How the King James Bible inspired and influenced composers and their music

Simon Heighes looks at how composers over the centuries have taken advantage of the musical opportunities offered in the King James Bible

King James Bible

When King James I of England and VI of Scotland commissioned a new translation of the Bible at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 it was with the goal of uniting a divided Church behind a single Bible that all people – Puritans and Anglicans alike – could call their own.

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But his objectives were not as quickly realised as the more straightforward linguistic aims of the translators. They strove to produce a text which placed clarity, cadence and colour ahead of slavish word-for-word translation – a language written to resonate from the pulpit; a language ripe with musical possibilities.

AT first musicians were unimpressed. William Byrd (c1540-1623), England’s leading composer, didn’t lift his pen to set even a single word of it to music. It wasn’t because he was Catholic, nor did he necessarily sympathise with prickly biblical scholars such as Hugh Broughton who’d rather have been ‘torn in pieces by wild horses’ than use the new translation. No, just as we cherish the familiar phraseology of the King James Version (KJV) today, so Byrd and his contemporaries continued to make use of the words they knew and loved from the Geneva Bible (1560), Bishops’ Bible (1568) and above all Myles Coverdale’s psalter (1535) which remained the professional composer’s first choice for anthem texts for centuries to come. 

When did the King James Bible start influencing composers?

It wasn’t until 1660 that things finally began to change. As the Commonwealth crumbled there was a triple Restoration: King Charles II to his throne, the KJV to the lectern, and music, once again, to England’s great cathedrals and churches. Composers schooled in the expressive new Baroque style (Locke, Humphrey, Blow and Purcell) now began to explore the laments, prophecies and dramatic texts of the Old Testament to bring added emotion and drama to their anthems. Though Coverdale’s translations of the psalms continued to predominate, Pelham Humphrey’s choice of a text rich in rhetorical dialogue from Isaiah 1 (Hear, O heav’ns) was typical of the more adventurous spirit of the 1670s.

What the King James translation offered composers was strongly verbal language whose rhythms tripped off the tongue and whose vocabulary was clear, colourful and majestic. The solos of Purcell’s verse anthems in the 17th century, William Boyce’s in the 18th, and SS Wesley’s (grandson of Charles Wesley) in the 19th, owe their power to the directness of this language that, from the start, was designed to be spoken aloud. It was also, on occasion, a subtly sensual language, as Purcell discovered in My beloved spake whose honeyed invitation to ‘Rise my love, my fair one and come away’ was drawn from the voluptuous Song of Solomon. Patrick Hadley revisited these words in 1938, but the most popular of KJV texts in recent times has been ‘Let us now praise famous men’ (Sirach 44), inspiring SS Wesley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, Cyril Scott and John Joubert to uplifting thoughts.

These days, the King James Version is best-known through Handel’s oratorios. Although most of them were based on epic stories from the Old Testament, only two – Israel in Egypt
and Messiah – drew their words directly from the Bible. In Messiah, Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens interleaved verses from the Old and New Testaments to show how Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah were fulfilled in the Gospels.

For Handel, setting verses raw and unaltered from the Bible played to his strengths. In Israel in Egypt the pictorial imagery and energy of the texts spurred him on to find graphic musical equivalents, as in the galloping fugue and desperate shouts to the words ‘The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea’ (Exodus 15). In the choruses of Israel in Egypt he never tired of finding new textures and effects with which to dramatise the biblical verses in the imaginary theatre of the mind. 

The elegance and rhythm of the King James Version has less to do with regular poetic metre than with larger rhetorical structures involving balancing phrases and sentences. Biblical verses were often divided into parallel halves, comprising complementary or opposed sentiments:

‘Since by man came death; by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die; even sonin Christ shall all be made alive.’ (I Corinthians 15: 21-22).

Handel’s exploitation of these divisions runs like a thread through Messiah. In choruses (‘Since by man came death’) and arias (‘But who may abide’) he used vividly contrasting music to distinguish between each half of the verse, thus introducing an element of drama that was otherwise missing from a libretto without characters or action. Surprisingly, he wasn’t always as meticulous about textual accentuation, leaving quite awkward stresses on ‘For unto us a child is born’, and ‘the dead shall be raised incorruptible’. But on a larger scale he instinctively grasped the importance of equating the most passionate and majestic biblical language with his most extrovert and hedonistic style. The success of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus (Revelation 19) owes everything to this exuberant fusion of the sacred and secular, as the fervour of the King James is matched by pure Georgian pomp. 

Although a few voices were raised in protest at the performance of ‘sacred words’ in ‘public places’, Messiah was ultimately so successful that few other major composers dared attempt such large-scale settings of the KJV. Though inspired by Handel, Haydn’s English version of The Creation (1798) largely restricted the words of Genesis to its recitatives. A century later, Elgar was more ambitious, drawing on large swathes of the KJV in his oratorios The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906). His method was more a jigsaw of snippets, arranged and intercut with other material, than a serious biblical compilation, but the sheer familiarity of KJV phrases helped listeners follow the narrative in the same way that Elgar’s regular melodic quotations (leitmotifs) helped them understand the musical argument.

Vaughan Williams, too, was an inspired cutter-and-paster. Judging by his numerous biblical settings he was a great admirer of the King James Version and its place at the heart of national worship. Yet his cheerful agnosticism absolved him of any duty to preserve the integrity or meaning of texts when they didn’t suit his musical purposes. With comparatively few changes, the taut narrative and high-flown language of Revelation (17-19; 21-22) powerfully underpins his short oratorio Sancta Civitas (1926). But with some clever editing he utterly transformed Ezekiel 1: 4-28 so that the prophet appears to foresee the coming of the aeroplane: ‘Their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel… and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth… the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels… And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings like the noise of the great waters, as the voice of the Almighty.’ (Ezekiel 1: 16-24). Vaughan Williams’s A Vision of Aeroplanes (1955), with its cunning textual modifications and evocative music, is among the most imaginative (though least recognised) King James Version settings of the last century and is surely ripe for revival this year.

With age, the KJV has gained weight and influence, weathering storms about literal interpretation and increasingly appealing to composers for its unshakable sense of authority in an uncertain world. The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt went straight to KJV for his first setting in English, The Beatitudes, and returned a decade later for a ‘traditional and authoritative’ text with which to celebrate the millennium. In …which was the son of… he traces Jesus’s ancestry back 75 generations to Noah, Adam and finally God in the words of Luke (3: 23-38). Here it’s the spoken character of the KJV and its timeless archaisms which appealed to Pärt: verses which tirelessly list name after name using the phrase ‘which was the son of…’.

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But what looks dull and monotonous on the page is transformed, when sung, by the ritualistic power of his creative minimalism. For composer Roxanna Panufnik, the language of the KJV is filtered through the prism of her synaesthesia. When at work on Declare the Wonders (2007) the words of Genesis conjured up for her ‘a kaleidoscopic array of colours and harmonies, blending and shifting with the wonder of creation’. After 400 years the King James Bible has lost none of its power to inspire in unexpected and extraordinary ways.