I have to begin with zeal. What motivates anyone to learn about difficult history? For years I read and had read to me the King James scriptures, sometimes well, sometimes with ignorance. I knew the Scriptures were difficult. Not just for their language, but because we started reading with self-serving assumptions. For us in the 1950s, it was the empire, all that pink on the map.
Diagramming, showing parallels
Nonetheless, I was intrigued and very curious about the whole story. In my early 60s, beginning in 2006, my company was developing a diagramming tool for logic modeling, so I began diagramming the Psalms in Hebrew. This was a source of excellent test cases for the software. I have all those old diagrams offline. They were my means of learning the square script.
I began to learn Hebrew with discipline because of the experience of attending a conference on Christian Theology and the Epistle to the Hebrews at St Andrews, 2006. I was shown a narrow path to the definition of ‘the son’. If ‘the son’ is in dialogue with ‘the father’, and the dialogue is represented in the book of Psalms, how could I avoid learning the original tongue of the psalms so that I could myself learn the language of what it meant to Jesus, learning his role as son. You ‘know’ perhaps where this leads, but we must not short-circuit the learning process. The path is difficult, again because of those self-serving assumptions we carry.
Notice all the analysis behind the scenes that can be done, graphs and queries etc. The more data I had, the more I could measure as long as I got the stems and the glosses more or less right. It was at this time I began to realize the extensive number of decisions made by a translator.
Database, controlling the content
The diagramming tool morphed into a full interactive development environment and I developed screens to see the Hebrew Bible from several points of view. I wasn’t the first to do such things nor will I be the last. But I was chasing the concordance bug. How close can a language map to another language? Can it be 1:1? No. But it seems it might be closer than traditional translations sometimes allow.
Patterns of word usage
Without concordance, it is impossible to see patterns of word usage in a translation. I had the idea that Hebrew poetry played particularly on repeated sounds. To lose the repeated sounds in translation seemed to lose the affect that was intended by the poet.
Here’s an example of why concordant translation is critical to understanding the psalms. Psalms 1 and 2 are framed by two words used in the sequence a-b in Psalm 1:1 and in reverse sequence in psalm 2:12. The two psalms each use the same series of key words. The table below shows them at a glance. (sit-mutter-day-give-judgment-perish). This is not a threat, but a consequence. And there are several escape routes in these psalms. Meditation on the instruction (Torah) is one of them (Psalm 1). Searching for insight, accepting warnings, serving the Mystery, taking refuge, … all these words point to the other escape routes (Psalm 2).
Most people hear and see parallelism. But such constructions are not as objective as deliberate repetition of keywords. With a clear glossary by stem in the database, I was able to find these markers of poetic thought and story-telling with computer algorithms. And I was happy doing that work.
Because I was translating the Psalms, I went to the 2010 conference on the Psalms at Oxford. There I learned about the music embedded in the text by the placement of accents as deciphered by the work of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura. I was immediately attracted to her thesis and by 2015 I realized that I had the data in a form that could be used easily in a computer program to produce a score using the then new language, MusicXML.
So I found myself distracted from translating and I produced the XML for the music of the entire Bible. The programming required me to decode the Hebrew character by character and to transcribe the libretto also. I wasn’t learning to hear the language but I was certainly studying the grammar by inference. It took about 3 months to draft the program, and several iterations to get the bugs out. Eventually I got to all the music that you have seen all over my blog in the past 5 years.
During this period, 2015-2018, I returned to and completed my translation of The Hebrew Bible, paying close attention now to the music as well as recurring words.
Still at the beginning of knowledge
I had started composing about 1963. I wrote a piece for my younger sister’s funeral. It was performed in Montreal by the St Matthias boys under Normal Hurrle. Unfortunately, the manuscript has disappeared from my archives. Some ATB responses I wrote a year later were found in the basement by my daughter this past summer. She took them away and edited them for use at Ely cathedral in England. I don’t remember writing much else but I recall not practicing the organ or piano enough, and I recall how I used manuscript paper. There was no synthesizer feedback from the paper on my early harmony exercises.
55 years later, for the last 8 months, composing is my task again, and I have had software to help me. Blank ms paper is a thing of the past. The harmonic structure of the works I am developing is somewhat determined by the constraints I have placed on myself, namely, to be true to the melodic style uncovered in the music of the Bible. But there is still room for imagination.
To date, I have ‘sketched’ a number of pieces. I don’t know if I have time to grow as a composer. I think I have started too late. You can find examples on my YouTube channel. I approach these things without knowing in advance what will emerge. I have produced a very serious oratorio from Genesis, Job, Jeremiah and several psalms. There are chorales, and lullabies, stories like Jonah, elegies, love songs, sometimes with harp, and maybe woodwinds, strings, timpani, and even all together.
The opening of the Song of Solomon, (SATB and woodwind trio)
All the XML files are available online here. Pick the book you want, right click on the XML file and select download. Now you have the raw data. What can you do with it? All the things that composers do when they discover a new source of music from the human community. Much more than a composer of my limited experience can do. Set it in Hebrew, or with a good translation, or without words.
Have you considered the impact of music on reading the Hebrew Scriptures? What we have here is a solution to reading: three tools, parallelism, recurring word patterns, and governing it all, a melodic line that gives us the tone of voice.
I am very grateful both for the support of the University of Victoria Center for Studies in Religion and Society, and for the support of my publisher, Energion.
You can see all the volumes of the set of books on the Hebrew text in our Bob’s Bible category. A preview link for the volume that includes the Psalms is shown below. You might also want to look at Bob’s author page on Energion Direct.