 duet:

Boaz: Who calls?
Ruth: It is I, Ruth, thy handmaiden.
Boaz: Ruth? What dost thou here?
Ruth: In the name of my dead husband, in the name of thy kinsman, Naomi's son, I beseech thee, O my master, spread thy cloak upon me!
Boaz: Wherefore should I do this thing?
Ruth: That I may be thy wife.
Boaz: Thou my wife?
Ruth: Yea, verily, that I may bring up sons unto Naomi, lest her name perish from the land and be forgotten.
Boaz: Ah, Ruth, Ruth!
Thou comest in the stillness of the night,
As once the angels came immeasurably bright,
To Jacob, father of our race....
Boaz and Ruth: Lo my beloved, my soul's delight,
To thee I give my hand, to thee my heart.
Thine shall I be eternally.
My children shall arise up and call thee blessed.
The fruit of thy/my womb shall praise thee in the gates.

Though on the whole this music is modern and seldom tonal, there is an interesting attempt to ground these very traditional-sounding lyrics in more traditional-sounding tonality, even if for only a few measures. The first section is a kind of round, or passacaglia, as Ruth repeats exactly what Boaz has just sung while he continues. This is a musical way of showing a kind of emotional connection and also passivity. The final phrase, "shall praise thee," is sung in unison to a dotted rhythm with high tremolo accompaniment, musical depictions of great excitement. The final C major chord and a rapid scale are musical illustrations of joy.

There are many differences, both textual and musical, between these portrayals of Ruth and Boaz's relationship. One may resonate more than the other with your own image of Ruth and Boaz. But once having heard these musical renditions, you will never read the text in the same way again, I promise you. This is the power of music. Biblical scholars can recognize music as a new kind of "focalizer," which not only shifts the spotlight but also alters its color. The librettist and composer together create a re-imagined Scroll. Many musical settings of biblical texts would benefit from discussion in this double perspective, which gives us new and unfamiliar lenses through which to read a familiar story.

This article is part of a larger work to be published by Sheffield Phoenix Press in 2007 with the provisional title, The Performed Bible: The Story of Ruth in Opera and Oratorio.

[1] The Scroll of Ruth Re-Told through Librettos and Music: Biblical Interpretation in a New Key. University of Amsterdam, November 2004. Advisors: Professors Athalya Brenner and Rokus de Groot

[2] Cooke, Deryck, The Language of Music. London: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1959. Other books by this author include Late Romantic Masters, London: Macmillan, 1985; and Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music, London: Faber & Faber, 1982.

[3] Fewell, Danna and David Gunn, Compromising Redemption. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

[4] Georg Schumann, Ruth (oratorio) op. 20. German, with English translation. F.E.C. Leuckart, Leipzig, 1909 (orchestral score); G. Schirmer, 1910 (piano score).

[5] Longyear, Rey, 19th Century Romanticism in Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; London: Prentice Hall, 2nd edition 1973, p. 168

[6] Lennox Berkeley, Ruth, Opera in Three Scenes, opus 50. Libretto by Eric Crozier. J. & W. Chester Ltd., 1956

[7] 2005 Chandos Records Ltd. CHAN 10301. Premiere recording, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Helen Leneman is a cantor who received her PhD from the University of Amsterdam and currently lives in Rome.

Comments on this article? email:

Citation: Helen Leneman, " Music And Librettos As Midrash: A New Methodology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:


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