FROM THE SONG OF SONGS. For Arabic singer (alto), tenor, oud, string quintet (or small string orchestra), harpsichord, and SATB choir. Commissioned by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 2008. 18 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


Loosely based on texts from the King James version of the Song of Songs, one of the books of Hebrew Bible (Tanakh),or the Christian Old Testament, From the Song of Songs is a cross-over, multi-movement work which was commissioned by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir for inclusion in the program “In the Garden of Delights: Music Inspired by the Song of Songs” which was presented March 6 – 9 2008 in Toronto. This program was part of “Sacred Spaces, Sacred Circles Arts Festival”, a celebration of music and architecture.  

The theme of the concert and the festival inspired me to look below the surface of the text for spiritual and symbolic meaning. Several commentators throughout history have suggested that this erotic poem would have not been included in the biblical canon, no matter who wrote it—King Solomon or not, if there wasn’t a deeper symbolic meaning to the texts. Hebrew commentators, particularly during the Middle Ages, have suggested that this dialogue between two lovers represents a dialogue between the human soul and God, while Christian commentators have suggested a conversation between Christ and His Bride, the Church. I was personally more attracted to the Hebrew interpretation: something more personal and universal that can transcend contentious specifics although, being a devout Christian myself, it is the voice of Christ that speaks through my inspiration and work. Having established Himself as the psychological archetype of Self throughout western history (according to Karl Jung), He is intuitively the right projection of the psychological and spiritual Lover, at least to my own spiritual disposition.  

The performing forces for this piece were chosen by Alison Mackay, the principal bassist of Tafelmusik, who was the concept originator and curator for the “Garden of Delights” program. It included two soloists, Arabic singer (alto) Maryem Hassan-Tollar, with who I had worked on a number of projects in the past (and who was on tour with my multimedia music theatre work Constantinople at the time I was composing this work) and well-known tenor Rufus Müller, a baroque music specialist. The ensemble consisted of an Arabic oud, baroque strings and harpsichord and mixed choir. The two soloists assumed the role of the two lovers in the poem while the choir is often split so that the women become an echo of the female soloist while the men echo similarly the tenor soloist.  

There are allusions in the original text that the two lovers may not be of the same race; that the girl, who early in the poem declares herself as “black”, might have been an Egyptian princess to whom King Solomon was wed and for whom he wrote the poem. The cross-cultural theme of the music is arguably already embedded in the poem and not an imposition on my part. Given this fact and the cross-cultural makeup of the performing forces that I was asked to work with, the Song of Songs transformed in my mind into a song of peace and cultural-religious coexistence. Of the three movements, the outer movements are set in a monophonic/heterophonic style reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, while the middle movement is in the baroque style: a stylistic metaphor for a much needed conversation between the western world and Islam in our days and an even more urgently needed conversation between Islam and Israel. The Arabic modes used in the outer movements also necessitate adjustments in intonation, the fundamental rock upon which music thinking and discourse is built, on the part of all players and singers, so what is musically discussed in this work is not simply a surface negotiation on western European (tuning) terms but a deeper acknowledgement of profound differences, hopefully not irreconcilable. There is even the possibility of audience participation in the first movement to the words “and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land again”, the turtle dove carrying an olive branch being the symbol of peace between man and God and between man and man from as far back as the days of the Deluge.  

From the Song of Songs is an offering and prayer for peace in the Middle East. Any liberties taken with the original text were taken for the purpose of enhancing this message of peace and communion with the Divine through this age-old text.

The Texts:

1. Shalom-Salaam
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

As a lily among thorns, so is my love among young women.

As an apricot  tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among young men.
My beloved spake, and said unto me,

Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
My beloved spake, and said unto me,
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land again (repeat).
2. My Beloved is Mine
My beloved is mine, and I am his:
he feasts among the lilies.
Until the day breaks, and the shadows flee away,
A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride,
A hidden spring, a fountain sealed,
a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.

Awake, O North wind;
Awake, O strong wind from the East
Blow upon my garden, that the spices   may flow out.
Let my beloved come into his garden, and taste its pleasant fruits.
My beloved is mine, and I am his:
he feasts among the lilies.
Until the day breaks, and the shadows flee away,
3. Meanings and Riddles
The Song of Songs, which is of Solomon's
The song of hidden meanings
and riddles unsolved.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth
with the kisses of His Spirit
For love is better than wine.
For love is better than fear
Fear not, for there is nothing to fear,
I give to you my Spirit.

Premiere performance: March 6, 2008, Maryem Hassan-Tollar, alto. Rufus Mueller, tenor. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ivars Taurins. Trinity United Church. Toronto, Canada.

Reviews and Comments:

To provide a present-day climax to the program, Tafelmusik commissioned a new choral work - From the Song of Songs - by the Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis, which had its premiere Thursday, and which the composer calls "an offering and prayer for peace in the Middle East."...The main solo singers were equally splendid...Tenor Muller's handsome and perfectly used voice transformed itself effortlessly for the several styles it had to adopt, quite astonishingly in the melismatic Eastern idiom it needed in the Hatzis. His duet with the wonderful Maryem Tollar in the middle movement of that work was a highlight of the evening. Tollar's singing was extraordinarily strange and poignant in the context of the Tafelmusik forces, and flawlessly modest and haunting...The Hatzis cantata must be counted a triumph, easily the best thing of his I've heard, with a vivid opening movement, a slow movement (My Beloved Is Mine) straight out of the elevated manner of Bach (with a theme perhaps too close to that of the closing chorus of the St. Matthew Passion) and a final movement that starts rather scattily but pulls itself together for a splendid finish. And what a lucky composer Hatzis was to have a first performance of this calibre. Ken Winters, THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Canada), March 8, 2008.


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