Book of Proverbs

Book of Proverbs

Year: 1996

Heading: for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus, and orchestra

Movement Titles:
1. Opening
2. The Door Turns
3. Better a Dry Crust
4. The Whip for the Horse
5. The Way of an Eagle
6. Drink our Fill of Love
7. Like the Man who Seizes
8. Boast Not of Tomorrow

First Performance:
15 September 1996
Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland
Valdine Anderson, soprano / Kurt Ollmann, baritone, / Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir / Edo de Waart

Instrumentation: 3.2.corA.3(III=bcl).ssax.asax.tsax.bsax.2 tam-t/SD/tamb/jingle bells/slapstick/BD/bongostrings

Duration: 38'

Recording: Book of Proverbs can be found on the release called, two

In its airy, breezy orchestral colour, its irresistible rhythms and its hypnotic melodies, it couldn't be anyone other than Torke. He really is a one-off. And there is some stunningly beautiful music in the piece tooespecially its spellbinding fifth movement, with luminous writing for solo soprano, its moving, Bach-like seventh movement, and its cumulative, radiant finale.
—Michael Tumulty, The Herald (Scotland)

Old critical habits die hard. Listening to Michael Torke's Book fo Proverbs, I had a momentary struggle with the voice of my education. Should new music really be so shamelessly "enjoyable"? Of course it is sad that I should even feel like asking such a question.
—Steven Johnson, The Scotsman

You would have to go a long way to find music as communicative and as uplifting as Michael Torke's. What's more, his compositions are uniquely individual and full of integrity. Listen to [Book of Proverbs], and you will find an essentially traditional harmonic language at work, but the result is most definitely music of today. Furthermore, for all Torke's ingenious construction techniques, this is music straight from the heart...

Program Note:
As a preteen, I can remember my curiosity while paging through the family Bible (a book, to my young mind, seemingly loaded with weighty wisdom and unlocked secrets of morality), trying to find something I could actually understand. The short, pithy verses from The Book of Proverbs, which read like fortune cookies, were the first lines to which I had any response. Even today, it remains one of my favorite parts of the Bible, not just for its imagistic poetry, but for its humor as well.

In a piece of mine called Four Proverbs, for soprano and small ensemble (1993), I began developing the idea of short texts assigned to simple melodies wherein each word (or syllable) is always attached to the original notes. In this way, when I begin to manipulate the notes, in the course of compositional development, the words of the text get scrambled. Later when the melody notes gradually come back to their original form, the syntax of the proverb is restored. Each word not only carries its own meaning, but also acts as a signifier: like a flag mounted on each note giving the listener an indication of what is being done to those notes. For example, in the third movement, "Better a Dry Crust," the text is presented as a lilting, animated melody in the sopranos and altos:

"Better a dry crust with peace
than a house full of feasting with strife."

What would happen, I mused, if I arranged these melody notes from, say, the lowest pitch to the highest pitch (while keeping their rhythms)? Not only does a very useful new melodic line result, but the corresponding words cause the following text change:

"house a strife better than with full feasting crust with of dry peace a"

The one-to-one relationship between words and music may seem abstract at first, but it has been my experience that a listener remembers words better when there is music attached (think of advertising jingles) and a melody is recalled more readily when particular words associated with the contours of the given melody (a chorus of a pop song, for example). In this way, I enjoyed endless variation as I composed what is absolutely an unchanging linkup of my choice of very limited words and music.

Given a full chorus and orchestra to explore these ideas, I challenged myself to present this kind of music in a more extensive and expansive way, than in the rather more introverted expression of Four Proverbs. However, I did not depart from the original habit of introducing my melodies as duets of two instruments. For the first three vocal movements of Book of Proverbs, I limit myself to only two sections of the choir singing these duets. Gradually in the course of the eight movements the use of the chorus is expanded, building the momentum, so that by the last movement, "Boast Not of Tomorrow," the entire choir sings together.

Adding even more color to the proceedings is the use of a soprano in Movement 5, "The Way of an Eagle," and a baritone in Movement 6, "Drink Our Fill of Love." Joining each of these soloists are sections of the choir (matched by gender) intoning with longer, supportive notes parts of the melodies we have just heard.

Clarity in my composing is a chief concern and goal. I seek orchestrations that are transparent, and a musical unfolding which is straightforward and logical. But above all, in this piece, I believe a listener can really hear what I am doing with the notes because of my use of text, all the while letting the meaning of these various proverbs have room, through the various arrangements of words, to penetrate gradually into the mind and soul of the listener.

1. Opening

2. The Door Turns (altos and tenors)
The door turns on its hinges,
the sluggard, on his bed!
Proverbs 26:14

3. Better a Dry Crust (sopranos and altos)
Better a dry crust with peace
than a house full of feasting with strife.
Proverbs 17:1

4. The Whip for the Horse (tenors and basses)
The whip for the horse, the bridle for the ass,
and the rod for the back of fools.

As the dog returns to his vomit
so the fool repeats his folly.

A proverb in the mouth of a fool
hangs limp, like crippled legs.
Proverbs 26:3, 11, 7

5. The Way of an Eagle (soprano solo; sopranos and altos)
Three things are too wonderful for me,
yes, four I cannot understand:
The way of an eagle in the air,
the way of a serpent upon a rock,
The way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
Proverbs 30:18-19

6. Drink Our Fill of Love (baritone solo; tenors and basses)
And I saw among the simple ones,
I observed among the young men,
a youth with no sense,
Going along the street near the corner,
then walking in the direction of her house-
In the twilight, at dusk of day,
at the time of the dark of night.
And lo! the woman comes to meet him,
robed like a harlot, with secret designs-
She seizes him, she kisses him,
and with an impudent look says to him:

"I came out to meet you,
to look for you, and I have found you!
With coverlets I have spread my couch,
with brocaded cloths of Egyptian linen;
I have sprinkled my bed with myrrh,
with aloes, and with cinnamon.

"Come let us drink our fill of love,
until morning, let us feast on love!
For my husband is not at home,
he has gone on a long journey;
...not till the full moon will he return home."

She wins him over by her repeated urging,
with her smooth lips she leads him astray;
He follow her stupidly,
like an ox that is led to slaughter;
Like a stag that minces toward the net,
till an arrow pierces its liver;
Like a bird that rushes into a snare,
unaware that its life is at stake.

Such is the way of an adulterous woman:
she eats, wipes her mouth,
and says, "I have done no wrong."
Proverbs 7:7-10, 13, 15-23
Proverbs 30:20