It must be noted that accents and dynamics are absolutely integral parts of the score. Accented notes, especially in passages with repeated quavers, are to rise slightly above the ‘horizon’, without displacing the continuous rhythm of the word-setting. Similarly, minor gradations of dynamic markings are important to the overall structure of the composition. At the discretion of the conductor, this work may be performed with all performers in one block, or split into two equal sections with SATB I on one side and SATB II on the other.
I sleep, but my heart waketh was commissioned by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and premièred by them in a concert at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall directed by Michael Brewer on 15th April, 2006. Scored for eight-part choir, it sets seven sentences from the King James Version translation of the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon).
Perhaps the most controversial book of the Hebrew Bible (where it lies between the Books of Job and Ruth) and the Old Testament (placed between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah), the Song of Songs has, for centuries, caused vicious debate amongst theologians and academics. What many today feel to be one of the most sensuous and beautiful love poems to be written in Western literature was ardently warned against by Matthew Henry in his 1710 Commentary on the Whole Bible as a flower from which those ‘with carnal minds and corrupt affections … extract poison’; yet, before this, it became the most copied Biblical book by monks in the Middle Ages. Whether a simple love poem or a powerful liturgical allegory, its mesmeric words appear to have affected many readers across all generations; indeed, its influences can be seen today in many cultures.
I have attempted to focus on this ecumenical aspect while appreciating the text itself as an elixir of sorts. Part of the book’s ‘addictive’ quality lies in the repetition of motifs, which, in the King James Version, turns into a rhythm unto itself. The ‘half-sleep’ to which the title refers is implied in the perpetually shifting patterns which form the bulk of the musical material here; it is a surface dormancy which lies above the hidden fire. My selection of texts acts like a gathering storm around the focal sentence (My soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.), heard once only, in a moment of clarity, by a solo soprano. I sleep, but my heart waketh serves to reflect both the haunting of centuries’ worth of scholars, and the dreamlike effect on a first-time reader.
New York, January 2006