David and the Bird

When David heard that Absalom was slain
He went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, 
and thus he said: my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!

II Samuel 18:33

As part of the Lewisham Choral Society’s concert programme for 6 July in Cadogan Hall is Eric Whitacre’s setting of the above text for SATB a capella choir.

For this time of year the church in which the choir rehearses would end up being lit with a glow of dusk, which has been a perfect accompaniment to this piece. The thing that struck me every time as the final syllables of this work were finished was that in the evening glow a bird (a blackbird perhaps) was singing out undisturbed. It every time reminded me of the Herbert Howells setting of Walter de la Mare’s poem, King David.

King David was a sorrowful man:
No cause for his sorrow had he;
And he called for the music of a hundred harps,
To ease his melancholy.

They played till they all fell silent:
Played-and play sweet did they;
But the sorrow that haunted the heart of King David
They could not charm away.

He rose; and in his garden
Walked by the moon alone,
A nightingale hidden in a cypress-tree
Jargoned on and on.

King David lifted his sad eyes
Into the dark-boughed tree-
”Tell me, thou little bird that singest,
Who taught my grief to thee?’

But the bird in no wise heeded
And the king in the cool of the moon
Hearkened to the nightingale’s sorrowfulness,
Till all his own was gone.

Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard was performed by BYU Singer
Herbert Howells’ King David was performed by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Eugene Asti.

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